Maca Plant Pirates in Peru (HBO)

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Maca Plant Pirates in Peru (HBO)

A root called maca, said to boost sexual stamina, became a national craze in China in 2013. Farmers in Peru, where maca is grown, made huge sums of money for a few seasons, until one day the Chinese buyers disappeared.

Instead of buying from Peru, they were growing the root at home. But now Peru’s government is trying to stop them, using an obscure new law to catch the companies it says are committing acts of “biopiracy.”

When fresh, maca looks like a small white, pink, or black turnip. True enthusiasts consume it in almost every way imaginable, but most people are familiar with it as a powdered supplement that supposedly improves fertility, energy, and sexual performance. Endemic to Peru’s highland region of Junín, it grows above 13,000 feet, and is one of very few plants that can thrive in such harsh, high-altitude conditions. Still, it was almost extinct until the ’80s, when Quimica Suiza, a pharmaceutical company, and Peruvian universities began researching it for a range of medicinal uses.

The Chinese market took off three decades later. Between 2013 and 2014, China – seized with maca fever – saw demand increase by 1,100 percent. Farmers in Peru started getting offers from buyers at five or 10 times their normal prices.

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