Chiapas mushroom poisonings point to ecological crisis

We noted one year ago a heart-rending case of indigenous peasants in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas dying after eating a stew of apparently poisonous mushrooms. The peasants were driven by hunger and failed harvests to gather wild mushrooms (which have little nutritional value in any case). Another such tragic case was reported earlier this month, with the ominous conclusion that the mushrooms of Chiapas are mutating—explaining how indigenous inhabitants who know the local flora intimately could make such a fatal error. From AP, Aug. 4:

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ — Mexican authorities say a seven-year-old boy and his father have died after eating poisonous mushrooms in Chiapas state. That brings to ten the number of Indian family members killed after eating the wild mushrooms.

The victims from the community of Tenejapa had eaten a soup made with wild mushrooms. Eight other relatives died earlier in the week.

Wild mushrooms flourish during the rainy season in the rural forests and jungles of Chiapas, and are a common dietary staple for mostly Indian families. But recent genetic mutations have made some forms of mushrooms consumed for years in Indian communities newly poisonous.

Talli Nauman writing Aug. 14 in Mexico’s El Universal, finds that the mutations could be indicative of an ecological imbalance demanding urgent attention—and that merely banning mushrooms frm the indigenous markets of Chiapas is no answer:

Can you just say ‘no’ to good mushrooms gone bad?

As a wild mushroom hunter and consumer, I feel great empathy for the family who became the victim of fatal mushroom poisoning this month in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. A tragedy from misidentifying a mushroom or from other food poisoning could beset any family. But this one is especially poignant if indeed a genetic mutation of a species locally known to be edible is to blame.

While analysis of the toadstools that caused the deaths of the 10 indigenous family members in the community of Tenejapa may never be complete, the incident focuses attention on the fungus’ cultural and environmental role, raising reasonable fears about contamination of our food sources.

Mushrooms concentrate radioactive isotopes and toxic residues, such as heavy metals. After the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant catastrophe, wild mushrooms in the Ukraine are too charged with radioactive contamination to be eaten or used for medicinal purposes. Ukrainians are forced to get their mushrooms when they travel abroad.

That option may not be so easy for residents of traditional indigenous communities that rely on foraging for dietary variety, which is true of thousands throughout Mexico and the rest of the continent.

What to do? Since authorities took wild mushrooms off the Chiapas area market after the alarming spate of deaths, the obvious response seems to be avoidance of them. Their nutritional value is very low anyway, and savoring the memory of a tortilla loaded with a freshly sautéed batch cooked over a wood fire is much safer than risking a hearty helping, at this stage of the game.

Still, that does not resolve the problem of pollution’s pernicious impact on the things we know and love to eat.

Mushrooms in Mexican culture are not only a part of the steady diet in the subsistence economy and a culinary jewel in urban gastronomy. They are perhaps even more widely recognized as fundamental to the mystical rites of indigenous tradition.

Psychedelic mushrooms (legal until 1971) and their centrality in rural ethnic customs, as well as their impact on contemporary modes of thought in Mexico, are documented. Their use has been examined by intellectuals down through the years, ranging from Ignacio Ramírez Belmont and Heriberto Yépez to Carlos Monsiváis and Camilo José Cela.

The late indigenous priestess María Sabina has become an international icon of mushrooms’ spiritual use. Her reputation draws attention to native peoples’ historic responsibility for tending knowledge about medicinal and therapeutic properties of naturally occurring plants.

It’s not as simple as just saying “no” to mushrooms. They are an integral, if often overlooked element of the country’s lauded megadiversity. More resources should be devoted to their study and habitat protection. Lines must be drawn to determine the difference between evolution and mutation of the species.

The venue in Xalapa of the Intensive Postgraduate Course in Diversity and Ecological Importance of Mushrooms, beginning Aug. 28, presents a good opportunity to learn from experts about the possible culprits that caused the recent deadly mishap. The course comes on the heels of the Aug. 5 inauguration of the month-long mushroom exhibit and environmental education conference at the Desierto de los Leones National Park on the outskirts of Mexico City.

I am sure the experts of the germane conclave promoting these opportunities will agree with me that thorough investigation is warranted into the reasons behind the alleged phenomenon of the good mushrooms gone bad.

If the scientists can collaborate with the affected community, it would constitute an act of respect that might be appreciated by relatives of the family.

See our last posts on Mexico and Chiapas.