Conservation news

Indigenous agroforestry revives profitable palm trees and the Atlantic Forest

Mauro dos Santos, deputy chief of the Ribeirão Silveira Indigenous Territory. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

  • Highly popular in Brazil because of its delicious heart, the jussara palm was eaten nearly to the brink of extinction.
  • The Indigenous Guarani people from the São Paulo coast are traditional consumers of jussara palm hearts, and decided to reverse the loss by planting thousands of palm trees inside their reserve.
  • With more than 100,000 jussara palms planted since 2008, the community now sells hearts and seedlings to tourists and beach house owners. The next step is to start extracting the pulp from jussara berries — similar to açaí berries, the popular superfood — which the group hopes will generate enough income to keep the palm trees standing.
  • The palms grow among native trees in an ancient and increasingly popular agricultural technique called agroforestry, which combines woody trees with shrubs, vines, and annuals, in a system that benefits wildlife, builds water tables and soil, provides food, and sequesters carbon.

Two or three strokes, and it’s gone: in less than five minutes, 10 years collapse. If it’s some other palm tree native to the rainforest such as açaí (Euterpe oleracea), soon we’ll see another one growing there. But not jussara (Euterpe edulis): since it’s a species that doesn’t generate new shoots after being cut, each tree that falls is one less in the forest. Its survival will be limited to produce a 50-centimeter (20-inch) stem that’s eaten in a salad or a pie — a decade consumed in just one meal.

The stem is called palmito in Brazil, the inner core of a palm tree served as a delicacy after the bark and all of its fibers are removed, leaving just the soft, white heart. Several tropical palms have edible hearts, but jussara, also spelled juçara, is known for having the most tender and tasty of all. Therefore, it’s the most valued in the Brazilian market.

Jussara is an endemic tree of the Atlantic Forest, the extensive rainforest that once covered the Brazilian coastal hills, and which today is the most deforested biome in the country, with only 12.4% of its original extent left. That makes survival a big issue for jussara, a species in a fragmented landscape with low genetic diversity and threatened by climate change. Studies suggest that the last six decades of exploitation might have decreased its population by 30%.

“Palmito” is the Brazilian word for the soft heart of some tropical palms. Jussara is known to have the most tender and savory of them all. Image by Xavier Bartaburu for Mongabay.

Brazilians now eat palmito from less savory and more fibrous palm trees, like açaí and peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), both native to the Amazon rainforest, and even from Caribbean-native imperial palm (Roystonea oleracea). These are quick-growing species, generally ready to be cut after no more than four years — unlike jussara, which demands between eight and 12 years to produce a good-quality heart. The few jussara hearts sold in the market either come from commercial crops or are illegally harvested (the cutting of jussara palms in the wild has been forbidden in Brazil since 1998).

In the state of São Paulo, one of jussara’s last strongholds, it’s estimated that at least 50 tons of jussara palm hearts are illegally sold every year. That is equivalent to around 75,000 trees cut to the ground. These are usually cut inside conservation units and then canned in jars in clandestine camps, without following any hygiene standards. Illegally canned palm hearts are known to harbor botulism, a potentially fatal disease that can damage the nervous system and cause paralysis.

But that’s not the whole problem: jussara is a key species that keeps the Atlantic Forest’s ecosystem in balance. At least 58 bird and 21 mammal species feed on jussara berries, among them toucans, tinamous, squirrels, peccaries and tapirs. The high levels of fats in the fruits give them the energy to survive in the forest and boost their reproduction. At the same time, the animals help disperse jussara seeds across the forest in a process called zoochory. A low animal population, caused by habitat loss or hunting, could also lead to a decrease in the amount of palms in the forest.

The Guarani solution

On the north coast of São Paulo state, the first to notice the disappearance of the jussara were the Indigenous Guarani people, consumers of palm hearts since long before the invention of canned foods. In fact, they like to eat it raw, seasoned with honey from native bees. Or at most, roasted on a grill without salt, to be eaten with beiju, a kind of cassava bread). It’s a palm of great importance to them, not only as a staple food but also because they traditionally use the trunk and the leaves to build their houses.

Before tourism reached the region, an area famous for its beaches, the Guarani had an entire forest full of jussara palms around them. When the asphalt of the Rio-Santos Highway broke through the area in the 1970s, condos and summer houses started eating up the lush rainforest with the same appetite that the newcomers had for fresh palmito.

A jussara palm can grow up to 15 meters (50 feet), but only half a meter (20 inches) of the trunk can be used for palmito. Once cut, the tree dies and no shoots grow again. Image by Xavier Bartaburu for Mongabay.

“The white people induced the Indigenous to cut the palms in exchange for tools. When the money came, the Indigenous starting selling to the white people. It was a disaster,” says Adolfo Timótio, chief of the Ribeirão Silveira Indigenous Territory, a 9,000-hectare (22,000-acre) area tucked between the Boraceia beach and the Serra do Mar mountain range. By the late ’80s, there was almost no jussara left. “We had to go further and further into the forest to get palm hearts,” Adolfo says.

Adolfo says the pressure on the Guarani territory led to the creation of the Indigenous reserve in 1987, but it didn’t solve the problem of the jussara scarcity. Then, in an unprecedented initiative, the Ribeirão Silveira families decided to secure the future of their beloved palm by planting their own jussara forest: they stopped being collectors to become producers.

The Guarani are one of the largest Indigenous groups in South America, living mostly across Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Those who live near the coast, like the 120 families of the Ribeirão Silveira Indigenous Territory, usually construct their homes with jussara leaves and trunks. Image by Xavier Bartaburu for Mongabay.

“It all started with the nursery,” says Mauro dos Santos, the tribe’s deputy chief. In 1998, the Guarani began cultivating dozens of jussara seedlings, which would later be planted in their backyards, amid the Atlantic Forest vegetation, side by side with native trees like jequitibá-rosa (Cariniana legalis), manacá-da-serra (Tibouchina mutabilis) and jerivá (Syagrus romanzoffiana), as well as many bromeliad species (Aechmea spp.). That’s what is technically known as agroforestry, a system that integrates food crops or livestock with trees to create an ecosystem that supports biodiversity, reduces soil erosion, retains water, and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.

That is perfect for jussara, a species that requires moisture to germinate and shade to grow. “The jussara does not like to be out of the forest,” says Maurício Fonseca, a sociologist who assisted the Guarani in developing the agroforestry project. In other words, there’s no need to cut the forest down to cultivate jussara. Instead, the system allows native Atlantic Forest to remain standing, with all its biodiversity, including many animal species that share the Ribeirão Silveira territory with the Guarani, among them the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), the collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), the small red brocket (Mazama bororo) and the black-fronted piping guan (Aburria jacutinga).

In the beginning, planting was done in a somewhat experimental way, mixed with the cultivation of peach palm and açaí, two Amazonian palms that Funai, Brazil’s federal agency for Indigenous affairs, encouraged the Guarani to grow as an alternative to jussara. As these are more productive trees, they ended up dominating Guarani lands. That only changed when Slow Food, the international organization that celebrates and educates about foods with deep heritage, created the Jussara Fortress program in 2004, which facilitated the raising of financial resources to foster jussara production.

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In the agroforestry system implemented in the Guarani territory, the jussara palm trees grow among the native rainforest vegetation. Image by Xavier Bartaburu for Mongabay.

Slow Food coordinated several initiatives in the Indigenous reserve, but perhaps the most important was an inventory carried out in 2008. On that occasion, dozens of people were recruited to measure, number and identify the jussara palms that grew in their backyards.

What they discovered was revealing: the palms’ incidence was far below what Brazilian law requires for a management plan. There should be at least 3,000 young palms per hectare, but at the time, the Guarani had planted just over 400 per hectare. It seemed like the crop was impossible to sustain.

The inventory was the starting point for creating a sustainable management manual that would ensure there is never a shortage of palm hearts inside the reserve. In a couple of years, the Guarani had more than 10,000 trees in their territory, a feat celebrated in 2010 in Turin, Italy, where Chief Adolfo spoke to an audience of 10,000 people during the opening of Slow Food’s annual Terra Madre event, in the Guarani language.

In the decade since then, the Guarani jussara forest has seen a tenfold increase. “We now have over 110,000 trees across the reserve,” says Deputy Chief Mauro proudly.

The Guarani don’t like to eat jussara palm heart like most Brazilians do: canned. Instead, they prefer to have it raw (with honey), or grilled without any seasoning. Image by Xavier Bartaburu for Mongabay.

Nurseries in the forest 

Cultivating jussara in the Ribeirão Silveira Indigenous Territory involves the whole community: more than a hundred families spread around five villages. That includes the children, small enough to climb up the palms and pick the bunches full of berries that grow near the canopy. The seeds of these berries will generate the new jussara palms.

That is done twice a year, when the fruit is ripe: between April and May and between November and December. But there’s also what they call “natural seedbeds,” areas close to the mother plant where birds and small mammals usually drop the seeds after eating the pulp. When the Guarani collect these seeds, nature has already started the germination job.

When it’s up to the Indigenous people to stimulate the germination, they employ a process that alternates five days of drying with one week of storage. They do it as close to the jussara’s natural environment as possible, in a moist and shady area in the middle of the forest, usually close to a river. The seedlings will spend about five months there, until they lose their first leaves. Then they go to the nurseries for another six months until the jussara palms are ready to earn their ultimate place in the forest.

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Without access to the formal market, the Guarani from the Ribeirão Silveira territory sell the palm hearts on the roadside, close to the beach. Image by Xavier Bartaburu for Mongabay.

After seven years, a jussara palm begins to bear its first fruits. At eight, its heart can be extracted, but it’s still a thin stick with little commercial value. The best palmito starts showing up by the age of 10, when it reaches the peak of texture and flavor.

Families in the Ribeirão Silveira reserve cut palm hearts every week, always on Thursdays and Fridays, to sell on the Rio-Santos roadside during the weekend. They charge between $2 and $5 for each 45-centimeter (1.5-foot) stem, which may not seem like much, but constitutes their primary source of income today.

It’s still quite an informal business, since the Indigenous community doesn’t have a formal company to sell its products. In fact, access to the formal market is still the biggest obstacle in the Guarani supply chain. They would also need a much larger production scale to be able to supply supermarkets or restaurants. “We would need to put several villages working together to have a good amount of palmito,” Adolfo says.

Tourists and beach house owners make up the majority of the buyers, and not only for the palm heart — the Guarani also sell jussara seedlings. They now have two areas to nurse jussara, each one with 2,000 seedlings destined for trading. Coastal São Paulo Guarani also benefit from a local law that requires that, for each native tree cut to build a new house, 30 seedlings from native species must be planted. So in a surprising twist, people who now deforest to build houses or condos have become one of the Guarani’s major customers.

Jussara berries are very similar to those of açaí. For those who live in the southern part of Brazil, they can be a local alternative to the widely popular Amazonian fruit. Image by Marcelo Kuhlmann (CC BY-NC-SA).

New fruit of their labors: Jussara berries 

However, the best fruit of their labors might not be the heart of the jussara palm, but rather its berries, which some say are the Atlantic Forest’s alternative to the Amazonian açaí. Açaí berries are very popular throughout Brazil, usually eaten with granola and fruits. Jussara, being a closely related species, has the same potential in terms of flavor and texture, but with the additional benefit of having higher doses of anthocyanin, a pigment with a powerful antioxidant effect.

Also, selling the jussara pulp instead of the heart keeps the rainforest in good health. “The interesting thing about this process is that you don’t lose anything,” says sociologist Fonseca. The palm tree remains standing while the berries can be used for pulp extraction. Or they can be used to sprout new seedlings, if animals have partially eaten the fruit. “The seed returns to the land, repopulating the species and at the same time generating income. That is jussara’s most sustainable process.”

The Guarani already have a pulp extraction machine in the main village, one they brought from Pará state about 20 years ago. But only now, according to Mauro, do they feel prepared to kickstart the project. “We’re finally thinking of processing jussara here, with a Guarani label,” says the deputy chief.

Inspired by past experiences with quilombola (Afro-descendant) communities in nearby areas, they got 413,000 reais ($80,000) in aid from the state government in 2019 to create a sustainable jussara pulp supply chain. The project includes a frozen pulp processing facility, remodeled nurseries, team training, and support vehicles. And, of course, a full-standing forest filled with jussara palm trees.

This report is part of Mongabay’s ongoing coverage of trends in global agroforestry, view the full series here

Banner image: Mauro dos Santos, deputy chief of the Ribeirão Silveira Indigenous Territory. Image by Xavier Bartaburu for Mongabay.