Tipping the scales towards a better diet in Peru

Building future markets is an important component of the project.
Photo: M. Pazos

Piwi the Penguin lives in Peru. He is a Humboldt penguin, so called because of Humboldt current. This is a deep upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that sweeps through the South Pacific from Antarctica, bringing an abundance of marine life to the west coast of South America. Topping that cornucopia for Peru are anchovies, with annual catches averaging between 7 and 8 million tonnes, despite declines caused by El Niño. But since the 1950s, the anchovies have always ended up as fishmeal used as animal feed, despite being a rich source of nutrients for people.

This is where Piwi comes in.

"Piwi is furry, friendly and eats a lot of fish," explains Melva Pazos, the head of technical cooperation at Peru's national fish institute, the Instituto Tecnológico Pesquero. So the cartoon character has been drafted as a mascot for a project to encourage people to eat anchovies. The two-year project was launched in August 2000 with FAO support under its Technical Cooperation Programme.

The project is targeting five distinct audiences -- poor women who run soup kitchens in Limaís impoverished neighbourhoods; primary school children; doctors and health workers; the middle class and, of course, the suppliers -- the fishers themselves.

Size matters in the fish markets of Peru

Peruvians eat fish but, says Ms. Pazos, they like big, white ones. Moreover they have been told by their doctors that small, dark fish, like anchovies, are unsafe to eat. "Doctors tell people that anchovies make you sick," says Ms Pazos. "And this is true - but only because the fish handling is so bad that by the time the fish reach the market they are no longer fresh."

"Doctors tell people that anchovies make you sick. And this is true - but only because the fish handling is so bad that by the time the fish reach the market they are no longer fresh."

Processing anchovies is a new source of income for these impoverished women in Pisco. Photo: K. Iversen

So the project is working to educate people - and to improve fish handing. It has started with a 15-vessel artisanal fleet near Pisco, three hours from Lima, where there is a small anchovy processing plant. To break the habits of generations, the project began with the basics.

"We could have just bought new vessels for the fishermen," says Ms. Pazos. "But we didn't because we wanted them to learn how to handle fish properly and to adapt their boats to carry ice." FAO experts work with the 150 fishermen and with the 120 women at the processing plant, teaching them the basics of hygiene and quality control.

Once the fish are packed in ice in insulated vans, they are taken to Ventanilla, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lima, where they are distributed to the project's second target audience, primary school children - via the soup kitchens of the slums. Although Peru's economy has stabilized since the 1980s, half of its 26 million people live in extreme poverty, and malnutrition is endemic.

Anchovy - cheap, nutritious and not just for the poor

The government subsidizes the soup kitchens, and the fish institute decided to use them to offer anchovy-based meals and to provide training in fish preparation. "We didn't just supply ground anchovies and ask the women to disguise that as fish cakes," insists Ms. Pazos. "It's easy to make flour from poor-quality fish, but we believe that poor people should have high-quality food."

Peruvian anchovies are nutritious, cheap and tasty, says this poster in the dining room of a primary school in Lima. Photo: K. Iversen

It was also important, she says, not to stigmatize anchovies as the food of the poor. So young professionals were drafted to help prepare the meals, and the institute began a simultaneous campaign to convert the middle class to the fish by emphasizing the benefits of Omega 3 oil, which is highly concentrated in anchovies - it is good for stress and heart problems.

The project is also working with health workers in Ventanilla to teach them the benefits of eating properly treated anchovies. So far 189 health workers in the Lima region have been trained and other regional health departments are expressing an interest in the scheme.

Correcting the past and teaching the future

"Training the doctors will help take care of past misinformation," says Ms. Pazos. "But we also want our children to know about their country's natural resources." The institute is working with six primary schools in Ventanilla, providing fish lunches and, more importantly, "branding" anchovies as a tasty, fun meal - using Piwi.

Teachers tell the children stories about Piwi bringing a basket of anchovies to his grandmother. The children also take part in educational competitions and are taken on visits to the port to see how fish are caught. So far 1 100 children have been involved in the campaign, and Ms. Pazos is confident the message will spread further.

"We have enough anchovies to feed the population," she says. "Now fishers know how to produce the fish for humans. So if people want anchovies, they can have them. And they are starting to want them."

7 December 2001


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