Conservation news

Community-run trading posts help Amazon forest people reverse rural exodus

Boys climb a tree flooded by the Xingu River in 2014. Today, one-third of the city of Altamira has been permanently flooded by the Belo Monte Dam that displaced more than 20,000 people, destroying indigenous and ribeirinho (river-dwelling) traditional communities. The effects were so severe that Norte Energia, the company behind the dam, has been required to carry out a six-year study to measure the environmental and social impacts of Belo Monte and to determine if indigenous and fishing communities can continue to live downriver from the dam. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Alexia Foundation

“We used to go into the forest to tap copaiba oil but we had no good way of selling it. The regatão [traveling river trader] paid us whatever he liked and took ages to give us the money. How could we survive like that?” asks Pedro Pereira de Castro, who lives in the Riozinho do Anfrísio Extractive Reserve, located within the Xingu River basin in the Brazilian Amazon.

Today this has changed for the better. Pedro Pereira now manages the Paulo Afonso cantina, a trading post inside the reserve. Cantinas were previously controlled by the river traders, but today it is the community that runs them. Local families deliver their production of Brazil nuts, rubber and oils to the cantinas, in exchange for cash or essential household goods, such as soap, salt, coffee and boots.

By running the cantinas themselves, these traditional Amazonian communities have eliminated the middlemen and greatly increased their incomes. It’s now possible for them and their children to stay in the forest, maintaining their traditional way of life, while receiving a decent income. No longer are they fleeing to Brazil’s urban areas to try and find work.

Pedro Pereira de Castro runs the Paulo Afonso cantina, a trading post, in the Riozinho do Anfrísio Extractive Reserve. Image by Lilo Clareto.

Derisvaldo Moreira lives in a land settlement project near Uruará, a town on the Transamazon highway. His community also collects forest products, but sells them to middlemen. He told Mongabay he was amazed at the higher prices the community-run cantinas in Riozinho do Anfrísio pay: “I got two reais a box for my Brazil nuts this year,” or about 50 U.S. cents. “The cantinas paid five.”

Today there are 22 community-run cantinas in the region known as the Terra do Meio, the land that lies between the Xingu and Tapajós rivers. Eight are in indigenous territories and run by . The remaining 14 are in extractive reserves, or Resex, which were created in response to demands from traditional populations for a new kind of conservation unit that protected both the forest and their way of life. These are areas where the inhabitants have the right to practice traditional extractivism — hunting, fishing and gathering — as well as subsistence agriculture.

The community association representing the 22 cantinas negotiates contracts with private companies and state bodies. It has secured long-term contracts with Swiss-based fragrance and flavor manufacturer Firmenich; Mercur, a Brazilian company promoting innovations; and Brazilian food manufacturer Wickbold. It also sells its products to the municipal governments of Altamira and Vitória do Xingu, and to a Brazilian cosmetics company, Atina, and is in advanced negotiations with the large Brazilian supermarket group Pão de Açúcar and a British cosmetics company, Lush.

Together, the cantinas have a working capital of 530,000 reais ($134,000). Their Brazil nut sales from the last harvest alone brought in 1.5 million reais ($381,000).

The families carry out simple processing tasks in the forest or at home, and more complex procedures in mini-plants that can be adapted for a variety of tasks. For instance, the same press used to crack Brazil nuts and cacao pods can also be used to extract oil from the andiroba almond or the babassu palm fruit, among other products.

Processing babassu oil in the village of Potikro in the Trincheira-Bacajá Indigenous Territory, home to Xikrin Indians. Image by Leonardo de Moura.

These new community-run cantinas have a democratic structure. The manager, chosen by the community, is in charge of financial administration and pays the families for their products, either in cash or goods, with prices fixed by the community.

It’s a marked difference from previously, when the families were heavily exploited by the river traders. The new structure came about after they sought help from partners like the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA) and the civil nonprofit Institute of Agricultural and Forest Management and Certification (IMAFLORA) to develop an alternative marketing network. They were seeking fair prices and long-term contracts that respected the way the communities functioned, and in tune with their seasonal rhythms.

“The creation of a network of community cantinas and mini factories scattered across the region has driven the process by which beiradeiros [riverine families] and indigenous communities have become protagonists in the building of productive systems and the management of the territory as a whole,” Marcelo Salazar, office coordinator of the ISA in Altamira and one of the people who helped set up the network, told Mongabay.

The network has helped to stem the rural exodus and reinvigorate extractivism. For instance, more than 150 long-abandoned pathways cut through the forest by rubber tappers have been reopened. “There were a lot of people who didn’t collect forest products any more, as it’s hard work and they didn’t earn much,” Pedro Pereira de Castro said. “Everyone was giving up and doing other things. But today we earn much more and people are going back to extractivism.”

Dona Maria Laur, a beiradeira who manages the São Francisco cantina in the Rio Iriri Extractive Reserve, said the project had had a big impact on young people. “I’m amazed seeing young people breaking Brazil nuts because they were turning their back on the forest, staying at home,” she told Mongabay. “But today they spend all day working with their parents, they don’t want to go to the city.”

Even those who left previously, she says, are coming back to the forest, drawn by the money they can earn from Brazil nuts. “If the nuts didn’t bring in money, how could we have got our children to come back and work with us?”

The forest has gained prestige among young people, she says. “Something that everyone here will tell you is the change in the way youngsters view the forest. Even though people tell them they can earn good money from ranching, no one wants to fell the forest,” Dona Maria said.

Dona Maria Laura in her house, which is also a cantina. The map on the wall behind her shows the locations of the other cantinas in the network. Image by Marcelo Salazar/ISA.

It’s not only young people whose lives have been transformed, says Augusto Postigo, an anthropologist who is part of the ISA team working with the cantinas. “The strengthening of extractivism in the reserve has turned into a way of managing the reserve, with the reoccupation of land and the strengthening of rights over historical, traditional territory and the monitoring of protected areas,” he said. “At the same time, initiatives have been taken to improve education and health, because this is required to organize production.”

Just as important as the economic benefits is the strengthening of the communities and their culture. “Everything is better because we’re all together,” Raimunda Araujo Rodrigues Nonata, who runs the Rio Novo cantina and coordinates the mini-processing plants, told Mongabay. “We’ve become one big family, with the network of cantinas.”

It has become easier for communities to be in touch with each other, she says. “Now we have the extractive reserves, everyone has a radio [to communicate over long distances]. Today everyone is talking to each other and this helps us protect our territory. Everyone is paying attention to what is happening, commenting on the arrival of someone from outside.”

These developments are disproving the widely held assertion that the extractivism, practiced by traditional communities occupying the Amazon forest is no longer viable in the modern world. These families have over the centuries acquired an extraordinary wealth of knowledge about the forest. But until recently it was difficult for them to use this knowledge, so valuable to efforts to conserve the forest, to make a decent living.

Thanks to the families in the Terra do Meio, this is changing. They are giving the world a lesson in how to generate income sustainably from standing forest.

Weighing babassu nuts in the mini factory in Potikro village in the Trincheira-Bacajá Indigenous Territory, home to Xikrin Indians. Image by Leonardo Moura.