One of Nicaragua’s national newspapers, El Nuevo Diario, ran this article yesterday, linking two things I had never put together before: the Catholic Church and the threat of extinction for iguanas in Nicaragua. Iguanas are a typical Nicaraguan dish eaten year round, but as the Nuevo Diario points out, the fact that they are “green-blooded” instead of red-blooded means that they are acceptable fare during lent.
We have iguanas living on our roof in the center of León. They can be heard all hours of the day, scratching along the fiberglass sheets and ceramic tiles. When they cross over the skylight in the bathroom they cast an enormous distorted dinosaur shadow along the wall. The males fight, knocking each other off the tree limbs and roofing, and every now and then they fall into our courtyard and scurry behind the potted plants.
They have every reason to be scared of us. We are giving them one safe roof, but I often see the neighbors kids behind our backyard throwing stones with slingshots at the iguanas in the trees. Granted, kids will throw stones at lots of things, but in this case they are probably actually trying to kill dinner, not just goof off.
Are you sick in bed with a fever and chills? Someone is bound to tell you (or bring you!) iguana soup. It’s supposed to be rich in iron, the perfect get-well meal. Until reading the article in yesterdays newspaper, I hadn’t made the connection between celebrating lent and increasing consumption of iguana. The article encourages Catholics to find other ways to avoid eating red meat during lent, and respect the un-enforced laws against the illegal sale of iguanas for pets or meat. I have seen iguana in the markets, and the boys along the highway who hold up their iguana for the commuters on the highway to buy (I have a friend who buys them every now and then, and then feeds them in yard where they live happily and grow to enormous sizes). It’s visible; certainly not eaten in the quantities that beef, chicken, and pork are but clearly a traditional dish and delicacy.
I have eaten iguana. Most foreigners don’t, and I know in certain areas it’s in danger of extinction. But here’s the dilemma – it’s an important source of food for poor rural families. Imagine one family in the isolated country side – beef and pork are rare treats, saved for large festivities or for selling to market. When I first arrived here I was faced with a decision about eating meat. I have been vegetarian in the past; in the states I pretty much only eat meat I purchase (i.e. I or my family will buy what we decide is quality meat, mostly organic or pastured, but when I eat out it’s mostly vegetarian). My choices have always revolved around a protest of factory farmed and over-medicated meat; I have no moral beef with consciously raised or hunted meat.
The first time I was served iguana I panicked. I was staying with a rural family for three nights. The first night we had beans, cheese, and tortilla for dinner. Then again for breakfast. Then again for lunch. At dinner, the family proudly told me their son had gone out with his slingshot and caught two iguana so they could serve me meat. The environmentalist and anthropologist in me were in a terrific struggle. Eat an endangered animal, or offend a family by refusing their gesture? I ended up eating the iguana, and I have done the same since then whenever it was offered to me by a rural family, which thankfully has not been very often. The meal below – an example. Hidden below the plantain chips and salad are pieces of stewed iguana with vegetables.
I have never and will never purchase iguana at a market or restaurant. I don’t particularly like it – it’s a bit tough, stringy, doesn’t have much meat or flavor. I can’t stomach iguana eggs; they are dense and dry and I don’t agree with robbing nests so I draw a line there.
I haven’t seen many iguana farms for food production. At the Cerro Negro reserve outside of León, the park center maintains an iguana rehabilitation project. They raise and set free hundreds of iguanas a year, probably a portion of them to be hunted and lunched upon, but hopefully a portion of them to live and reproduce freely in the surrounding forest.
Deforestation is listed as a main reason for the disappearance of iguanas, after illegal sale on the international exotic pets market and consumption. Forest fires, lit by accident or by hunters of the very same iguana who light brush on fire to scare the lizards out, decimate their habitat. At least for the time being, whenever I need to console myself while being proudly served a beautiful meal of iguana by a señora in the countryside, I know I’m helping by working to reforest their habitat. And of course there are those gangs of iguanas on my roof, waking me up at 3 am with their boxing matches. May they live long, happy lives and never find themselves on my plate.