Seeds from the Amazon: a source of income for traditional communities that protects the standing forest

“The main impact for families in the region was the increase in income generation. With the incentive, the conservation of the standing forest was strengthened, since, in order to harvest the seeds, it is necessary to preserve, not deforest.” The assessment is by Reginaldo Oliveira dos Santos, a resident of the Bom Jesus community, in the Uacari Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS), when talking about the importance of the oil chain for riverside communities living in the Juruá Middle Territory.

Santos is the production coordinator at Empresa de Base Comunitária (EBC), in Bauana, one of the two units installed in the region to process oils and butters extracted from murumuru species (Astrocaryum murumuru), andiroba (carapa guianensis) and ucuúba (Virola Surinamensis). The other unit is in the Roque community. To get there, you have to travel by plane between the capital of Amazonas, Manaus, and the municipality of Carauari for about two hours, and then by speedboat for at least another three hours along the Juruá River.

Currently, the chain of seed collection and oil processing involves more than 663 families and 2,652 agro-extractivists in the region, including women. Some live in the RDS and another part lives in the Médio Juruá Extractive Reserve. Commercialization is carried out through two local organizations: the Association of Agroextractive Residents of the Uacari Sustainable Development Reserve (AMARU) and the Middle Juruá Agro-Extractivist and Energy Development Cooperative (CODAEMJ).

The process receives support from the Juruá Middle Territory Program (PTMJ), coordinated by SITAWI. The PTMJ has as strategic partners USAID/Brasil, the Plataforma Parceiros pela Amazônia (PPA) and Natura, a company that buys all local production. It also has the participation of the Bioversity/CIAT Alliance and community organizations (ASPROC, ASMAMJ, AMECSARA, AMARU, CODAEMJ and ASPODEX) that act as implementers of the actions. ICMBio, the State Secretariat for the Environment (SEMA) and OPAN support the program. The vegetable oil chain in the region also has the collaboration of the Juruá Institute and the Sustainable Amazon Foundation (FAS).

The PTMJ aims to contribute to the sustainable development of Médio Juruá, covering an area of more than 1,020,000 hectares, with two conservation units (Resex Médio Juruá and RDS Uacari) and part of the Deni Indigenous Territory of the Xeruã River. The program is structured around three integrated pillars: sustainable livelihoods, biodiversity conservation and social cohesion.

For Felipe Pires, coordinator of Territorial Programs at SITAWI, the PTMJ, being a collaborative initiative that involves a wide network of organizations, manages to give more scale to the actions of sustainable management of natural resources and the strengthening of socio-biodiversity product chains, as is the case of vegetable oils. 

Project manager at PPA, Denyse Mello believes that the PTMJ brings together the main characteristics necessary for local development, as it brings together aspects such as strengthening organizations and generating employment and income for the local population. “This adds value to sustainable chains and contributes to the conservation of biodiversity. An example is the essential oil chain, which involves extractive workers, engages large companies and communicates to the public in large cities the importance of these values”, says Denyse. 

 

Production

Local organization and the support of the entities involved in the PTMJ were crucial to allow agroextractivist families to receive support in 2021, when the Juruá River registered one of the biggest floods in recent decades.

With the rains, the harvest of seeds, carried out during the first half of the year, was harmed. Of the 61 riverside communities located in the territory, 44 were drastically impacted by the flood, staying under water for the entire rainy season and forcing families to temporarily move to collective shelters. 

In addition to subsistence swiddens being flooded, agroextractivists saw 85% of their oilseed production compromised, both due to the difficulty of moving to the forest and the high level of water that carried the seeds, preventing collection. Several seed drying structures, essential to the production process, were also lost and are being rebuilt this year.

“People stopped collecting seeds worth R$ 2 million because they fell and the water carried them away. This less money in the pockets of the Resex and RDS families was needed. The imbalance in the environment has a direct impact on people's lives”, summarizes Manuel da Cunha, a resident of the São Raimundo community and manager of Resex Médio Juruá.

Now the focus has been on rebuilding the drying structures and this year's seed crop. Each species has a different production and collection period – andiroba is from January to March; murumuru from April to July; and ucuúba, from December to March. 

“Since last year we have been working in partnership with grassroots organizations and their partners to remedy the great impact that the flood caused, seeking to focus on restructuring the chain, with the construction of drying houses and logistical support. We hope that in 2022 we can make the most of the murumuru and andiroba harvest, which is already beginning. We will return to work on the supply of ucuúba butter, taking advantage of the good harvest that this species has, seeking to bring the greatest possible return to the communities, given the great impact suffered”, says Renata Silva Cunha, coordinator of Social Biodiversity Relationship and Supply at Natura.

According to her, the communities of the Médio Juruá have an important role in the company's history, being a benchmark of relationship and strategy in the Amazon. In the region, funds from the Middle Juruá Benefit Sharing Fund are also applied. Through its Management Committee and Executive Secretariat — which include representatives of local grassroots organizations and government bodies — projects are evaluated and approved for the use of non-monetary benefit sharing and the allocation of the money transferred by the company is defined.

 

The importance of the chain

The agroextractivist families identify in their communities the regions within the forest that concentrate the andirobeiras and the murumuzeiros. Its fruits, in the form of almonds and seeds, fall from trees, which reach a height of 30 meters (the equivalent of a 10-story building). 

They are collected, washed and, in the case of andiroba, the seeds can be boiled. Then they are placed in units to dry, a period that can vary from a week to a month. Local associations buy seeds from the families and send them to the two processing units, where the oils and butters are extracted and then sold to the industry. 

Both andiroba and murumuru oil are rich in restorative and moisturizing properties. Ucuuba, on the other hand, produces a natural butter with high hydration power. All are widely used in the cosmetics industry. Within the PTMJ, agro-extractivists also participate in training courses and good production practices, improving the quality of the final product.