CAJAMARCA — Reaching the Vargas family home, on the Bellavista estate in the pine-covered mountains of Cajamarca, is no easy task. After driving for a good half-hour along a dusty, unpaved road, visitors then have to leave their car with the neighbors and walk a few more kilometers up a track leading from the road to the mountain-top homes of hundreds of peasants.
But it's well worth the trek. Hidden in the department of Tolima, the area is like an agricultural Eden. The banks of the Anaime river are banana trees and coffee shrubs, purple-leaf acacia and orchids. A few meters further up there are vines of beans, peas and passionfruit. And in the highest parts of the mountain range, at 2,500 meters above sea level, potatoes, passion flower, blackberries and a variety of edible roots, such as arracacha. Scientists and farmers agree that over time, ash from the nearby Machín volcano enriched the local soil and made it one of the continent's most fertile areas.
For the past seven months, the Vargas family — Berlain, Martal and their three children — have been selling arracacha directly to Colombian restaurant chain Crepes and Waffles. They are one of several areas families to do so.
Normally, a 125-kilogram load is worth between 100,000 or 120,000 pesos [28 to 34 euros roughly], according to Berlain. "But Crepes pays 300,000 pesos for it and it's changing our lives," he says. "We were able to bring home a washing machine. You don't know that means. Marta saves an hour or two every day washing clothes, and spends that time doing what she likes: weeding, pruning and caring for her vegetable patch and bushes."
The alliance with Crepes came months after the district decided, in a landmark vote, to ban metals mining in the area. The vote prompted the South African mining company AngloGold Ashanti — which had been engaged in exploratory work there for nearly 15 years — to pull up stakes and leave.
With Crepes and other food providers, area farmers are showing that there is an economic alternative to open-air gold minng. The head of sustainability at Crepes, Felipe Macía Fernández, says the determination of people in Cajamarca to safeguard local food production and their landscape has become a "source of inspiration for innovations in cuisine, art exhibitions and the exploration of new markets that promote conservation."
For Berlain and other member families of the Association of Andean Seed Producers, or ASPROSAN — with whom Crepes signed a deal last year — the experience so far has been extremely positive. "Things here aren't like how the mayor, Pedro Pablo Marín, made it seem in the media. The town isn't in crisis and we don't regret saying no to mining in our territory. On the contrary, we are more and more convinced that Cajamarca's future is in tourism and farming."
Nature is what we have to show
See more from Food / Travel here