On the Bombón plateau in the midst of the Andes mountain range, you feel as if you’re inside a giant freezer. But if you’re careless, the midday sun will cook your skin.
Peru has designated this area the Junín National Reserve. Its eponymous lake, also called Chinchaycocha in Quechua, has been here since the Incas. It supplies water to the capital Lima.
From these arid, harsh lands came a superfood with such promise that it attracted the world’s attention: the fertile maca (Lepidium meyenii). The root was the subject of an economic boom but then vanished because genetic material was unlawfully taken out of the country, an act scientists call ‘biopiracy’.
Root of the problem
It is 7am and the streets are empty in the town of Huayre, Junín district, which is 4,113 metres above sea level. The thermometer reads -2C. Nothing warms your hands. The town square boasts an extravagant purple glass monument honouring the maca. It looks as if it could be the spermatozoid of a psychedelic dinosaur.
Huayre is home to just 1,200 people, according to the Peruvian National Institute of Statistics and Informatics. Junín’s residents say this corner of the Andes gave birth to maca, which six years ago experienced a fleeting bonanza that sparked delirium.
“They all went mad. And how could they not?” says Teo Quispe, a local driver, who briefly tried his hand at maca farming. “I had never ventured into agriculture before, but I was also encouraged.”
From the time of the Incas, many lauded maca’s supposed benefits – from increasing fertility to fighting insomnia. Little by little, however, it was forgotten and in the 1980s was declared an endangered species.
According to Iván Manrique, a researcher at Peru’s world-renowned International Potato Centre (CIP in the Spanish acronym), at that time there were scarcely 50 hectares of planted area, just enough to supply farmers and ranchers on the Bombón plateau.
In the late 1990s, Peru again promoted consumption, not only domestically, but also in Asia. Then-President Alberto Fujimori sold Japan on the idea that maca was a kind of ancient Andean Viagra capable of combating impotence. It was the beginning of a disinformation campaign, the effects of which survive twenty years on.
In 2004, the Government of Peru declared maca, known elsewhere as Peruvian ginseng or Peruvian ginger, the country’s flagship product. However, the state’s investment in research was not commensurate with the vision.
In Peru, only a few institutions are dedicated to studying maca, among them the Cayetano Heredia University, the La Molina National Agrarian University, and CIP.
What is known about maca is that consumption can help memory, learning and fertility – not to be confused with impotence. It also increases resistance to stress, combats prostate problems and helps maintain energy levels.
There are more than ten varieties of maca, which can be discerned by their colours, among them black, red, yellow, white, pink, lead grey and other hues, each of which brings different health benefits.
But it was their supposed aphrodisiac properties that caught the attention of traders in Asia, especially China.
The maca surge
Quispe said the Chinese came to Junín and began taking everything. “Even the farmers were flown out to China to try to replicate our techniques,” he recalls. “When I was ready to sell, the Chinese didn’t come back and I lost everything,” Quispe adds, and laughs that he wants nothing to do with maca anymore.
Moisés Alderete, a maca producer from Junín says: “We didn’t know how to handle the raw material and the market. We didn’t make it sustainable. The Chinese came and stole information. Today they handle maca as if it were theirs, but nowhere will maca grow with the quality we have in Junín.”
Alderete says he divides his time between cattle and maca, as do almost all Junín’s inhabitants. Other economic activities revolve around sheep and potatoes.
In 2013, vans full of Chinese businessmen began to arrive in Junín in search of maca, Alderete says. As if buying candy, they took the entire harvest. If maca at that time cost US$3 per kilo, they would offer US$100, $150, even $200.
“They paid in cash. They arrived with backpacks full of money,” says Quispe, who was hired on three occasions to drive 10 hours to Lima just to pick up suitcases filled with dollars.
“We arrived, they opened the trunk and threw everything in there. They didn’t even count the cash and we would then bring it back. I felt like I was in a mafia movie.”
Junín overflowed with 4×4’s, bars and businesses, which came and went with the boom.
Alejandra Velazco, president of Peruvian Exporters Association’s Natural Products Committee (Adex), says: “The farmers didn’t care about anything. They sold their soul to the devil and now we are seeing the consequences.”
“At that time, it was all mafia. They began to illegally remove maca bulbs from the country, going along the border with Bolivia and through the port of Callao. They declared that they were taking maca flour, but inside the sacks, there were nothing but bulbs. That is totally illegal.”
Chinese businessmen not only took the maca. They took seeds and even the soil from the Bombón plateau.
“When I started my research, I wanted to buy maca seeds and the cost went from 30 or 40 soles (US$10 – $13) per kilo, right up to 3,000 soles ($900),” says Claudia Janampa, a biologist and entrepreneur who created her own brand of maca derivatives. “The atmosphere in Junín became tense. People didn’t feel safe. There were mafiosos who pushed sales of their maca only to the Chinese.”
CIP’s Manrique explains how easy it is to take a little maca and reproduce it around the world:
“You can place 4 grams of maca seeds inside an empty propelling pencil. Each gram can contain 2,000 seeds. In other words, you can take 8,000 seeds with you, just like that. That’s enough to sow half a hectare. If each plant produces an average of two thousand seeds, you could sow thousands of hectares after a year.”
It is so easy that in China they began planting maca in the mountainous southern province of Yunnan, where fertile fields lie 4,000 metres above sea level – just like in Peru.
“We estimate that maca began to leave Peru illegally around 2002 and 2003. Today, China produces more maca than Peru,” says Andrés Valladolid, president of the National Commission against Biopiracy at the Peruvian government’s National Institute for the Defence of Competition and Protection of Intellectual Property (Indecopi).
China’s National Health Planning Commission approved maca powder as a new food resource in 2011. A marked rise in Chinese crops followed. Velazco says that by 2014 China had 12,000 hectares of maca sown, while Peru had only 5,000. Chinese state-run news outlet Xinhua claims that there were 1,660 hectares in Yunnan in 2012, which could expand to 13,000 by 2020.
By 2015, Peruvian producers were already feeling the blow. “From exporting about US$5 million in 2014, we went to zero the following year and never exported to China again. We lost customers from Europe and the US, who started buying from China. They even wanted to sell it back to us, can you believe it?” asks Velazco rhetorically.
“Their maca has another colour, another smell and it doesn’t have the same properties. It even has another shape, looking much like ginger. It didn’t work out well for them but they still took a lot of the market away from us,” she adds.
Valladolid, who is developing a strategy to avoid repeat situations with maca or other Peruvian crops, says: “No genetic material can leave Peru without permission. What is more, the purchases made in those years were illegal. In Peru, all transactions go through the banking system and the Chinese businessmen paid in cash, without leaving a paper trail, or paying taxes.”
The bonanza lasted a mere three years and many producers were left with debt. They auctioned their vans and closed bars as maca prices fell below pre-boom levels.
Some Chinese maca farmers refuse to admit that they are feeling the blow from years of speculation, according to Xinhua. From selling at almost $3,000 a kilo, they are now auctioning “fraudulent maca” off at $3.
Maca production in Yunnan also provides competition for arable land. According to official figures, it could use up more than 13,000 hectares by next year.
In Peru, biopiracy is the practice of a third party accessing a Peruvian genetic resource without the state’s consent, which is customarily given by way of an access contract, Valladolid explains. “We have identified 1,700 patent applications related to maca in the world – and 75% are from China,” he confirmed.
China exports maca worldwide, which creates a great deal of confusion about its origins. In June 2019, a shipment of the Chinese brand ‘Maca Perú’ was detained in the US for containing Sildenafil, an ingredient in Viagra. The US Food and Drug Administration recommended people avoid it.
“The Chinese continue to sell the idea of maca as a sexual enhancer and I understand that they add a Viagra base to it. It is a very irresponsible way of selling,” Valladolid says.
Yet with no technical standards for maca in Peru, poverty among producers and corruption widespread at various levels of the state, it seems it was easy for Chinese businessmen to capitalise.
“What has happened with maca is not China’s fault, it is Peru’s fault for letting their produce leave the country and not protecting themselves,” Velazco says.
Protection of Peruvian maca
Adex and intellectual property protection authority Indecopi are working on strategies to protect the country’s heritage and prohibit maca leaving the country so easily.
“We want there to be no legal windows to remove the germplasm, which is why we are working on model contracts. However, all state organisations must do their part,” Velasco says.
In the Andes, the absence of policies to protect farmers is keenly felt. “There are no projects supporting agro-industry that encourage the growth of producers,” says farmer Moisés Alderete.
“I was born in Junín and I have an affinity with maca. This product has a high nutritional, economic and social value. The state must support producers, promote research and generate more investment. You have to work with maca from the soil to the final product.”
Johnny Vílchez, general manager of Peru’s Maca Producers Association (Apromaca), which consists of nine associations from the Junín and Pasco regions, says: “We want to see the fundamental development of the crop. We want to develop technical standards that protect and order the whole industry around maca. It is very important for the state to support producers once and for all.” He adds: “As a country, we have given the world potatoes. Do we receive royalties for that? On the contrary we, as a potato-producing country, don’t sell potatoes, we buy. And they don’t even say thank you.”
If as a food maca has enjoyed little protection, new health uses could help protect it. In partnership with the World Bank, Peru’s National Council for Science, Technology and Technological Innovation (Concytec) is funding research into whether the superfood can delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Peru hopes the project, based at Arequipa’s Catholic University of Santa Maria (UCSM), will help generate knowledge and protect maca’s heritage.
“You can complain, initiate diplomatic or legal action, but the truth is that once the resources have gone, there is no turning back,” says Manuel Ruiz, an advisor to the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA) who specializes in international trade and biodiversity.
“In the case of maca, we must now look at the best way of connecting with China,” he adds.
“From now on, it is our responsibility to improve our verification processes, so that our heritage does not slip through our hands so easily. This is not only happening with maca, but also with the sacha inchi (Inca nut), the yacón (Peruvian ground apple) and other products originating in Peru.”
This story and photos were originally published on Diálogo Chino.
Jack Lo Lau is a Peruvian journalist.