New entrepreneurship scents for the San Martin Region

PERU-Hub traveled to Mexico to learn about natural vanilla cultivation techniques.

Written by: Janet Mori 

Head of PERU-Hub’s Communications office

Dr. Raul Blas went to Mexico to look for the black gold and bring it to Peru. As a special envoy of PERU-Hub, his first mission was successful. He verified that there are great possibilities of bringing a product of great value, considered in ancient times as a sacred element by the Aztecs, to the lands of the Peruvian Amazon.

We are referring to vanilla, whose flavor is the most popular in the world and is a must in supermarkets. More than 18,000 products contain its aroma around the world and this means that its demand is very high. However, Dr. Blas’ task was to learn about the development of Mexican vanilla cultivation technologies in order to implement similar models in the Pucayacu farm, headquarters of Universidad Nacional Agraria in Tarapoto, where he plans to plant his coveted seed.

To fulfill the mission, Dr. Raul Blas, PERU-Hub’s principal researcher, traveled to the State of Veracruz, cradle of the pre-Hispanic Totonaca culture, discoverer of this exquisite plant (long before the Spaniards brought it to the Old World) and which was venerated in their religious traditions. The first activity to learn about the production of the “black gold” was through an internship called “Cultural exchange and sustainable production of Mexican vanilla for Peruvians, organized by the NGO ” Conservación Internacional”. It is important to mention that this exchange was possible thanks to the efforts of Dr. Rebeca Menchaca, specialist of Vanilla in Mexico, from the Universidad Veracruzana.

Dr. Raúl Blas, PERU-Hub principal investigator, visits one of the pyramids of El Tajín, a pre-Columbian city in Veracruz. The project values the ancestral knowledge of the Aztecs in the natural cultivation of vanilla, whose technology developed in Mexico for its production is expected to be transferred to the Amazon region of San Martin.
On the far left, engineer Marco García and on the far right, Dr. Raúl Blas, flanking a student from Switzerland and Norma Gaya, manager of the Gaya company, the largest vanilla producer in Mexico.

A total of 16 Peruvians participated in this event, including representatives of the native community “Awajun”, producers of Moyobamba and representatives of the regional government of San Martin, as well as Dr. Blas and agronomist Marco Garcia, who also traveled to Mexico as part of the PERU-Hub team. Enthusiastic about the learning received in this exchange, the Peruvian delegation decided to stay more days in Veracruz to let themselves be carried away by the sweet aromas that lead to the vanilla route, a product of which Mexico has the denomination of origin.

This interesting mission continued with visits to the municipalities of Xalapa (capital of the State of Veracruz), Papantla (Cuyuxquihui, Pajin, San Antonio de Ojital Emilio Zapata, el Ojital), Zozocolco, Gutierrez Zamora and Coyutla.

The main activities carried out in these municipalities included visits to plots of land to observe traditional and agroforestry seed management, and a visit to the Cosecha Totonaca company, where vanilla production was observed under mesh with bamboo tutors, arranged on trellises. In both Papantla and Zozocolco, the use of erythrin as a vanilla tutor was analyzed, which is required for shade management and the application of organic matter to the soil and/or leaves from the forest. In Xanath, vanilla was planted in a natural system that does not use manual pollination. In Xalapa, a visit was made to the in-vitro propagation laboratory where the vanilla germplasm bank is kept. A technical meeting was also held in Xalapa to learn about the legislation and the experience of sustainable exploitation. In Gutiérrez Zamora, a tour was made of the Gaya plant, the largest vanilla company in Mexico.

Peruvian delegation visiting the municipality of Gutiérrez Zamora, Veracruz. Here the tour began with a gastronomic-cultural exchange between the countries of Mexico-Peru-Brazil and Switzerland, with the participation of the mayor of the city.
Delegation enjoying a traditional breakfast in Papantla.

If the mission’s starting point was to learn more about the seed, as well as the production, processing and marketing of this plant in the sister country of North America, Dr. Blas and Mr. Garcia were more than satisfied, also because these visits included interviews with researchers from the University of Veracruz, government officials, planters and Mexican businessmen.

With this valuable information, what will PERU-Hub do to introduce the alternative cultivation of this seed in the San Martin Region? Before transferring the knowledge to the beneficiaries of the project, we will first analyze the technology used in Mexico and its application in the high jungle. It is not for nothing that Dr. Blas has returned to Peru with a directory of small producers, associations, professionals, companies and vanilla traders that he met in Veracruz and with whom PERU-Hub will be in permanent contact. Furthermore, talks are well underway to establish cooperation agreements for the development of vanilla cultivation technology and research with the Universidad Veracruzana, and with the Gaya and Gaya-Maya companies.

Vanilla plantations in Veracruz are carried out through forest regeneration, agroforestry, semi-intensive and greenhouse systems. In terms of fertilization, the best production is obtained with a mixture of leaf litter and soil from the forest, or a mixture of leaf litter and compost. Seeds are used asexually and a minimum of 50% shade is needed for growth. As in Peru, drought is also a major problem in Mexico, as it affects yield and quality. Frequent irrigation is recommended, mainly by micro-sprinkling, without saturating the surface.

The mission to bring the Black Gold to the Peruvian Amazon is not over. As an innovation and technology transfer project of Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, PERU-Hub is committed to continue working to promote vanilla and its derivatives as an alternative resource in the San Martin Region, for commercialization and export. Especially, if the demand for real vanilla is increasing in the world (Europe, for example) and large companies are joining the all-natural trend. This first trip opens the door to new opportunities and new scents of entrepreneurship for the San Martin Region.

In 2021, Hurricane Grace devastated the vanilla crops in Papantla, Veracruz, affecting 50% of the production of cooperative producers in this region, mainly because of the flowers that were knocked down by the strong winds. The vanilla plantations in Veracruz are currently in the process of recovery.