The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity has been working in Chile for the past eight years, ever since an initial journey to explore the country’s products resulted in the creation of five Presidia. This relatively high number of projects is a reflection of the many different animal breeds and plant varieties endemic to the country, whose geographic, climactic, historical and social characteristics make it a kind of ecological island. Two of these Presidia are located in the south of the country, in the IX Araucanía region, commonly known as the land of the Mapuche.
The Mapuche or Araucani are one of South America’s oldest ethnic groups. Indigenous to southern Chile and Argentina, they are divided into many subgroups, with different names depending on where they live. They are also one of the continent’s most tenacious groups, having resisted the Inca invasion, Spanish colonization and many long years of aggression from the Chilean government. Somewhere between farmers and hunter-gatherers, they have survived thanks to their proud and combative nature, a strong traditional social organization based on extended families and the extraordinary relationship between the people and their land.
Their religion involves total respect for nature, the forest and crops, which are experienced as a vital and alive part of the “great spirit” that encompasses everything. Before entering their food gardens or the forest, the Mapuche ask for permission from the land and its vegetation. This worldview has meant that agricultural and food traditions have been extraordinarily preserved. Slow Food immediately found plenty of shared ground with the Mapuche community, with similar philosophies regarding small-scale agriculture, foods to be protected and folk culture. And over time the two Presidia have taken on a very powerful social value.
Merkén is a spice mixture made from ground local chili pepper, salt and coriander seeds, while the other Presidium protects and promotes the blue eggs laid by local chickens, who because of a genetic quirk produce eggs ranging in color from pale green to dark blue. These two products will soon be joined by the Araucaria pine nut, harvested and processed by the Mapuche in various ways and an authentic symbol of the local indigenous culture.
The success of the Presidia has brought not just good economic results for the producers but also a strong boost to community spirit. Attempts by the Chilean authorities to break up the traditional activities of the Mapuche people continue, assigning them small plots that destroy their community traditions and taking away their ability to obtain resources from the forest, marginalizing them and reducing them to poverty. Unsurprisingly, there is a continued exodus from their homelands towards cities, where they live in very difficult conditions.
Out of the Mapuche population, 600,000 are residents compared to over 300,000 emigrants. The Presidia, overseen by the Slow Food Foundation, are contributing to reestablishing a hopeful link between the Mapuche and their land, to strengthen historic social cohesion and to revitalize the self-awareness of this proud and ancient people.