Amazon seeds: income for communities, and protection for the forest

PTMJ strengthens seed and oil value chain, benefiting 2,652 riverine people

“The main impact for families in the region was the increase in income. This incentive helped to strengthen conservation efforts, since seed collection can only take place in a standing forest, not in a deforested area,” says Reginaldo Oliveira dos Santos, a resident of the Bom Jesus community, in the Uacari Sustainable Development Reserve. He stressed the importance of the oil chain for riverine communities living in the Médio Juruá Territory.

Santos acts as production coordinator at the Bauana community-based company (EBC), one of the two units installed in the region to process oils and butters extracted from murumuru (Astrocaryum murumuru), crabwood (Carapa guianensis, locally known as andiroba), and baboonwood (Virola Surinamensis, locally known as ucuúba). The other unit is located in the Roque community. To get there, one has to take a two-hour flight from Manaus, Amazonas state capital, to the town of Carauari, followed by a three-hour speedboat ride along the Juruá River.

Currently, the seed collection and oil processing chain involves more than 663 families and 2,652 agroextractive workers in the region, including women. Some live at the Uacari Sustainable Development Reserve, while others live at the Médio Juruá Extractive Reserve. Two local organizations support their production: the Uacari Agroextractive Association (AMARU), and the Médio Juruá Agroextractive Development and Energy Cooperative (CODAEMJ).

The process is supported by the Médio Juruá Territory Program (PTMJ), and coordinated by SITAWI. The strategic partners for this project are USAID/Brasil, the Partnership Platform for the Amazon (PPA), and Natura, a company that buys all local production.

It also counts on the support of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, and a number of community organizations (ASPROC, ASMAMJ, AMECSARA, AMARU, CODAEMJ and ASPODEX), which act as implementers. ICMBio, the State Secretariat for the Environment (SEMA), and OPAN are also involved in the program, in addition to the Juruá Institute and the Sustainable Amazon Foundation (FAS).

The PTMJ aims to contribute to the sustainable development of the Médio Juruá region, which covers an area of over 1,020,000 hectares, including two conservation units (Médio Juruá Extractive Reserve and Uacari Sustainable Development Reserve), 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 adds scale to the sustainable management of natural resources and the strengthening of sociobiodiversity product chains, as in the case of vegetable oils. It is also a collaborative initiative that involves a wide network of organizations.

PPA project manager Denyse Mello believes the Program has all the main features required to promote local development. It brings together a range of aspects such as strengthening local organizations and creating jobs and income for the local population. “This adds value to sustainable chains and contributes to biodiversity conservation. An example of this is the essential oil chain, which involves extractive workers, engages large companies, and educates the public in big cities about the importance of these values,” says Denyse. 

Production — Local organizations and other entities involved in the PTMJ were crucial in this process. They helped agroextractive workers and their families to receive support in 2021, when the Juruá River registered one of the biggest floods in recent decades.

The rains heavily affected the seed harvest, which takes place in the first half of the year. Of the 61 riverine communities within the territory, 44 suffered dramatic impacts, staying underwater for the entire rainy season, and forcing families to temporarily move to collective shelters. 

In addition to the floods that destroyed subsistence farming grounds, agroextractive workers saw 85% of their oilseed production compromised, both due to difficulties in entering the forest and the fact that the floods carried most seeds away, thus preventing collection. Several seed drying structures, essential to the production process, were also damaged, and are being rebuilt this year.

"Losses were equivalent to R$2 million because most seeds fell into the water and were carried away. And local families needed that money very badly. Environmental imbalance has a direct impact on people's lives,” summarizes Manuel da Cunha, a resident of the São Raimundo community and a manager at the Médio Juruá Extractive Reserve.

The focus has been on rebuilding the drying structures and getting ready for this year's seed harvest. 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 mitigate the greatest impacts of the flood, with a focus on restructuring our chain, and rebuilding 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 start working again on the supply of ucuúba butter, taking advantage of the good harvest. Our goal is to provide the greatest possible return to the communities, given the great impact they suffered,” says Renata Silva Cunha, coordinator for Social Biodiversity Relationship and Supply at Natura.

According to her, Médio Juruá communities have played an important role in Natura’s history, being a benchmark for their relationships and strategy in the Amazon. Funds from the Médio Juruá Benefit Sharing Fund are also invested in the region. Its Management Committee and Executive Secretariat include representatives of local grassroots organizations and government bodies. They assess and approve projects related to sharing non-monetary benefits, and define the allocation of the funds transferred by the company.

The importance of the value chain Agroextractive families identify the forest areas with the highest concentration of andiroba trees and murumuru palms within their own communities. The almonds and seeds fall from the trees, which can reach 30 meters in height (the equivalent of a 10-storey building). 

 These almonds and seeds are collected, washed, and, in the case of andiroba, boiled. They are then placed in specific facilities to dry — from a week up to a month. Local associations buy seeds from the families and ship them to two processing units, where the oils and butters are extracted and then sold to the industry. 

 Both andiroba and murumuru oils are rich in restorative and moisturizing properties. Ucuúba, on the other hand, produces a natural butter with high hydration power. All are widely used in the cosmetics industry. Within the PTMJ, agroextractive workers also participate in training programs and in setting good production practices, thus improving the quality of the final product.