The Strength of the Tucumán Women

A new Presidium for goat’s cheese and the fight against monocultures for a truly Argentinian future

“Our land cannot be bought. There is no amount of money that is worth our houses, our fields, our lives.”

There is no shadow of doubt in Maria Antonia Brito’s tone of voice. She and Elisabeth Noemi Medina are slight in stature and seemingly shy, but their eyes and their stories reveal all the energy poured into a battle they have been fighting for years, in which they are finally starting to see results. Both goat farmers, they live in Tucumán, Argentina’s smallest region, and belong to the new Slow Food Tucumán Goat’s Cheese Presidium.

The region was long inhabited by Inca peoples dedicated to raising livestock and cultivating crops, but their practices have been almost completely wiped out, first by colonization and then by heavy immigration. Agriculture still exists today, but is based almost exclusively on monocultures, with traditional activities barely surviving. Different varieties of corn, pumpkins, potatoes and quinoa and breeds of guanaco, llama and vicuña have gradually disappeared with the arrival of monocultures, particularly genetically modified soy, grown mostly in the southeast of the country.

“Resisting this new colonization is not simple, but it’s our duty” explains Maria, 45. “We have to do it not just so that our traditions don’t die, but also for our ecosystem and particularly so that our children and the future generations have land on which to live and to which they belong. My family has been rearing goats for generations, both for meat and to make traditional cheese. Over the years it has become more and more difficult to continue with our business: the hygiene regulations, the arrival of the big landowners, the floods and the environmental damage caused by monocultures, the GM crops and particularly the lack of water have certainly made it more appealing to sell our property and seek our fortune elsewhere. But I realized that I couldn’t do it: Thanks to the arrival of experts from the Family Farming Secretariat, the attention we have received from the Slow Food Foundation and the collaboration with a network of farmers and producers, mostly women, we have managed to create a total of four wells that bring water to our lands, to have electricity, to improve the hygiene of our production and to promote our product beyond the local market.”

Women seem to be the pillar of this society and this fight for the future of the country. Understanding the problem and what needs to be done and then rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it comes naturally to them. That’s what Elisabeth, also 45, did when she moved to the countryside to look after her mother-in-law. She had no background in agriculture, but she wanted to do something to bring water and income to the family’s property.

“I started years ago with 28 goats,” she recounts. “Even though I had always loved animals, I had never raised them. A cousin taught me how to milk the goats and care for them. My mother and my mother-in-law were the ones who taught me how to make cheese, though I’d always seen them do it, so it wasn’t completely new, it was part of our everyday meals. Now I hope that my sons, Jonathan and Marco, learn to love my work and want to continue it on our property. There are still many battles to fight to improve the production and living conditions, but the government, which is preparing for elections, is starting to listen to us and to launch programs for environmental safety and to help us with our business. The collaboration of the network we have created is fundamental: We are united by many problems, but also by the awareness of the importance of our land.”

The goat’s cheese is the tangible result of this network, and the Slow Food Foundation is helping the farmers to return to the traditional processing methods, to improve the quality of their product and to promote it at a regional level. This will be done through the creation of a new Presidium, participation in fairs and events and the involvement of chefs from the Slow Food Chefs’ Alliance, who will include the cheese on their restaurant menus.

“The cheese is made in the traditional manner, which has remained the same for generations,” explains Marta Nuñez, an expert working with the Presidium. “The women make the cheese, adding kid rennet to the milk, pressing the resulting curd in molds made from woven palmilla leaves and leaving the cheeses to dry for one or two days. The cheeses then dry for a week on straw mats called zarzos for different lengths of time. The diet of the goats and the processing method give the cheese a particular aroma, making it very special. But it is the fragrance of the wood that burns in the women’s kitchens, where the cheeses age, that makes the cheeses immediately recognizable and unique. We experts must help them to protect their work and understand its value. Thanks to their enthusiasm and their willpower everything is possible.”

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