The first time I came to South America I took a three-week trip to Brazil and Argentina with three friends. We were all pretty clueless. On our first night out in Rio, speaking barely a word of Portuguese, we got it all wrong. In a restaurant, one of my friends tried to order what she thought was a mixed salad, but she ended up dining on nothing more than a huge plate of palmitos (palm hearts).
Palmitos – which I had never heard of before coming to this part of the world – are like a bland, white stalk. They are nicer than they sound, but they aren’t wildly exciting either. They are surprisingly popular, however, especially when served with salsa golf (a ketchup and mayo mix, allegedly invented by a Nobel laureate, whose time surely could have been better spent).
Recently when visiting Missiones in the north of Argentina, my palmito education continued. Palmitos come from inner core of a certain type of palm tree and to get out the juicy bit (which isn’t that large), you have to cut off the plant top, meaning the whole tree dies. This has led to clandestine palmito harvesting in protected zones, sometimes in the middle of the night. Call them palmito cowboys, if you like.
So, should we all give up palmitos? No more weird white-stalks in our salads? Not yet. Don’t panic. Not all are harvested illegally. There are plenty of legitimate farms too.
I have been reading palmito cans in the supermarket (yes, I am *that* cool) and I have discovered that plenty of Argentina’s supply comes form Ecuador. Maybe they should come with a rainforest-friendly stamp, just like tuna in the UK comes with a dolphin-friendly stamp and Magnum ice-creams are kind to Ecuador. But don’t hold your breath on this, as Argentina doesn’t even recognise free-range eggs.
So, there you go. I’ve just given you another thing to worry about now: the origin of palmitos. Life’s too short really, isn’t it? Mind you, it’s shorter for a palmito.
The wider picture, however, is more disturbing, and palmitos are the least of our worries. The Atlantic Rainforest – spanning Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay – is now only 5% of what it was.
The world is going to turn around one day and say, “Oi! South America! You fucked up the rainforest. The world’s rainforest. The world’s resources, you selfish bastards.” Yet for years the developed word hasn’t played any real attention (aside from a short while in the late 80s when Sting made a song about it, or something like that).
Meanwhile, tiny countries like Guyana and Ecuador are trying to attract our attention and our cooperation. Essentially, they’re saying to our leaders, “Look, we are a poor country. We could make some fast cash for personal benefit by chopping down our trees, but seeing as it might be more valuable to the world at large if we don’t, how about the world at large gives us some financial support to not cut down the forests?”
Very recently, Ecuador has opened its scheme up to ordinary members of the public. For around the price of a can of palmitos, we can help the country say no to oil companies and protect its rainforests. See this article for how to donate a dollar or more.
Photo: The Atlantic Rainforest by Uniemelk via Wikicommons.