Ishpingo is a plant native to Ecuador and Colombia, “Ecuadorian Cinnamon” as some call it, has a spicy cinnamon flavour. It is smokier and tends to rest on the tongue a bit longer, smoldering with a sweet and spicy goodness that can accompany any beverage or be enjoyed alone. Ishpingo is thought to have been used for flavoring by people native to the amazon since Incan times, but as a product it has not yet spread to many markets outside of its amazonian territory.
The question we have been asking ourselves: Why is traditional cinnamon such a successful global commodity while Ishpingo is largely confined to a small part of the amazon?
Is Ishpingo too difficult to cultivate?
Does it require vast amounts of labour for only a small yield?
Would Ishpingo exportation be environmentally detrimental?
Is it able to be preserved, and does flavour become tarnished when the plant is preserved?
Is Ishpingo just not as sexy as traditional cinnamon?
And most importantly, would the farmers, here in Ecuador, benefit from international Ishpingo consumption?
Essentially, is it a viable product that people should and could be drinking around the world? Or is it just not economically or environmentally viable for exportation?
Over the past few months Runa’s curiosity about Ishpingo has grown into a full blown investigation. Two weeks ago me and Ethnobotany intern Elena Peterman set out on a voyage with four large polymer bags, the name “Runa” stitched in black on the sides. We hoped to fill each one and come back with 200 pounds of the enigmatic Ishpingo leaf. We accompanied Gonzalo Torres, Runa Tarpuna’s chief of production, to a community called Puni Ishpingo. About 45 minutes outside of Tena we arrived at a muddy trailhead, our entrance into the realm of Ishpingo. We hiked for about 20 minutes, over and under fallen trees, aside a lazy crystal blue stream, through mud and water and uphill the entire way. It was awesome.
We met the family of farmers in their chakras, and after a greeting we all turned to their large Ishpingo tree. One of the farmers, Enrique, plucked a sharp green leaf, carefully tearing it from the branch by the base of the stem. He offered it to me, and with an emphatic chomping motion made sure I knew to chew the stem and not the leaf. I laughed and then did as he suggested, the powerful flavor surged into my mouth with the slightest chew. Apparently my eyes widened because Enrique gave me a laugh and slap on the shoulder. It seemed as if he too was at a loss for why more people had not had the opportunity to taste this powerful plant. Throughout the day I switched back and forth from taking pictures and de-leafing the branches, as Enrique skillfully maneuvered through the branches above, lopping off large sections of the tree that fell to the grown to be de-leafed. The entire time an Ishpingo stem between my teeth, I was already hooked on the creamy spice, similar to something I had tried many times but also so much different from anything I ever had.
We shucked Ishpingo leaves in the shade for about 2 hours, shared some laughs, and slowly our huge bags filled to the brim with bright green leaves. We returned to the Runa pickup truck by the same way we had came, but this time with 40 pound bags slung over our shoulders. Aside from almost tumbling into the river a few times we made it out unscathed and sweaty. Gonzalo paid the family for their Ishpingo and we were on our way back to home base with a whole lot of leaves.
On the car ride back Gonzalo explained to me the silent research he was conducting during our time gathering leaves. Gonzalo was recording and calculating the cost of labour it took to produce our (almost) 200 pound yield. He broke it down for me, explaining that since the eight of us worked 2 hours to produce 200 pounds, that equaled 16 hours of labour in total. Taking into consideration the labour required for Ishpingo production, Runa now must ask ourselves if the price we are paying the farmers is fair. Are they receiving enough income to justify the time they put in to cultivate the plant?
Of course there are many other factors to consider when deciding if a product is fit for international markets, but our concern is with the welfare of the producers. The ultimate goal is to assist local farmers to obtain an additional source of income while creating a sustainable production and trading system that allows everyone in the supply chain to benefit.
We are excited about the possibilities that Ishpingo may have for farmers, Runa Tarpuna, and of course the future consumers of the delicious amazonian cinnamon!
Social Impact Storyteller -intern