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In Peru, a move to get farmers to trade in fish rather than coca

A new program aims to help coca growers raise paiche, a huge, endangered fish known for its flaky meat.

By Lucien O. ChauvinCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 2007


Teofilo Tapullima knows first hand the dangers that lurk beneath the muddy waters of Peru's Amazon jungle: Piranhas, fresh-water rays, and the giant paiche fish, to name a few.

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He recently found out just how tricky a paiche can be when he had to net one at the research institute where he works outside Pucallpa, in northern Peru.

"It came flying at me and slammed into my forehead. It gave me a headache, but luckily it was a small fish. If it had been a big one, I probably would have been blinded," he says.

A throwback to prehistoric times, with armored scales and a flat head, the paiches must come to the surface to breathe, making them easy targets for harpoon fishermen. But overfishing to meet demand for their delicious, flaky, boneless meat is wiping out paiche populations, and is now spurring efforts to save the fish, including a fish-farm venture that aims to provide local coca leaf growers with an alternative livelihood that does not fuel the illicit drug trade.

"This fish will be history in 10 to 15 years, unless something is done," says Fausto Hinostroza, who runs the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon, where Mr. Tapullima works.

Mr. Hinostroza's center has partnered with the Ucayali state government to work on a fish-farming plan that would repopulate lakes with paiches, while creating opportunities to sell the fish for its meat.

How the program works

Together they have set up floating cages in a lake upriver from Pucallpa, to house baby paiches. The program has a few thousand fish in each cage, with the goal of reaching a constant population of 8,000 paiches per cage. This may not seem like much, but with each fish reaching up to 25 pounds in a year, authorities believe that they will harvest enough paiche meat annually to satisfy local demand and begin exporting.

Edwin Vasquez, who left office as governor of Ucayali on Jan. 2, says marketing studies done by government agencies show that paiche steaks can sell for around $20 a pound in European and US gourmet markets. "This is an economic opportunity for communities that have few options," he says.

Mr. Vasquez believes that if the Imiria project is successful, similar efforts will pop up in the region. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), through one of its partner organizations, has contributed one-fifth of the $250,000 cost of the program as part of its anti-drug work in Peru.

The state of Ucayali is part of a jungle belt where coca, from which cocaine is processed, is grown.

The cost of the fish-farming project is only a small drop in USAID's $48.5 million alternative development budget to fight illicit crops in Peru in 2006. As a result of a multi-pronged strategy promoted by USAID – which includes helping to provide alternative crops, building infrastructure, and helping growers produce products rather than merely sell raw materials – coca crops in Aguaytia, the principal coca-growing zone in Ucayali, have fallen from 15,000 to around 2,225 acres out of 119,000 acres nationwide.

Peru – the world's second-largest coca-growing country after Colombia – produced approximately 180 tons of cocaine in 2005, according to UN statistics. The National Police seized and destroyed 16.7 tons of cocaine and cocaine paste in the first three quarters of 2006.