In developed and developing countries all over the world, indigenous farmers and communities hold traditional knowledge, expertise, skills and practices related to environmental management and food security as well as to agricultural production and diversity.
Traditional farming, fishing, pastoralism/herding, foraging and forestry are based on long established knowledge systems and practices that help to ensure food and agricultural diversity, valuable landscape and seascape features, livelihoods and food security.
For millennia, these have provided rural communities with the necessary resilience to counter challenges and ensure survival. However, traditional livelihoods and indigenous plant varieties, landraces and animal breeds are now increasingly endangered by factors such as large-scale commercialization of agriculture, population dynamics, politico-economic discrimination, land-use/cover changes and the impacts of climate change.
Cassava cultivation and production of food resources from the raw material have been part and parcel of the Kalinago experience for a very long time.
There is no evidence to suggest that cassava was known to the Old World before the European conquest of the New World (Americas). To support the indigenous entitlement to the produce, there is archaeological evidence of two major centres of origin for this crop; one in Mexico and Central America, and the other in northeastern Brazil.
The historical records reveal that the first Portuguese settlers found the native Indians in Brazil growing the cassava plant. Pierre Martyr wrote in 1494 that the “poisonous roots” of a yucca were used in the preparation of bread.
It is therefore logical to propose that the Kalinago people transported the Cassava plant to Wai’tukubuli from the Southern continent over a thousand (1000) years ago. In every sense of the word cassava was among the most valued food of the Kalinago people, and was always an important part of their daily diet.
The Kalinago people employed various methods of preparation of Cassava according to the specific purposes and thus the crop can be roasted, boiled or baked. Nonetheless, it is most commonly used to make Cassava Bread through a traditional process, and to make Farine; the fiber of the Cassava after the starch was removed.
Types of Cassava
There are two varieties of cassava – sweet and bitter. Both contain Prussic acid (hydrocyanic acid), which can cause cyanide poisoning. Cooking or pressing the root thoroughly removes the poison. Cassava can never be eaten raw.
Bitter, or wild, cassava contains enough acid so that it can be fatally poisonous if eaten raw or undercooked. To escape the Conquistadors, the oppressed natives were known to commit suicide by eating raw cassava.
How is Cassava Prepared and Eaten
Cassava is incredibly versatile; it can be boiled, baked, steamed, grilled, fried, mashed or added to stews. Frequently, it is served with meat, sprinkled with salt, pepper and lime juice. Many recipes call for it to be grated. When cooked, it turns yellow, slightly translucent, a little sweet, and chewy.
The root can also be made into a ground meal or flour by washing, peeling and grating it, and then pressing out the juice and drying the meal. The meal can be bought already prepared and frozen. On the French influenced islands, cassava meal is known as farine, a shortened form of farine de manioc.
Grated bitter yuca is used to make casabe, which is a traditional crisp, unleavened, flat bread popular in the Dominican Republic. In the United States, casabe is sold in specialty markets because bitter cassava is not available and it takes time and skill – a true Caribbean artisan bread; it’s as crisp as a cracker. The bread is sold in plastic bags or wrapped in paper and tied with a string. In the French speaking islands the bread is called pain de kassav and in the Spanish speaking islands it is called pan de casabe.
The indigenous people developed a method of extracting poisonous Prussic acid from the bitter cassava to make the bread. It involves peeling, washing, grating, and pressing using a matapie (hanging sack). The pressing removes the poisonous liquid. Once separated from the juice, the pulp is dried in the sun and then made into bread or wrapped in banana leaves for storage. The process was laborious and whole villages would take part in the preparations. The poisonous liquid was then used to spike their hunting spears and arrows.
It has been proposed that cassava was introduced to the western coast of Africa in about the 16th Century by slave merchants. The Portuguese were said to have brought it later to their stations around the mouth of the Congo River, and it then spread to other areas. In 1854 the explorer Livingstone described the preparation of cassava flour in Angola, and subsequently Stanley described its use in the Congo. Cassava cultivation appeared to increase after 1850 in the east African territories as a result of the efforts of Europeans and Arabs who were pushing into the interior and who recognized its value as a safeguard against the frequent periods of famine.
In the Far East, cassava was not known as a food plant until 1835. In about 1850 it was transported directly from Brazil to Java, Singapore and Malaya. When the more profitable rubber plantations were started on the Malay Peninsula, cassava growing moved to other parts of Indonesia where it flourished. During the period 1919-41 about 98 percent of all cassava flour was produced in Java, but during the Second World War Brazil increased and improved its production.
The cassava plant is a perennial that grows under cultivation to a height of about 2.4 metres. The large, palmate leaves ordinarily have five to seven lobes borne on a long slender petiole. They grow only toward the end of the branches. As the plant grows, the main stem forks, usually into three branches which then divide similarly. The roots or tubers radiate from the stem just below the surface of the ground. Feeder roots growing vertically from the stem and from the storage roots penetrate the soil to a depth of 50-100 cm. This capacity of the cassava plant to obtain nourishment from some distance below the surface may help to explain its growth on inferior soils.