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is uncertain. However, soon after the Conquest, the Spanish found that their livestock were reproducing poorly in the highlands, and the Indians recommended maca. The results were so remarkable that they were noted by surprised Spanish chroniclers. Colonial records of some 200 years ago indicate that tribute payments of roughly 9 tons of maca were demanded from the Junín area alone.

Even if such medicinal effects prove invalid, the fact remains that where little else will grow, maca provides nutritious food that stores well. But for all its qualities, maca is in trouble. Its cultivation is declining. Once it was probably grown from Ecuador to northern Argentina, and hundreds of hectares of terraces apparently were devoted to its cultivation; now it is restricted to a few tiny scattered fields, and it is fast dwindling toward agricultural oblivion. Indeed, in 1982 maca was declared to be in danger of extinction as a domesticated plant.1

One reason for the decline is that maca is complicated to grow (see later). However, the main reason is neglect. This “poor person's crop” has been given little research or administrative support (even its growth cycle, flower biology, and chromosome number are not known). As a result, it is being displaced by foods imported into the region. To barter for these foods (mostly rice, noodles, sugar, and some canned goods), the local populations increasingly rely on raising sheep and llamas, as well as on using lower altitude fields, where corn can be grown.

But perhaps this Inca crop will not be lost. Scientists and governments are finally turning their attention to its merits. Its seeds—representing centuries of cumulative selections by farmers—are for the first time being collected, grown out, tested, and saved.

This attention is important, for maca shows potential for benefiting areas at extreme elevations both inside and outside the Andean zone. Its ability to thrive at unusually high altitudes means that large areas previously considered inhospitable to agriculture could be turned to productive use.

PROSPECTS

Andean Region. More attention to maca will almost certainly generate bigger markets and provide more income for the high puna, perhaps the most economically deprived part of the region, a place where few other crops can survive. It could be a nutritional complement to a diet weak in vegetables (other than potatoes) and probably lacking in vitamins and minerals, especially iodine. Moreover, the roots store


1 International Board for the Protection of Genetic Resources (IBPGR), 1982.


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