December 3, 2016
SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — María Mendéz Pérez loves to eat mushrooms, but she doesn’t buy them from a market or grocery store. Instead, she and her daughters trek to nearby wooded areas to gather them from the forest floor.
“My mother recognized all the mushrooms that grew near our home, and when she’d find any unknown mushroom, she didn’t take risks. We wouldn’t take it,” Mendéz Pérez, 70, says.
That knowledge is unusual in the Chiapas Highlands area of southern Mexico. People get sick or die every year from eating poisonous mushrooms. In July, three children died after consuming the fungi.
It’s a challenge to educate the region’s indigenous people about the dangers of eating wild mushrooms, says Gabriel Pablo Narváez Utrilla. He leads mushroom production programs at the Secretaría para el Desarrollo Sustentable de los Pueblos Indígenas (SEDESPI), the government ministry in charge of conducting policy with and for the state’s indigenous people.
In 2005, more than 45 people were poisoned from eating unsafe mushrooms. Since then, SEDESPI has conducted annual campaigns to discourage people from eating wild mushrooms. Prior to that, the ministry focused just on training people to grow and harvest mushrooms—a program that has had more than 8,000 participants since it began in 1996.
Local producers struggle to meet the demand for mushrooms. Until 2014, there were only three mushroom seed suppliers, including SEDESPI’s own laboratory, Narváez Utrilla says.
But this year, the ministry launched another project, this time to boost local seed production, says Juan Mardonio Pérez Pérez of SEDESPI’s agro-industries department.
In past years, most farmers came to SEDESPI for mycelium, the mushroom seed.
“But now we are training so that those same farmers can install small laboratories where they can create their own seed, and not depend on us,” he says.
Already, farmers say the program is helping them.
Noé Flores has grown mushrooms for 10 years, and is certified by SEDESPI as a mushroom producer, he says. A constant challenge has been a shortage of mushroom seeds.
But this year, his daughter Elizabeth Flores Cruz completed a training from SEDESPI that would help fix that problem. She paid 1,500 Mexican pesos ($80.81) for a six-day training that taught her how to build a laboratory so she and the family can cultivate their own mycelium seed.
Proper technique is critical, Narváez Utrilla says.
“The mushroom is a very delicate product, but noble,” he says. “We must be very careful and have good hygiene so that the harvest is not contaminated by another type of mushroom and bacteria that doesn’t allow mushrooms to grow healthy.”
Flores Cruz’s family laboratory is small and rustic, but it provides about 60 to 80 kilograms (132 to 176 pounds) of seed monthly, she says. From this, they usually produce 180 to 200 kilograms (396 to 440 pounds) of mushrooms. That’s enough for the family’s own farm, and there’s extra to sell.
“Our mushroom is reliable, so people come to buy with confidence,” Flores Cruz says.
There are now 12 labs in the state, Narváez Utrilla says. Three of these labs are in the Chiapas Highlands, which includes that of the Flores Cruz family.
But these efforts alone won’t curb wild mushroom consumption, he adds. SEDESPI is also continuing its education campaigns, which include health fairs, radio ads and signs in local markets that include photos of known poisonous mushrooms.
But some local people say the aim shouldn’t be to stop the wild mushroom harvest altogether. The problem can be solved if families pass traditional knowledge about mushrooms down to their children, says Eugenio García Núñez, who lives in Chalchihuitán municipality.
He says he learned early in life that extreme care must be taken in collecting. His parents and grandparents taught him how to identify mushrooms that were safe to eat. He remembers that he had to carefully observe the shape, size, and color, because a mistake could bring serious consequences.
“We should also support the preservation of our grandparents’ ancestral knowledge so that children can continue to learn to collect wild mushrooms,” he says. “Collecting is part of our culture and we have to protect it.”
Lourdes Medrano, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.