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Entering this road, I entered a world totally unknown to me in which tea growing families continue to cultivate tea in the traditional way with hand picking. In my imagination, tea and Peru were not usually associated. However, I discovered that tea had been introduced to the Peruvian jungle at the beginning of the 20th century by the landowner of Huyro, also a member of the Convention, from Japanese seeds to provide an alternative to coffee in the face of the difficulties of the sector at that time.

Listening to the history of Peruvian tea, I cannot help thinking that it presents an incredible example of global history;[1] a history of connections built between Latin America, Asia and Europe through the circulation of knowledge about plants, seeds, machines, British and Sri Lankan technical experts.

Plants are connectors. I like the image of the chain precisely because it conveys this idea well. By definition, a chain is an object composed of interlocking rings, of successive elements linked to one another. In the case of food production chains, the mediation of the elements is done through an edible input that brings together and maintains the different parts of the chains in a relationship of interdependence.

(Photo: Gustavo Vivanco)

Because of the social relationships they generate, production chains constitute networks that are worth investigating. I see the rings of the chains as stages in the production process that can be carried out by different actors in different places. Therefore, the set represents a diversity of social universes, value systems, identities, practices, which intersect at each stage of the chain through specific interactions. In each place where one ring is linked to another, there are interactions that do not in themselves imply mutual knowledge or personal relationships. In fact, the life of any restaurant could go on without any problems without the different actors in the chain ever seeing each other.

However, all the ring-worlds of the chain are in a situation of interdependence. The restaurant needs a continuous and secure supply of its products. The producer lives with the need to find a market for his product. But this interdependence is unequal: if a problem arises, the producer at the beginning of the chain is more vulnerable than the restaurant at the end of the chain, which has the power to decide whether to buy or not.

Visiting Dwight’s coffee farm in Santa Teresa(Photo: Gustavo Vivanco)

From an anthropological perspective, it is precisely because of these power relations between the parties involved that I enter into the analysis of production chains. Bringing together the perspectives of the kitchen and the social sciences allows us to generate a total vision of the chains. Suddenly, product traceability is no longer limited to knowing the origin of a product, but also involves stimulating inter-knowledge and direct relations between actors. Knowing the social and environmental context of production, the particularities, the difficulties, the history behind the product allows one to become aware of a value that is not reflected in the price.

In the case of MIL’s suppliers, traveling through the food chains is like traveling through the different ecosystems of the Cusco region. It is to be able to experience Peru’s diversity firsthand, when in the morning you are biting mosquitoes in tea plantations (1,550 m.a.s.l.) and in the afternoon you see the snow fall in the Abra Malaga pass (4200 m.a.s.l.).

In Chinchero, at 3,740m.a.s.l., Manuel Choqque, a farmer-engineer became famous by manually hybridizing native potatoes with wild potatoes, creating new varieties full of antioxidants that he grows organically on family farms.
In the Santa Teresa district, Dwight Aguilar, a coffee producer, works hand in hand with the young people of The Three Monkeys Co. Together, they are committed to changing the philosophy of how to work the farm, always seeking quality over quantity.

In the district of Santa Teresa, Dwight Aguilar, a coffee producer, works hand in hand with the young people of The Three Monkeys Co. Together, they have decided to change the philosophy of how to work on the farm, always looking for more quality than quantity.
In a hut in Lucmabamba, on the edge of the famous Inca Trail that leads to Machu Picchu, Mrs. Rene makes us taste rich high altitude honeys produced by an association of women whose sales participate in their economic emancipation.
In Huyro, Americano and his family are dedicated to perpetuating the tradition of harvesting tea in an artisanal way despite the difficulties of finding a national demand.
In the rural community of Unión Chahuay, about two hours from Cusco, on the edge of the Pomacanchi lagoon (3800 m.a.s.l.), Trinidad and Francisco, a couple of producers trained by an NGO in the cultivation of organic gardens, are now involved in the dissemination of this knowledge in their respective and neighboring communities.

The Mater team learning from Manuel Choqque, a potato farmer in Chinchero (Photo: Gustavo Vivanco)

Often, these stories teach us about the resilience of actors seeking sustainable solutions in collaborations (family members, NGO/producer, intermediary/producer). And, as Anna Tsing does in The Mushroom at the end of the world: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins[1], we can extend this phenomenon to non-human beings who have a role in the production process. The fallen leaves of a tree that fertilize the soil for another plant, the farmer who listens to the song of the fox to know when it is going to rain. These practices show the inter-species interdependence, a know-how together.

Diego, from The Three Monkeys Co, and Dwight, coffee producer (Photo: Gustavo Vivanco)

The encounters we make change us. I experienced that when I did interviews at Francisco and Trinidad’s house. I came to talk about agricultural practices but Trinidad took me to the emotional terrain of intimate confessions between women. Without having done it on purpose, she had created a space to expose her concerns as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, as the head of a committee in her community. Trinidad was no longer just a farmer, a producer, but a complex and dense identity in which a multitude of social roles intertwined. Her story had transformed the initial research relationship into a woman-to-woman conversation.

Daan and Trinidad in Unión Chahuay (Photo: Céline Morançay)

Finally, all these stories encountered along my journey left me with open questions: what happens when children of farmers change the ways of production, for example by switching to organic crops, facing the disapproval of the father? What does this tell us in general about inter-generational conflicts and intra-family relationships? What do productive alliances between producers and processors teach us about ways to generate a mutually beneficial situation? And when we look at the assistance provided by government programs or NGOs, what do we see in their intervention in the communities of the Andes? How is knowledge about plants disseminated? What does this encounter teach us about city-countryside relations and representations?

Each trip through a ring of the chain opens a world of questions and generates new expectations of understanding how, following the path of an input, we can travel through different stories, experiences, memories and perceptions. As I climbed into Wilfredo’s car, I always felt the same excitement to find my traveling and learning companions again, ready to continue exploring how inputs can connect us to each other, to the environment and to myself.

René bottling honey (Photo: Gustavo Vivanco)

[1] Global history is a historiographic current that takes globalization as an object of study aiming to investigate the phenomena of interdependence and integration on a global scale. For more information: OLSTEIN Diego, Thinking History Globally, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

[2] TSING Anna, The Mushroom at the end of the world : on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2015.

Céline Morançay
Mater team author

Sociologist Céline is a French-Peruvian anthropologist; she has devoted herself to social science research at the IHEAL- Institut des Hautes Études de l'Amérique Latine de La Sorbonne in Paris. Specialized in history and anthropology, she is also passionate about photography. She is currently developing a research project in Peru for Mater Iniciativa using anthropological methods with the practice of photography to photo-document food production chains, aiming to understand the challenges of agricultural production for small farmers in the Cusco region, as well as the social relations that arise around crops.

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