Caption: NUTRITIOUS: Juan Mulder of Quimica Suiza, the Peruvian company marketing maca tablets, with a maca juice maker.

The worldwide Viagra craze has had an unexpected result in Peru, helping a high-altitude plant in danger of extinction find new life.

Maca, a small, Andean root belonging to the radish family, was in danger of disappearing in the early 1990's. With only 125 acres of the plant growing in its natural habitat, more than 13,000feet above sea level in the central Andes, maca was put on the endangered species list by the International Board of Genetic Resources. Peruvians in the highland departments of Pasco and Junin, however, never forgot about maca's beneficial properties, Maca is best known for stimulating sexual appetite, while famed for its high levels of proteins and vitamins. The maca root is dried and ground, then used to make everything from soups to alcoholic beverages. The leaves are brewed for tea.

Pharmaceutical companies in Peru became interested in maca several years ago because of its vitamins, but the advent of Viagra has changed the plant's future forever. From only a few acres in 1995, there are now about 1,500 acres of maca growing on a highland plateau between Cerro de Pasco and Junin, and the Agricultural Ministry expects an additional 5,000 acres to be planted this year.

"This is the perfect crop, because we don't even have to promote it. Private industry has moved right in and is doing the job for us," former Agriculture Minister Rodolfo Munante said. "I expect that we'll reach the maximum hectares possible, 50,000 [123,555 acres] , by early in the next century."

Munante's replacement as head of the Agriculture Ministry, Belisario de las Casas, has made it clear that he is a maca fan.

During his first press conference after being sworn in last week, de las Casas said that the Japanese government had approved the importation of maca in its natural form, adding that the Peruvian root would give Viagra a run for its money on the world market.

"I take maca and can attest to its invigorating powers," de las Casas said.

Maca contains potassium, iron, zinc, vitamin C, riboflavin and other minerals.

Quimica Suiza, the Peruvian pharmaceutical company that markets processed maca tablets, has jumped on the Viagra craze with creative advertising to push its natural version of the male wonder pill, known as Maca Andina. The ads show a picture of President Clinton, with a caption reading: "Has he been taking his Maca Andina everyday?

Quimica Suiza's general director, Juan Mulder, says maca "is a spectacular little plant. Besides its sexual-appetite component, it is high in nutrition. What's more, there is also an important social component to maca and our plans. Maca is the only crop that could become a cash crop where it grows, which is a very poor region."

Quimica Suiza began studying the pharmaceutical uses of maca in 1994. Mulder says the plant is a perfect dietary supplement, as well as a natural energy source for athletes. The company has already spent more than $1 million research and has started exporting the product in pill form on a small scale. This year, Quimica Suiza exported roughly $150,000 worth to Japan and is looking into the U.S. and the European markets.

The next big step, which Quimica Suiza is evaluating, is the construction of a processing plant in the area where maca is grown. This would cut down on transportation and processing costs in Lima, plus create jobs.

"Maca grows in a very isolated region. The only real source of work is in mining. By opening a plant we will create an interesting work opportunity for many, giving a traditional crop an added value," Mulder says.

Maca is only one of many native Peruvian products that are set to take on the world market, Munante says.

Peru, one of the world's most ecologically diverse nations, is home to 86 of the world's 103 identified ecological zones. While the coast, highlands and jungle offer a myriad of agricultural opportunities, Munante says, only 30 percent of the potential farmland is under production. The agriculture sector has been growing an average of 8 percent a year, accounting for roughly 12 percent of PeruÕs gross domestic product and employing 26 percent of the work force.

Agriculture nets the country nearly $800 million a year. Cotton, sugar and coffee are the main crops, with coffee accounting for nearly one-third of all export earnings in 1997, but nontraditional products are quickly gaining ground, and new alternative crops are grabbing the attention of both foreign and local investors.

Citrus is a potential big earner in both the jungle and coastal regions. Pending U.S. approval, which is expected soon, Peru will begin exporting citrus to the United States. Although the main exports will be oranges, grapefruits and lemons, a fruit grown only in Peru, camu camu, could make a splash on the international scene.

A grenade-shaped fruit native to the jungle region, camu camu has about 600 times more vitamin C than oranges. It is the rage among fitness buffs from Japan to France, and the two countries imported nearly all 4,000 tons produced in 1997.

Along the coast, the rising star is asparagus. From nearly nothing in 1990, asparagus now brings the country more than $120 million in export earnings.

"We have 3,500 varieties of potatoes, high-protein grains and fruits that have been cultivated here since before the Incas and it is time for us to begin to take advantage of our resources,"Munante says. "It's a shame that the world does not know our products."

Monday, January 11, 1999
Section: Business Monday
Edition: Final
Page: 13
By LUCIEN O, CHAUVIN, Special to The Herald


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