Tráncito Rodríguez was waiting for a package of wild meat from her brother when she got the bad news: police at the airport in Leticia, a small Amazonian city in the southern corner of Colombia, had confiscated the meat.
“It was a whole boruga,” she said, using the local word for a large rodent (Agouti paca) that is common prey for hunters in rural communities in that part of the Amazon.
Although hunting for subsistence is legal in Colombia, selling the meat is not, and authorities sometimes confiscate it if they believe it will be sold. But there is still a steady flow of bushmeat, or wild meat, into Leticia, the nearby Brazilian towns of Tabatinga and Benjamin Constant, and the Peruvian town of Santa Rosa, along the Amazon River where the three countries converge.
Researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who have been studying the hunting, use and commercialization of bushmeat in the triple-border area, recommend exploring the possibility of legalizing and regulating the sale of certain bushmeat species, rather than leaving it in the shadows.
I raised my children to be healthy—that’s the way my mother raised me
Although consumption of bushmeat is most often associated with rural communities, the researchers found that about 473 tons a year pass through the markets in the towns near the triple border.
“Bushmeat is not important in terms of the number or percentage of meals that include it, compared to meat from domestic animals, but it is an important source of diversity in people’s diets,” said Nathalie Van Vliet, a senior research associate at CIFOR who is leading the study.
DISH IT UP
On Sundays, the rustic restaurants in a rural area known as “Los Kilómetros,” along a paved road leading out of Leticia, fill with families out for a leisurely afternoon meal and perhaps a dip in a pool.
Although it’s not on the menu, some chefs serve up boruga, deer or other game if asked. They are cautious, however, fearing that police will raid their kitchens. Local hunters say their sales to restaurants drop off when there have been police sweeps.
The diners seek out a bushmeat meal for various reasons.
Some just like the taste. For others, who have migrated to the towns from rural areas, it’s a reminder of the flavors of home and childhood. Bushmeat is often a highlight of festivals or meals served as part of the communal work days known as minga.
But for Rodríguez, a member of the Muinane indigenous people, the biggest advantage is nutrition.
Her father ate no pork, beef or chicken, she recalls—“just bushmeat”—and she followed his example.
“I raised my children to be healthy,” she says. “That’s the way my mother raised me.”
But the youngest was only 18 months old when Rodríguez, a leader of a women’s organization in the town of Aracuara, received a death threat that forced her to flee to Bogotá, the Colombian capital.
She believes her youngest daughter was less healthy because in the city she ate more processed food and meat raised on industrial farms.
Meat from wild animals and fish provides not only protein, but also a range of micronutrients—vitamins and minerals that are important for health. Families that eat a variety of bushmeat and fish consume a wider range of micronutrients than those whose protein comes from one main source, such as chicken, Van Vliet said.
So when Rodríguez moved to Leticia six years ago, she was determined to return to her traditional diet.
She is not alone. Although people’s dietary patterns tend to change when they move from rural areas to the neighborhoods around the edges of Leticia and Tabatinga, there is still a place for bushmeat on the table, although families eat less meat from wild game and more chicken and other meats.
In a survey of 1,145 children in 11 schools in a small town, rural villages and the urban neighborhoods on Leticia’s periphery, the CIFOR researchers found that nearly all the children had eaten meat the previous day.
The sources of meat differed significantly, however. In the rural areas, 11 percent of children reported having eaten bushmeat the day before and 40 percent said they had eaten fish. In urban areas, however, only 2 percent of the children said they had eaten bushmeat and 9 percent had eaten fish.
For lower-income kids, especially, chicken and eggs had taken their place.
The findings indicate that in urban areas, where chicken replaces bushmeat and fish, children have a less diverse diet than their rural counterparts. And that can affect their health and food security, as Rodríguez found when she was forced to flee to the city.
TAKE AWAY GAME
In Leticia, Rodríguez returned to her roots, finding places to plant crops as she did at home. In 2011, she opened a small restaurant where she sold home-cooked meals, including bushmeat.
She would buy paca, deer or other meat in the market in Tabatinga and carry it back to Leticia through the gate that marks the Brazilian–Colombian border between the two neighboring cities.
One day, police at the border confiscated a leg of peccary she had just bought. After that, they began to stop her more frequently. For a while, she hired a man who had a motorized rickshaw to transport the meat between the two cities, but she finally decided it would be easier to start a restaurant in a tourist area on the Brazilian side of the border.
In the meantime, she continues to sell fresh fruit juices and food made from the crops she grows on the Colombian side, preparing meals that her customers can take home and running her carry-out business by cell phone.
Rodríguez also heads a women’s group called Mujeres Triunfadoras Tejiendo Vida—roughly translated as “Winning Women Weaving Life”—whose members represent four ethnic groups.
After attending a workshop on the steps that would be necessary to legalize and regulate bushmeat in Colombia, Rodríguez returned to her neighborhood to tell the women in her organization what she had learned.
Legalizing the trade and giving women more access to the meat for their families, she says, is one step on the road to a healthier future.