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Can ‘Slow Food’ save Brazil’s fast-vanishing Cerrado savanna?

  • The incredibly biodiverse Cerrado is Brazil’s second-largest biome after the Amazon. However, half of the savanna’s native vegetation has already been lost to industrial agribusiness, which produces beef, soy, cotton, corn, eucalyptus and palm oil for export.
  • Those wishing to save the Cerrado today are challenged by the lack of protected lands. One response by traditional communities and conservationists is to help the rest of Brazil and the rest of the planet value the Cerrado’s cornucopia of endemic fruits, nuts and vegetables that thrive across South America’s greatest savanna.
  • These include the baru nut, the babassu and macaúba coconut, the sweet gabiroba (looking like a small guava), the cagaita (resembling a shiny green tomato), the large, scaly-looking marolo (with creamy pulp and strong flavor), the berry-shaped mangaba, which means “good fruit for eating,” the egg-shaped, emerald-green pequi, and more.
  • Small family farmers, beekeepers, traditional and Indigenous communities, Afro-Brazilian quilombolas (runaway slave descendants), socioenvironmental activists, and celebrity chefs have become allies in a fast-expanding slow food network, declaring: “We want to see the Cerrado on the plate of the Brazilian and the world!”

It’s November in southeast Brazil, and the tall, feathery macaúba palms (Acrocomia aculeata) are beginning to drop ripe coconuts. By January, the ground is littered with them, as some 67 families that live nearby, outside the town of Jaboticatubas, get to work dragging the trove home.

This coconut serves as the lifeblood for these traditional farming communities in the Cerrado savanna in Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Archaeological sites trace its use back to at least 9,000 B.C.

Every part of the all-purpose coconut is used, from its delicious yellowish flesh to the nut at its core. It’s a favorite kids’ snack, and is used to make a highly nutritious flour, baked into bread and cookies. Livestock eat it too.

Macaúba palms growing at an agroecological consortium in Capão do Berto, Jaboticatubas, Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.
The heart of the Macaúba palm (Acrocomia aculeata). The edible nuts are held by a Kalunga woman in Goiás state, Brazil. The Kalunga are a traditional Cerrado quilombola community composed of Afro Brazilian descendants of runaway slaves. Image by Nadiella Monteiro.

But locals also put some coconuts aside, covering them in grass and molasses and letting them ferment. Then, in April, they squeeze the pulp to extract oil to be used in lanterns and soap. Some families still sync their production with the phases of the moon and use rustic wooden presses. Some, like Raimunda Francisca Gonçalves Lopes, mix the oil with various native plants to make specially formulated medicinal soaps to treat insect bites or acne, or heal wounds. Ultimately, the coconut provides at least part of everyone’s local livelihood, and the nut at its center is a particular gem, loaded with prized cooking oil.

In 2008, these 67 families from 15 small communities formed the Amanu Association to share and improve farming and production methods, and importantly, to gain collective marketing and sales clout. They then enlisted support from the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, an organization that aids sustainable agriculture projects that conserve local biodiversity and local culture.

Amanu became a registered “Slow Food Presidium,” which requires proof of environmental sustainability and fair, collaborative production practices. That designation offered the communities and families the advantage of a certified, sustainable brand, a sales platform and technical assistance.

A mother “Lillian” and her children share in the work of crushing the hard shell of Cerrado coconuts, to get at the nuts and to make the edible oil. Comunidade Capão do Berto, Jaboticatubas. Image by Daniel Felix Junquer.
Coconut fruits being crushed with a stone, a traditional preparation process likely thousands of years old, in Jaboticatubas, Comunidade Xirú, Brazil. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

Small-scale agriculture in an embattled ecosystem

Initiatives like this one provide needed income to rural peoples in the savanna. They also safeguard cultural heritage, keep communities intact, and protect an embattled, endangered ecosystem, says Marcelo de Podestà, southeast coordinator for Slow Food Brazil.

Over the past 40 years, Brazil’s vast Cerrado savanna biome shifted from being a neglected “wasteland” to being at the heart of the nation’s booming agribusiness frontier. In the process, half of its native vegetation was razed to produce cash crop commodities exported around the world, including beef, soy, corn, cotton, eucalyptus and oil palm. Originally the biome’s grasslands, riverscapes and dry forests covered some 2 million square kilometers (772,200 square miles) — an area the size of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined — and comprising one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots. The Cerrado is home to thousands of species, including 10,000 plant species. Many live nowhere else on Earth, but the biome’s escalating destruction has pushed many toward extinction.

A traditional “aranhol” for squeezing out coconut oil, fashioned from wooden parts and a repurposed 50-gallon drum. The axle inside has teeth to shred and press the coconut pulp and is rotated via the horizontal handle on top. Exhausted coconuts exits the bottom, as does the oil. Comunidade Xirú, Jaboticatubas. Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.
Oil squeezed from the coconut pulp, used to make soap in Jaboticatubas, Comunidade Xirú, Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

Not just wildlife and plants are at risk. As of 2016, about 12.5 million people depended directly on the Cerrado’s natural resources to survive, while both Brazil and the planet rely on the savanna’s key ecosystem services. These grasslands help mitigate climate change, offer an important global carbon sink, and form the headwaters for major rivers that provide freshwater for much of Brazil, including some of its most heavily populated cities.

However, the biome lacks the sprawling conservation units characteristic of the neighboring Amazon. As a result, to save the Cerrado, “there needs to be investment in conservation outside of protected areas,” said Mercedes Maria da Cunha Bustamente, an expert on the region who teaches at the University of Brasília.

A growing sustainable food movement is now attempting to do just that, with local communities acting as some of the savanna’s best marketeers and land stewards.

To outsiders, the Cerrado landscape can look scrubby and even barren. But to those who live there, the biome is known for its delicious and widely varied wild foods. Image by Cristiano Nogueira / Campo Cerrado.
Unprocessed ripe pequi fruits, collected at Varzelândia, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Image by Jean Marconi.

A global Slow Food trend goes local

Small family farmers, beekeepers, traditional and Indigenous communities, Afro-Brazilian quilombolas (descendants of runaway slaves), socioenvironmental land rights activists, and even celebrity chefs are allying themselves in the Cerrado’s fast-growing sustainable food network.

They are also becoming guardians of the critical habitat that sustains their livelihoods. Growers use few pesticides or cultivate organic vegetables, fruits and coffee — and they grow native foods important to Indigenous communities. Honey producers nurture native, threatened bee species. Others gather and sell wild fruits, nuts, honey and medicinal plants on a smaller scale.

“We need to have a humanized way of production instead of thinking only about the product and profit,” said Mariana Oliveira Cruz, a teacher and farmer from Buração, in Minas Gerais state. “We are as dependent on the environment as other species,” she said.

Cerrado palm oil displayed at the Brazil exhibit during the 2018 Slow Food Terra Madre event in Turin, Italy, shown along with packaging made for the occasion — a part of promotional activities organized by the Macaúba Oil Presidium, which represents producers like Mariana Oliveira Cruz. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.
Macaúba fruit, showing the yellowish pulp at its core. Comunidade Capão do Berto, Jaboticatubas, Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Image by Daniel Félix Junquer.

While many farmers in Brazil must legally set aside a portion of their land for native vegetation, “they don’t [necessarily] have to guarantee conservation,” said Isabel Figueiredo, who coordinates small grants for sustainable biodiversity use with the nonprofit Institute for Society Populations and Nature. Typically, small farmers and traditional Cerrado communities maintain far more native vegetation than agribusiness does — yielding huge environmental benefits: their largely undisturbed lands preserve plant species; continue sequestering large amounts of carbon; and provide wildlife habitat and ecological corridors needed for migration.

But whole swaths of today’s Cerrado are dominated by monoculture seas of soy and other cash crops, occasionally punctuated by green islands — protected areas, like green oases.

Unlike large industrial operations, traditional farmers work differently. They observe seasonal planting and burning cycles, which conserves precious water in a landscape that is desert-dry for half the year. Those who harvest from the wild maintain more than just the areas they live in; their livelihood requires them to maintain wild plants and trees.

Processed baru nuts at Arinos, Vale do Urucuia, Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Image by Denise Barbosa.

A Cerrado superfood

Savanna inhabitants have feasted on the biome’s long list of traditional, often endemic, fruits and vegetables for hundreds of years. A top favorite is the long, pointy, mahogany baru nut — by far the most valuable and versatile of the Cerrado’s native products.

The nut forms inside a fruit the color of dried mud, which grows on the baruzeiro tree (Dipteryx alata). The nuts are roasted and eaten or packaged for sale; pounded into flour; used in sweets, or processed into nut butter. The fruit pulp goes into cake, chutney and other goodies; and the husks are being experimentally used in a biomass program by InterCement, a cement company. The quick-growing tree is used in reforestation programs.

About 300 families in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais jointly collect, toast and market the nut through a cooperative, Copabase (the Cooperative for Sustainable Family Farming Based on a Reciprocal Economy), that is also a certified Slow Food Presidia. This is no small homegrown endeavor: Copabase estimates that 15 tons of baru were sold in 2019.

Baru nuts have even been touted as “the next superfood,” high in protein and minerals, with more fiber and 25% less fat than other nuts. It’s said to be delicious, tasting like an almond crossed with a peanut. And global marketing prospects are excellent — simply Google “baru nut” to investigate more than 6.7 million results.

Peeled pequi fruit being sold at a Brasilia market. Many Cerrado fruits, nuts, honeys and vegetables are little known beyond the region, but that is beginning to change. Image by Jean Marconi.
The Kalunga quilombola community has been harvesting, savoring and saving locally grown sesame seeds for more than two centuries. Image by Ligia Meneguello.

The savanna’s endemic bounty

Macaúba coconut oil ranks second in consumer demand but oil from the babassu palm is also popular. Under law, the “coconut breakers” who harvest fruit and coconuts from wild palms have free access to these trees even when they’re located on private land. That includes the babassu which is so important that an old saying reveals how embedded it is in the culture: “Through my thin veins it’s not red or blue blood that flows, it’s pure milk, it’s pure babassu oil.”

There are many other saleable native products that have long been grown or harvested in the Cerrado. These include honey made by the mandaçaia (Melipona quadrifasciata), a stingless bee, and sesame that has been cultivated by the Indigenous Kalunga people for more than 300 years.

There are dozens of edible fruits, mostly unheard of outside the region. These include the sweet gabiroba (which looks like a small guava); the cagaita (resembling a shiny green tomato); the large, scaly-looking marolo (with creamy pulp and strong flavor); the berry-shaped mangaba, which means “good fruit for eating”; and the egg-shaped, emerald-green pequi. These versatile fruits are eaten fresh, used in jellies, juices, ice cream, flour, wines, syrups, cookies, cakes, medicines and more. Pequi is in especially high demand: it’s a dietary mainstay for local people that’s eaten daily, often with rice and chicken.

Coffee is a big crop in the Cerrado; 80% is exported. More than 2,350 km2 (900 mi2) is planted in the state of Minas Gerais alone. Nonprofits are working with growers to use less water and grow more sustainably. A coffee project overseen by Michael Becker, who implements the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund in the Cerrado, has developed natural insecticides and herbicides and is restoring deforested areas.

A man holds cagaita fruits, at the Kalunga quilombola community in Vão das Almas, Goiás state, Brazil. Image by Jean Marconi.

Growing market for sustainable food

There’s one problem that local harvesters and producers must overcome: many people living outside the Cerrado have no clue what to do with the fruits and nuts grown there — and because they’re artisanally grown or hand-harvested, they’re pricey. But over the past decade, these exotic foods have gained popularity with Brazil’s rising middle class, particularly among foodies, gourmet coffee lovers and those buying organic foods.

Celebrities, including natural cuisine chef Bela Gil and Alex Atala, a chef who uses regional ingredients grown by small-scale farmers, have boosted visibility and demand. Chefs working with the Cerrado on the Plate project use regional products in recipes and dishes served in urban haute cuisine restaurants. Their motto: “We want to see the Cerrado on the plate of the Brazilian and the world!”

Cerrado products are also beginning to appear on shelves at gourmet supermarkets and specialized shops in Brazil’s big cities. They’ve always been available at local markets, but with the help of nonprofits including Slow Food, cooperatives have established farmer’s markets. Cerrado Central, a brand supplied by cooperatives, sells high-end gourmet foods at its own shops and at São Paolo’s famous Municipal Market of Pinheiros. Some packaged Cerrado-centric products are now sold online.

A scene at the CBA (Congresso Brasileiro de Agroecologia) in Brasília in 2017. A woman from COPERUAÇU (a producers’ cooperative in Peruaçu, Minas Gerais state) is selling products made with Cerrado fruits — pequi, araticum, coquinho azedo and more, made into, and bottled as, jams, compote and pastes. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiatives are also becoming popular, with 20 or 30 families contracting directly with local farmers and harvesters to buy seasonal Cerrado food. Figueiredo estimated there are about 25 CSAs in Brasília alone.

There’s also a small but growing international market. The Body Shop buys organic babassu palm oil from a 150-member cooperative for use in cosmetics. Baru nuts are sold in the U.S. and were featured on Good Morning America by nutritionist Rachel Beller.

Overall, the Cerrado market is still relatively small, and the only reason these small-scale producers are in the game is because they’ve built associations, like the Amanu coconut producers, to organize production, expand markets and negotiate for fair trade prices.

Other communities have formed cooperatives, including Coppalj, which has 186 partner families in Brazil’s Maranhão state. It was established in 1991 so members could sell their coconuts, rice, beans, corn and other products jointly as a way to compete with large dealers who otherwise monopolized the markets.

Nonprofits are working with these seller and buyer groups to help them establish better environmental governance. Certification from the Rainforest Alliance or recognition by the Sustainable Agriculture Network Climate Module boosts sales with consumers who make food choices based on ethical land use.

A tasting event held in Italy during the Slow Food Terra Madre event of 2015. Displayed are six different kinds of manioc flour, pequi antipasto, buriti oil, jatobá fruits, Minas Gerais cachaça, peppers, platano and more. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

Peril and promise

Like all grassroots efforts, Cerrado slow food risks growing too fast and far. Recent gains in popularity have boosted demand for baru nut, and prices have risen too. “That means we’re at a crossroads,” Becker says. “In 10 years, will co-ops still be here? Or will they be substituted with plantations?”

He warns that even local foods can be turned into commodities. Large-scale monoculture growers generally benefit from an economy of scale, growing more and pricing it lower than traditional producers.

Another problem: with growing demand, “the price paid to the harvester is not growing proportionally, while the [agribusiness] pressure on the ecosystems is [increasing],” said de Podestà, the Slow Food Brazil coordinator.

Then there are the unpredictable market fluctuations, making business difficult for startups. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has slowed consumption for the last year, with many markets and schools closed, bringing economic hardship for many producers, says the University of Brasília’s Bustamente.

“Expedito,” a slow food producer, holding macaúba nuts, in the Comunidade do Xirú, jaboticatubas. Slow foods are offering traditional peoples new markets outside of the Cerrado and beyond Brazil. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

Still, it remains difficult for small producers to compete, period, especially because most federal and state policies support intensive, unsustainable big agriculture, Bustamente said. But one government program launched in 2003 has created an important market: schools must still buy fresh food for school lunches from small, local producers through the Food Procurement Program. During the pandemic, however, many schools have been closed.

Other threats to Brazil’s small-scale sustainable food system include ongoing deforestation and land conversion for industrial agriculture, increasing climate change-driven drought and insect pests spreading from industrial farms.

While plantation monoculture is an embedded part of Brazil’s economy, Figueiredo maintained that small-scale agriculture, and the growing of biodiversity-friendly products and organic foods, remains an important tool in protecting the endangered Cerrado.

Unfortunately, that’s still no substitute for outright land protection. In 2019, the National Campaign in Defense of the Cerrado handed government officials a petition with 570,000 signatures supporting a proposed constitutional amendment that would protect the Cerrado as a national heritage site. That bill was first introduced in 2010 and has been heavily debated since.

A vibrant display of Cerrado slow foods and soaps, including rapadura; brown sugar; macaúba fruits, oil and soap; and varieties of beans and fava at the CBA (Congresso Brasileiro de Agroecologia) in Brasília. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

In many cases, the biggest problem for small producers is land tenure, Figueiredo added, with big agribusiness land grabbers evicting people who have worked the land for generations, often violently, sometimes fatally. One Cerrado mega farm, Estrondo, a vast network of plantations, has been investigated for corruption: allegedly paying off judges, lawyers and others to legitimize stolen land. The current government of President Jair Bolsonaro has been resistant to helping traditional communities secure permanent legal land deeds.

Government support is also urgently needed in the form of subsidies for small producers. Relief may be on the way via a $50 million bond to fund green and sustainable projects through the Minas Gerais Development Bank, Becker says, supported by investment from the Inter-American Development Bank.

Experts warn that if the Cerrado continues along its current path — allowing high-intensity, industrial-scale production of commodities — poverty and food insecurity will increase in savanna communities that are dependent on the well-being of the often un-deeded wildlands that they harvest and forage.

Bustamente finds some hope for the traditional Cerrado in globalization: “There is increasing evidence of the connections between the world food system and global environmental change,” she said. “What we eat and how it is produced has a lot of consequences for the global environment and for local communities. And consumers have influence over what appears on their dinnerplate, and how and where it was produced.”

Correction: In this story’s original version the babassu palm (Attalea speciosa) and the macaúba palm (Acrocomia aculeata) were characterized as being the same species. Though both yield edible coconuts that provide oil, they are different species.

Banner Image: A meeting of families who are slow food producers as they formalize the Macaúba Oil Presidium in the community of Capão do berto, Jaboticatubas, Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Image courtesy of AMANU.

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A Kalunga woman displaying a native Cerrado coconut. Conservationists hope that the global boom in slow food production and awareness will be an economic boon for traditional peoples and help save the Cerrado savanna. Image by Ligia Meneguello.
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