Back to the wild

Natalia Torres Garzon reports from the Mexican desert where knowledge of ancient desert foods is protecting against the economic shock of Covid-19.

Socorro Aguilar de-spines a cactus pad in Real de Catorce, Mexico. She cooks it up with onions, tomato and chillies or drinks it in smoothies. Photo: Antonio Cascio
Socorro Aguilar de-spines a cactus pad in Real de Catorce, Mexico. She cooks it up with onions, tomato and chillies or drinks it in smoothies. Photo: Antonio Cascio

The Covid-19 pandemic has precipitated a global economic crisis, but it has also opened the door to a more sustainable way of living in Real de Catorce, Mexico. This semidesert town located in the stark mountains of central Mexico was badly shaken when tourism – the main motor of its economy – came to a sudden halt last March.

Cut off from their regular income sources, the town’s inhabitants returned to harvesting the wild cacti, flowers and fruits of the desert. One of those falling back on the old ways was 77-year-old Socorro Aguilar, who carries the ancestral knowledge of how to collect wild foods and make agave syrup (or ‘god’s beverage’ as it was known by the Aztecs).

Over the years, the consumption of wild plants has diminished in this area and traditional knowledge has been forgotten as foods are brought in from elsewhere. Aguilar worries about poor health among the younger generation in Mexico, where over 30 per cent of adults are now obese. ‘They only want food from packets,’ she says. ‘They cast aside the great value that cacti, flowers and medicinal plants have to offer.’

The dual crisis of Covid-19 and climate change is proving the value of wild foods, which are usually overlooked by national policy. The Food and Agriculture Organization wants to move the hardy Opuntia cactus – which puts out prickly pears everywhere from Brazil to Madagascar – from a ‘food-of-last-resort’ to an integrated part of agriculture.

The cactus’ prevalence in harsh environments and water-fixing properties make it an important tool for fighting food shortages and drought. As a complement to cultivated crops, a diverse range of local food types like this may well be key to helping keep communities fed through future shocks.

This work was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme., a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.