Category Archives: Features

Saving Mexico’s most totemic chilli

A plague of whiteflies descended on the Martínez family’s fields of yellow, red, and deep purple chilhuacle in southern Mexico two decades ago. Chilhuacle is the star chilli in several versions of Oaxaca’s signature dish ­– mole – and cooks had long paid a premium for the chilli’s unique smoke and citrus flavours. But its cost was about to climb higher.

The chilhuacle is not important to filling Mexican bellies the way corn and beans are. It is important for different reasons, closer to how halva marks death in some Muslim cultures or Easter eggs mark resurrection in Christianity. At Day of the Dead and other festive occasions Mexicans eat black mole, a sauce whose smoky, ashy flavour centuries-old texts ascribe to chilhuacle.

The chilli’s cultural weight attracted a Mexico City chef and a Oaxaca plant biologist, who began visiting Félix Martínez and other growers in the region, the Cañada de Oaxaca. Since then, a loose-knit mix of locals and outsiders have financed planting costs, worked with growers to develop pest-resistant production methods, and even begun experimenting with growing chilhuacle elsewhere.

The rest of this feature and photos are available at Rethink Magazine: [html] [pdf].

Photo: IBLI

How Kenya’s herders got their livestock insured

When the rains failed to come last year in central Isiolo County, Kenya, Mohamed Dahir figured he might lose 40% of his herd of 400 sheep and goats. Like several million other pastoralists in northern Kenya and across the border in Somalia and Ethiopia, Dahir and his herd live migrating between pastures.

Dahir did indeed lose some animals, but he received a payout from an emerging kind of livestock insurance: based on predictions of vegetation growth in the area and how many animals that might harm, his index-based livestock insurance policy gave him 50,000 Kenyan shillings (about £370) in cash before the drought and its consequences really settled in. He was able to buy enough hay from distant counties to save 95% of his herd.

Index-based livestock insurance gets its name from the ecological indices used to calculate it, such as rainfall and vegetation growth. It now covers over 15,000 Kenyans in both commercial and government-issued varieties. The Kenyan programmes, established by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), a CGIAR research centre in Nairobi, have paid out several times including a record US$2.2 million (£1.7 million) in early 2017.

But it took several tries and careful tuning to different communities across Kenya to create the livestock insurance policy. The insurance will probably require constant updating in the face of climate change and other shifts affecting its target population and the ecosystem in which they live.

Read the rest of this feature at Rethink: [html] [pdf].

Trial and error in a Mexican beach town

When general store owner Melchor Villanueva leans on his countertop he can see his whole world under his hands. The counter’s glass surface displays photos of his community: young soccer players, teens in their coming-of-age quince años finest, and bandanna-wearing fishermen. Many descend from survivors of Hurricane Janet, which in 1955 killed a third of the population of Xcalak, a beach town on the Mexico-Belize border, and destroyed the town’s coconut plantations. “It left only sand,” Villanueva recalls. Continue reading

Palliative care: The other opioid issue

When pharmacologist Ravindra Ghooi learned in 1996 that his mother had terminal breast cancer, he began to investigate whether he could obtain morphine, in case she needed pain relief at the end of her life. But a morphine prescription in India at that time, even for the dying, was a rare thing: most states required four or five different licences to buy painkillers such as morphine, and there were harsh penalties for minor administrative errors. Few pharmacies stocked opioids and it was a rare doctor who held the necessary paperwork to prescribe them. Ghooi, who is now a consultant at Cipla Palliative Care and Training Centre in Pune, used his connections to ask government and industry officials if there was a straightforward way of obtaining morphine for his mother. “Everybody agreed to give me morphine,” he recalls, “but they said they’d give it to me illegally.”  Continue reading