Julie Kunen, PhD, oversees conservation activities in 15 countries, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, as the Vice President of the Americas program for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). With a decades-long career in conservation, academia, and development, she is committed to uniting the worlds of food, sustainability, and conservation.

Most recently Kunen helped launch in 2015 the Rainforest to Table program, which focuses on connecting the worlds of conservation, food production, and culinary arts in order to create a more sustainable and equitable food system in the Amazon. The program brings together leading Latin American chefs, conservation experts, and local activists and entrepreneurs to strategize about how to make gastronomy an agent for change, benefitting forests and local communities in the Amazon.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Kunen about her work and her passion for food, conservation, and Latin America.

Food Tank (FT): Do you see your conservation work around food as a shift in the traditional approach and scope of conservation work? How did this program develop?

Julie Kunen (JK): I see our work on food and conservation as an extension of what WCS and other conservation groups have traditionally worked on, and this extension can be seen in two major ways. First, community based conservation, in which indigenous or other traditional communities make sustainable use of the natural resources found in their territories, is an important and effective conservation approach. This is because these communities are stewards of very important lands and waters for conservation, but at the same time, of course they, like any other people, aspire to a better, more secure, and resilient life for themselves and their children and must find ways to support themselves. So, activities like production of bird-friendly coffee or sustainable fishing are also actions that support conservation. My organization, WCS, has long supported indigenous and traditional communities to secure their rights and strengthen the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of supply chains for well-known products like coffee or cacao, but also less well-known products like paiche (fish), caiman (crocodile), or plant extracts (for cocktails bitters) from the Amazon.

Second, we know that destruction of tropical forests to clear the way for industrial agricultural production of commodities like palm oil or soy or to create pastures for cattle ranching is a major driver of global climate change because of the carbon emissions from burning those forests, not to mention the methane produced by the cattle themselves. And even when ranching or farming is done at a family-scale, it can still conflict with the needs of wildlife, such as when a top predator like a jaguar kills a calf because there is very little wild prey left for it to eat, or when grazing ungulates like guanaco (the wild ancestor of the llama, which lives in Patagonia) compete with sheep and goats for grass. Our work on food and conservation tries to address these issues at both ends. We’d like to encourage agricultural and ranching practices that are viable economically, but friendlier to wildlife. At the same time, we want to influence people’s food choices towards pro-conservation options, such as eating less meat.

The Rainforest to Table initiative, founded by Forest Trends, Canopy Bridge, WCS, and the restaurant group Amaz, grew out of these existing efforts and was spurred by our real love of food and the recognition that connecting people to conservation through their palates was very powerful because it is pleasurable.

FT: How do you connect your passions of conservation and love of food in your work? How do they relate to each other in your Rainforest to Table program?

JK: For me the connection is very personal because I’m such a foodie. I always joke that my favorite moment of the day is when I am at home, eating a great dish that I’ve made while reading the food section of The New York Times and talking with my husband about what we are going to cook next! A couple of years ago, I sat down to reflect on my career path and try to find ways to more closely meld my personal passions, which include cooking and gardening, eating well, connecting to other cultures through food and travel, and supporting our local farms and farmers, with what I do for a living, and I realized that my whole professional life has actually been lived in this intersection.

Thinking about food and conservation together suddenly gave a logical frame to many different aspects of my development as a professional—from research on agave cultivation in the Precolumbian American southwest to my PhD studies of ancient Maya agriculture, to a project I did on kitchen gardens in Costa Rica, to international development work on sustainable coffee and cacao production, to my current work on wildlife conservation. In that frame it all made sense—eating well and from a diverse palate of locally available choices is itself a conservation strategy. And food and conservation (#foodandconservation) became a major focus of my work.

Rainforest to Table is a movement uniting chefs, conservationists, and communities to promote Amazonian gastronomy, conservation, and community development. It is a collective effort to “rebrand” the Amazon as a delicious, nutritious, and valuable global pantry, with highly regarded chefs, who are trendsetters and cultural influencers in their countries, as ‘brand ambassadors.’ The full name of the initiative is actually Cumari: Rainforest to Table. Cumari is a word in the native American Guarani language for a type of hot pepper, and it also means happiness. It is the brainchild of several colleagues in the conservation world, including Michael Jenkins at Forest Trends, and Marta Echavarria and Jacob Olander at Canopy Bridge, and pioneering chefs like Kamila Seidler of Gustu in La Paz and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino of Amaz and Malabar in Lima.

The idea is to increase the value of the Amazon by introducing chefs and diners in Latin America’s great cities to the diversity of foods from the Amazon, including fruits, spices, nuts, peppers, fish, and many other ingredients. Doing so helps urban residents identify with and care about the Amazon, so it isn’t just a vast blank spot on their mental map, an empty frontier good for nothing but mines or oil wells or dams. But this movement also has more practical implications, because we are helping build sustainable businesses that provide income for local producers, support sustainable supply chains, and provision an exciting evolution in Latin American gastronomy.

FT: Part of your program is partnering with chefs and local communities. What has the experience of working with them taught you about food and its cultural importance?

JK: I trained as an anthropologist so I have long appreciated the centrality of food to culture and identity. And in Latin America especially, families, friends, and communities gather around meals—lingering, talking, socializing in a way we in the U.S. often feel too rushed to make time for; and food is a major element of rituals and marks social milestones. Working with chefs has taught me how deeply these artists respect and delight in good ingredients and how curious and questing they are in exploring new flavors and creating new dishes on their menus. Also how seriously they take their role in defining a new Amazon gastronomy and their important role in presenting this aspect of their country’s culture to their guests. But then they have to meld that delight with the practicalities of a business and think about, ok, how can I ship that to my restaurant, what about cold storage and phyto-sanitary permits and how much will it cost to serve it? It’s hard to do all of that!

FT: How do you address the issues of biodiversity and economic development in conservation work? How does your program navigate these issues?

JK: That’s a big question. Part of WCS’s mission is to inspire people to value nature, and we envision a world in which societies embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on earth. Biodiversity and economic development have to go hand-in-hand if we want a sustainable outcome for people and for the planet over the long term. There is no other option. That’s why the Sustainable Development Goals which were adopted by the global community at the U.N. in 2016 emphasize not just ending poverty and hunger but also supporting life on land and in the seas, and responsible consumption and production. WCS supports the SDGs at a global scale and our work in the field is on-the-ground evidence of that commitment. I’m thinking, for example, of our efforts to empower indigenous communities in the Amazon – to gain legal title to their lands, to zone them for economic production and protection, to partake in their administration, and to control them against illegal incursions.

FT: What are some ways people outside of Latin America can help support your programs conservation efforts?  

JK: By being thoughtful in what they choose to eat! Whether you want to reduce your carbon footprint, avoid the inhumane treatment of animals, or support a local system of farms and farmers, there are good food choices to be made. As I’ve written elsewhere, in being thoughtful, environmental sustainability can be a delicious choice. When you dine out, look for restaurants run by chefs who are committed to sustainability—a little online research will identify them—or use an app like Seafood Watch to help you choose good seafood items on the menu. Also, when traveling, choose community-run eco-options if your taste runs to ecotourism. For example, The New York Times recently ran a story on ecotourism in the Brazilian Amazon describing both an environmentally unfriendly option of interacting with pink river dolphins in a totally inappropriate way, but also a fantastic community-run ecolodge, Uakari, which I’ve had the pleasure to visit, that supports a really important protected area in Brazil. And of course visit the restaurants of the chefs involved in our Rainforest to Table movement, many of which can be found on lists like the World’s 50 Best, or direct your charitable giving to conservation groups leading this movement.

FT: In your opinion, what is the current state of the Amazon food movement? What is its future?

JK: I’ve listened to a lot of discussions lately in the food-focused media and social media about the challenges of cultural appropriation of foodways and the labeling of certain cuisines as ‘ethnic’ food, but I’m really excited about where Amazonian gastronomy is now, because its growing reputation is coming from the attention given to it by Latin American chefs in Latin American countries whose territories encompass the Amazon.

I also think high-end gastronomy — and some of the chefs involved run really high-end restaurants, so the whole enterprise could be labelled as rather elitist — can point the way with leading-edge cooking that will then drive tastes and eating choices in more mass market contexts. I think in the not-distant future we will see Amazon-focused fast-casual restaurants, with more Amazonian ingredients entering the marketplace as acai did, and much more global familiarity with ingredients. I mean, I can now buy paiche, a delicious and sustainably harvested Amazonian fish that is an emblem of that river system, at Whole Foods.

Finally, my colleagues and I are so excited about the future of Amazon foods that we are organizing an event called Amazon Meets NYC in 2018, which will bring a group of Latin American chefs to New York City to engage in culinary dialogue with New York chefs, cooking with them in their kitchens to create meals based on Amazon ingredients. There will be dinners, a cocktail reception, a street food walk, and a symposium on Amazon food and conservation.  Stay tuned for more information as the event gets closer.