Amaranth is one of the world’s oldest crops, having been domesticated in Mesoamerica 6,000-8,000 years ago (before that, it was gathered from the wild). It was particularly important for the Aztecs, who cultivated it on a large scale. After Europeans colonized the Americas, amaranth production declined dramatically and, today, it is grown only on a small scale. Several of the 60-70 species in the genus Amaranthus are cultivated around the world for their edible leaves and/or seeds. The species most often grown as a grain are Amaranthus cruentus, A. hypochondriacus, and A. caudatus. The latter is native to the Andes Mountains, where its drought- and cold-tolerance have made it an important food source for millennia.
Amaranth is generally known as kiwicha among Quechua-speaking peoples, but in Chuquisaca Department, southern Bolivia, it is called quimy. In Bolivia, amaranth grows in valleys at an elevation of 1,800-2,800 meters above sea level, with temperatures ranging from -15 to 19 degrees Celsius. Chuquisaca is Bolivia’s leading producer of amaranth but many of the varieties grown here are not native to the region: The Peruvian varieties Cotahuasi and Oscar Blanco (a variety of A. hypochondriacus) are widely cultivated because they yield more than native varieties. However, farmers in Sopachuy, El Villar, and Alcalá (municipalities in central Chuquisaca) allow local varieties to grow spontaneously around the margins of their fields. The local varieties in this area include Tomina (another name for Alcalá) and Pucatá (named for a local peasant community). Like wild amaranth, these varieties produce black and pink seeds in addition to the pale seeds common to most commercial varieties. Plants with black seeds are the rarest, and are traditionally harvested for personal use. Local amaranth grows to a height of 1.6 meters and the seedheads are 30-40 centimeters long. Each seed is less than a millimeter in diameter. Farmers in Chuquisaca typically sow amaranth at a rate of 3 kilograms of seed per hectare. Once ripe, the panicles are harvested into jute bags and brought into canvas tents to dry for 3-4 days, and then beaten with wooden sticks to remove the seeds from the cob. If stored properly, amaranth has a shelf life of up to 3 years. In Chuquisaca, amaranth features in a range of dishes and recipes, including api (a drink made from toasted amaranth, sugar, and hot milk), bread, soups and stews (such as masa morra), and a spicy, creamy sauce known simply as picante, which accompanies meat and potatoes.
Though black amaranth yields less than the introduced Cotahuasi and Oscar Blanco varieties (600 kg/ha as opposed to 800-1,000 kg/ha or more), it requires less water and nutrients and is more resistant to diseases, pests, and drought, and is easier to harvest. It is rich in iron, calcium, lysine, and protein. In recent years, producers in El Villar, Alcalá, and Sopachuy have increasingly devoted attention to cultivating and promoting native amaranth varieties: Today there are 200-300 producers, cultivating just a few hectares. Their work is critical to ensuring that local amaranth is not displaced by introduced varieties that are nutritionally inferior and more susceptible to the changing conditions brought on by climate change.