The moto-taxi comes to a stop on a narrow side road in Iquitos, Peru. Looking out from the relative security of my motorized carriage, I am a little hesitant to step out. The bustling chaos of people milling in the tiny street is discombobulating. My friend Diana and I are at one of many entry points into the Belén Market which sprawls for acres in a byzantine maze of alleyways that extend in different directions. It’s stalls tumbling together, represent the diversity of local fish, food, herbs, concoctions and medicine from the Amazon rain forest, in addition to rubber boots, plastic ware, and other life necessities in this jungle.
Unable to focus, I stand slightly frozen, trying to make sense of my relative whereabouts, taking stock of people around me. Mysteriously in a few seconds, our guide, a strong-jawed, good-looking man with an irrepressible mop of strong black hair, emerges from the crowd, just as promised. His charming, easy smile gives me fortitude. With gladdened heart, I fall in behind Joel and Diana as he leads the way into the inner chambers of this market. We pass by heaps and piles of stunning, varied displays of food, cooking fish, and housewares in little stalls, squeezed next to each other in seemingly endless succession. My heart synchs slowly to the pace of the market’s alleyways.
The Market Scene
Food markets have a magical energy created by slowly moving crowds that are both chaotic and yet purposeful. People are engaged in foraging, picking, choosing, and sales hunts among innumerable stalls which offer variations on similar food products. Streams of people are flowing by Belén’s alleys with an imperceptible rhythm, halting now and then to peruse displays that catch their notice. Merchants are sitting patiently by displays of food and goods. Some find zen in the entropy of the crowd, looking off into the distance through the proximity of mingling bodies.
The market wares are dazzling. The piles of salted and fresh fish, the home-made sausages, the piles of yucca and vegetables, and bundles of green bouquets of herbs and plants are fascinating. There are unique fresh-caught Amazon fish, yucca processed into patty cakes, and stalls where you can meals or parts of meals. Anything you want in any quantity is available. For example, if you have a headache and want a couple of pills, you can buy pills by the pill. Want a sit down? There are people offering quick massages and pedicures.
The fish are exceptional and their diversity is notable. The sheer variety reflects the biodiversity of the Amazon river. There are massive fish, tens of feet in length, which seem improbable to catch, let alone filet and prepare. Fish here are real, they are the farthest thing you can imagine from the perfectly de-boned, prepared steaks and filets one might find set out on ice in a high-end supermarket. The elegance is in their unmistakable life forms, with eyes, gills, skin, odor. Unique. Remarkable.
Eating fish takes a lot of preparation work, some of which is done for you right at the market. We did buy some grilled fish and painstakingly worked our way through bones to eat the delicious meat.
The byzantine maze of stalls is never ending. I try making mental notes of landmarks–for example, the shop on the corner with the old woman in the printed smock, selling big red fish–but no sooner had I made mental notes, then the visual stimulation of dozens of other similar stalls confused and drowned out specific visual memories. I try to keep a sense of orientation—tracking each turn we make. Despite my strong sense of direction it is futile. I am happy to keep our guide firmly in sight, taking care not to hang back too much or saunter off too far. He is the only with here with a keen sense of the place. People call out good-natured greetings at him. Being with him makes us feel like we are at home here.
Poverty and its associated lack of sanitation infrastructure is very evident here. It’s clear that dogs are breeding unchecked, and that garbage heaps pose threats from populations of insects and rats. Yet even with the occasional stench of rot, decay, and putrid, unidentified runoff at the edges, the food market is thriving.
The Amazon Hinterland
The Belen Market is striking for many reasons, perhaps not least that it offers so much that is harvested and drawn directly from the Amazon rainforest–its foreboding yet threatened hinterland. It offers a window of insight into the colossal richness of the Amazon River, its tributary rivers, and its forests. The fish, plants, medicines, meat, questionable animal parts, fruits, dried goods, and herbs are collected and brought here largely by people who are indigenous to this ecological area and are directly living off its land and water resources. Being so isolated from global transportation networks in Iquitos, this market is a glorious sprawling temple to a hyper-local food economy that represents a powerful counterpoint to the modern, globalized, food economy. As I found, the market is also striking for its social atmosphere.
Iquitos – A Background
Iquitos is an urban conurbation of 400,000 people surrounded by the Nanay, Iquitos, and Amazon rivers, and surrounded by the world’s largest remaining stretch of equatorial rainforest ecosystem, and one of the planet’s remaining hotspots of biodiversity. Here is a map that shows the location of Iquitos. This jungle-bound town is accessible by exactly no roads from any other city on the planet. The only way in is by boat from Brazil, or by air flight.
The town boomed in the early 20th century, like Manaus in Brazil, as a result of the global interest in rubber. It drew in European producers who built factories as well as European-style buildings and squares in the town proper. Many indigenous people were employed in the production and processing of rubber and trickled into this urban center, where they have continued to live; today often in conditions of poverty and overcrowding in sprawling shanty towns along its rivers. Belén is one of these towns which have spread like tentacles along the waterways out from Iquitos. River levels vary 40 feet between rainy and dry seasons so house construction is adapted to this cycle of inundation. It’s characteristic floating houses built on balsam-wood platforms as well as its wooden houses on stilts with platforms beneath, have given it the moniker “Venice of South America.”
A Feminine Space
Crowding and poverty are ubiquitous in the Belén market. Early childbearing is also evident. The population is heavily-weighted towards babies, children, young mothers, and a younger population in general. The social atmosphere reflects this. Kids merge seamlessly into the spectrum of humanity. When not actively playing, they sit in women’s laps, keep themselves occupied as adults nearby rest on the wooden platforms, nurse at mothers’ breasts (even as they are busy conducting sales transactions), and keep sellers company. Their natural squirming, freedom of movement and play create a spirited atmosphere of tolerance and gentleness. In general my impression is that adults seem to feel assured that the kids are safe, just corralling them every now and then as required.
The centrality of women and their children is very evident here. Belén undoubtedly has its share of economic stress, disease, fear, crime, and abuse, that poverty anywhere can result in. Yet the market has a convivial atmosphere whose tone is set by women entrepreneurs and coteries of children.
A warming recognition dawns on me, that despite the poverty and crowding, I, as a woman, feel an unmistakable sense of personal safety. It’s remarkable in a world where I am usually constantly on guard, for safety. Here in the shared public spaces of the market, I sense a feminized dignity and an air of lightness. Perhaps this dignity is drawn from the shared humanity and common experience that women everywhere recognize, of child-bearing and rearing. Mothers and babies are at the heart of society, and here in the market it seems extraordinarily tangible.
A few minutes later, as I am feeling complacent and warm inside, Joel indicates we have to turn around in our path. I understand that some children have warned him we were being watched (by pick pockets). Nonchalantly, we make a deft turn and retrace our steps.
A Medieval Food Economy
The whole scene in Belén strikes me as a scene from a medieval era market, where food was grown and sold close to its market. Food production is reliant on seasonal cycles and phases of the river. It depends on weather, and the price of fuel used by fishermen. This is real food, close to the source, that spoils and perishes after a few hours, especially without cold storage options in the humid heat of Iquitos.
Unlike modern, industrially farmed fruits and vegetables with lab-engineered seeds, these products don’t seem uniform in size and look. The products, whether fresh, salted or smoked, are piled in heaps on tables and set out in baskets. Instead of packaged and frozen things, there are buckets of fresh fish being fileted on makeshift wooden platforms, vegetables mounded in baskets, and unique cuts of (unknown and questionably sourced) animals arranged in displays. Dogs are being shooed away too. Diversity, not only of products, but of quality, is the norm. Buyers are making personal choices among uneven looking food products. Rather than looking at a price sticker, buyers are haggling over prices. This is a celebration of the micro producer and micro seller.
The Absent “Value Chain”
The commerce in the Belén market is vibrant, but it is isolated. There are few factories and processing centers taking fish, deboning it, making it into textured and sized products palatable for the tastes of a global gourmand. The fish here does not end up in the freezers of supermarket chains in North America, nor is flown directly to exclusive sushi houses in Tokyo and Hong Kong.
There is little additional processing of the food products on sale here. There is no lengthy chain of custody where raw food from the source is transformed into market goods, where traders in the middle take cuts of money at different stages. Washington’s agricultural development experts would be dismayed at the gaping hole in “value chains” represented by what’s on sale at the Belén market. The absence of packaging, brand names, and plastic is indicative of a lack of food processing. There is no “value” to be added up where there is nary a packaged-and-processed product to be found.
The modern food economy’s hallmarks are processing, packaging, additives which extend shelf life, transportation networks, and massive supermarket chains which make food available to consumers in urban centers. The multi-national giants of food production–Kraft Foods, Lays, General Mills, Con-Agra, Land O’Lakes, and Archer Daniels Midland–which generate massive profits while providing the modern world’s food products appear to have little game here in Belén. Their model of food production supports higher levels of commerce and international trade. Theirs is the food economy that offers ever-changing products, constant innovations on tastes, shipping over the globe, and market shelf life of months or years. Their economy supports a highly advanced food technology industry which enables products to extend shelf life, and controls their texture, cooking properties, and color. Theirs is the economy which is magnified through the power of advertising, and grows the country’s GDP.
Yet economists would note that theirs is the food economy that feeds the world by churning out consistent quality and reliable quantities that can be calculated and planned in advance. Profits are sparse in the Belén market model. But there is plenty of eating, and it’s close to the source.
Belén and the Local Food Movement
While the majority of economists assert that the large-scale, industrial, agri-business food production model feeds the world by churning out consistent quality, meeting scientifically-tested food safety and phytosanitary standards, and offering predictable quantification for reliable advanced planning, there is a steadily growing voice for alternative food economies.
It strikes me that Belén’s market model represents exactly what many modern food gurus preach about healthy eating and a healthy food culture, counter to the modern industrial food economy. Eat local food. Eat fresh-caught and sustainably harvested fish. Eat food that is native to the area. Buy things at your local farmer’s market. Eat what’s in season. Avoid food products which use additives that influence color, shelf-life, and which manipulate taste – using extra sweetening, extra fat, and salt.
The sheer size and sprawl of the Belén market was astounding. That there are enough people here in this isolated Amazonian city to support a market of this scale is testament to how remarkable a hyper-local food economy could be, some other place. Leave aside traditional GDP accounting, here in this remote jungle town is a vibrant and healthy food economy worthy of a powerful capital anywhere in the world.
If, or perhaps I should optimistically say, when, such a hyper-local, farmer’s market model becomes increasingly prevalent in other places around the globe, I would hope that people can draw from the model of Belen. Money is a powerful force, and I have hope that consumer demand can channel some of it towards local food producers. Wild-harvested food should command high premiums. It is rich in nutrients and rich in taste. It takes massive investment to maintain its freshness, quality and texture. Unique fruits such as mangosteen, guava, and lucuma from the Amazon are being marketed (successfully) in western markets for their unique nutrient properties at very high premiums. These are opportunities for investment. Such market pathways for wild, local foods are one way in which global forces might help to sustain the Amazon’s riches.
Not far away in Iquitos are shops and supermarkets with produce flown in on cargo planes from Lima. The supermarkets offer shelves of boxed, processed, and packaged food products in addition to industrially-grown agricultural produce. Will the Belén market’s unique instance of Amazonian food culture persist? Or will it, and its unique cultural economy and traditional livelihoods be wiped out in the powerful, homogenizing, march of modernization? How far will competitive co-existence go?
The Belén market represents the symbiotic relationship of people and their environment. People here are drawing on the inherited, inter-generational wisdom of cultivating, harvesting, and fishing for food in this environment, drawing on age-old, place-specific, handed-down knowledge of local plants, local trees, and local fish stock.
Yet, the poverty and lack of sanitation remain distressing. People who produce this food should, in my mind, be able to avail of the best human development opportunities anywhere to grow and fulfill themselves through education, good health infrastructure, safety, and the benefits of rewarding economics. But the meaning of human development opportunity should derive from the values, culture, and roots of the community here itself. Future generations, the children, of Belén ought to be able to maintain their ties to these wild hinterlands and the bonds of their own communities, the life and riches of their markets, yet innovate. They should be able to develop economic and spiritual sustenance for their own lives by furthering their own traditions rather than by replacing them with global market forces.
In the seemingly intractable, global political wrangling over climate change mitigation, the Amazon rainforest takes center stage as a ‘hot spot’ not only for the size and extent of the rainforest here but also its biodiversity. Preserving the Amazon jungle which absorbs huge masses of atmospheric carbon can stave off the effects of the accumulated quantities of carbon emitted by the power-hungry modern world. This area is ‘critical’ for the planet.
Can the existence of these small food producers help to protect the Amazon by connecting its wealth and products to global market channels which sustain it rather than wipe it out? Can the Belén market innovate and assert its place in the global market in such a way that it secures itself? I have hope. For now, the Belén market with its hawkers, squirming babies, happy children, and petty pickpockets are still a big draw.