The lowlands of the Gran Chaco are one of Latin America’s major ecoregions, divided among northern Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. Bounded by the Paranà, Pilcomayo, Paraguay and Salado rivers to the north, south and west and by the Andean highlands to the east, the region has a continental, moderately humid climate, with some semi-arid zones.
Magnificent white carob, chañar and mistol trees have been a part of the indigenous food culture in the Gran Chaco plains since the pre-Colombian era. Traditionally it was the task of women to collect firewood and fruits from the trees. The fruits were then used to make flour, bread and beverages. However, contact with European populations has led to the loss of many traditional food production practices, meaning many of these products can now only be found in small quantities at local markets. An environmental crisis, caused by the progressive deforestation of the Gran Chaco, along with the introduction of imported products, such as wheat flour and sugar, have also led to the gradual disappearance of these typical foods.
The white carob (Prosopis alba and Prosopis chilensis) produces oblong yellow fruits, similar to bean pods. Inside, very hard seeds, surrounded by a delicious, sugary, fleshy pulp, can be found. Ground into flour, it is an important and versatile ingredient in the local gastronomy, used for making bread and pastries, as well as fermented and unfermented drinks. Carob pods also make a high-quality feed for livestock.
A drought-resistant tree that can tolerate low temperatures, the chañar (Geoffroea decorticans) is often found along the banks of lagoons, swamps and rivers. Its fruits, known as patalcas, are small, round and smooth, and orange-red in color. Their soft, sweet flesh can be eaten fresh or used in traditional recipes such as that for añapa, a refreshing non-alcoholic drink. The chañar tree has been an important source of nutrition for many generations of indigenous peoples and immigrants, the fruits and bark are still used for medicinal purposes, particularly to treat respiratory problems.
The mistol tree (Ziziphus mistol) produces small, reddish-brown fruits with a sweet pulp that can be eaten fresh, boiled or dried in the sun (pasa de mistol), or used as an ingredient in many local specialties. Once cooked, it is used to make arrope, a highly prized homemade syrup, or bolanchao, a popular sweet. A paste made from the dried, ground fruit, patay, is used in many traditional Argentinian dishes. Mistol is also used to make a juice (mixed with flour from the algarrobo or tusca fruit), infusions with medicinal properties and a liqueur. The tree’s roots and bark can be used as soap (jabón de palo) or as a dye. As part of a government reforestation program for the Chaco, some communities have begun planting carob trees and seeking market opportunities for the flour produced from their fruit.
The Presidium is the result of a collaboration between the Fundación Gran Chaco and the Cooperativa de Mujeres Artesanas del Gran Chaco (CO.M.AR.), and aims to combat the abandonment of the land, the impoverishment of the local diet and the resulting health problems.
CO.M.AR was founded in 2000 and is made up of eight associations, involving a total of around 1,600 women from the Wichi and Comle’ec ethnic groups. In the Argentinian Gran Chaco, the women traditionally take care of the house and the children. They have little education and a much lower status than the men. The creation of the cooperative has allowed them to organize themselves, first to produce and market local crafts, and then to start a project on one of the most typical of local products, carob flour.
Working with the Fundación Gran Chaco, the Presidium wants to promote the consumption of traditional products from the Gran Chaco, encouraging the sharing of knowledge about them and publicizing the importance of including them in the diet. The Presidium organizes training courses with chefs from Slow Food network on techniques for harvesting and storing the fruits and exchange meetings promoting knowledge on their nutritional value, their medicinal properties and different ways of consuming them. The Presidium already adopted a production protocol and a step-by-step process will be developed for promoting and marketing the products at a regional level.
Formosa, Salta and Chaco provinces
2500 women from 13 associations, joined in the Cooperativa de Mujeres Artesanas del Gran Chaco (CO.M.AR.)
IFAD – International Fund for Agricultural Development