Salt of the earth

| 15th December 2005
Half way between Cusco and the lost city of Machu Picchu lies the ancient artery of Inca trade and production - the salt terraces. For over 1,000 years little has changed for the salt farmers of Maras. Now, thanks to a clumsy, unnecessary and potentially dangerous attempt at mass medication, this traditional livelihood is at risk. By James Frankham.

It looks like a vast marble staircase; 4550 terraces of salt, tumbling down the hillside to the town below. As the mineral-rich water runs from one evaporation pool to the next, it colours each differently, from subtle greens to ochres and greys. Some glisten white like snow, first-grade salt ready to be harvested. Others are tawny puddles still being warmed by the sun. It is also the only place on the planet where salt is harvested on terraces rather than evaporated from sea-water pans.

For centuries the farmers sold the salt in the towns and villages throughout the valley. Until recently they were making 12 soles (£2) a bag. Then in 2002 the government decreed that all salt must be iodised, and the farmers were required to sell their stock to Sal Yodada Marasal, ‘The Company’, for processing. Now they receive between 3.50 and 6 soles for 50 kilograms – less than £1 for each sack.

It’s a meagre income, even in Peru.

Camilo and Jose have tended their baños several times in the last month; adding water, harvesting the salt and grading it into three classes required by The Company: Extra, for consumption, primera for baking and tercera which is used for animal feed and fertiliser. Between them they have carted nearly three tonnes of salt to the depot this morning, the month’s net product. It will earn them around 40 soles (£6.90) each for their families.

William Flor sifts salt from the terrace he has worked since a child into a pile that will be shovelled into 50kg sacks.

Iodising salt... is it necessary?

In 1995 the World Health Assembly adopted the concept of universal salt iodization (USI) - the iodization of salt for human and livestock consumption - in order to eliminate iodine deficiency disease (IDD) and its related disorders such as goitre, cretinism and neurological disorders in children and myxedema in adults. As a result countries around the world, including Peru, now routinely require all salt to contain added iodine.

The problem is that iodising salt is a crude form of prevention more appropriate for those living in conditions of famine. People eating a relatively well balanced diet are not at risk of iodine deficiency because iodine is widely available in sea fish, shell fish, eggs, cereal grains, legumes and dairy products from cows fed with iodised salt. Certain food additives also contain iodine.

Enforced medication with iodized salt adds greatly to our iodine intake and as a result people in the West are risking iodine overload. As much as 75% of the body's iodine is stored in the thyroid gland and is used for the production of hormones that regulate metabolism. Too much iodine and levels of these hormones can become dangerously unbalanced leading to metabolic as well as immune disorders.

In Japan and the US where intake of iodized salt is highest, the problems of excess iodine are responsible for serious problems such as including thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid) and hyperthyroid (an overactive thyroid) which can produce, among others, symptoms of increased heart rate and blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), excessive sweating, hand tremors (shakiness), nervousness and anxiety, difficulty sleeping (insomnia).

After a month's working on the terrace, the farmers load the raw salt onto the backs of donkeys to be carried up the hill to the warehouse of Sal Yodada Marasal, 'The Company' as it is known.

Half a world away the product of their families sells as ‘Salt of the Incas’ in the supermarkets of Japan – it goes for around £1.40 for a one-kilogram bag. In between, someone is making £1.37 on that kilogram of Maras salt. Meanwhile the 300 salt workers, already some of the poorest workers in Peru, receive just 2 per cent of the product’s market value to feed their families.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2005