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In the land of honey and nuts: Indigenous solutions to save Brazil’s Cerrado

  • Indigenous groups including the Terena, Kayapó and Kuikuro peoples are helping to both protect biodiversity and improve their welfare in the Cerrado by producing honey, roasted baru nuts and babaçu palm oil.
  • Brazil’s second-largest biome and one of its most deforested, the Cerrado has lost half its original vegetation due to pressure from agribusiness and infrastructure projects.
  • The paving of the BR-242 and MT-322 highways and construction of the EF-170 rail line are among the controversial projects driven by agribusiness that are expected to highly impact Indigenous territories in the biome.
  • Indigenous communities are developing economic projects centered on the sustainable production of food resources native to the Cerrado, in the process helping to safeguard the world’s most biodiverse savanna and one of its richest in cultural diversity.

The Nioaque Indigenous Territory in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state is home to some 2,000 Terena people living in four villages. The territory spans some 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of the Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse — but also most threatened — savanna biome.

In the Terena village of Água Branca, residents are working on ways to preserve that biodiversity while also improving their own welfare — and the Aguamel project here has already proven to be economically viable. As for its socioenvironmental importance, “there is no doubt,” says Claudionor do Carmo Miranda, an agricultural engineer and president of the Água Branca Indigenous Producers Association (APROAB).

The association used 80,000 reais ($16,700) in funding from the Resilient Cerrado Project (CERES) to buy equipment, install 67 beehives, and train 15 Indigenous residents to raise bees. After just over a year of work, production is expected to double.

“We have already produced 680 kilos [1,500 pounds] of honey and expect to reach 1,300 kilos [2,870 lbs] by the end of 2023. We plan to grow our team and our production every year,” Miranda says.

The honey is sold at farmers’ markets in the city of Nioaque and in the Indigenous territory, and there are plans to include the honey in Indigenous school lunch programs.

Miranda, an ethnic Terena with a master’s degree in rural development studies, says the initiative could make a big difference in both the economy and food security of this Indigenous territory, located in the transition zone between the Cerrado and Pantanal biomes.

The Aguamel project was funded by the Brazilian government’s Agrarian Development and Rural Extension Agency (AGRAER) and the National Rural Learning Service (SENAR). It’s now nearing its conclusion, and APROAB is working on organic certification for the Água Branca honey. Miranda will present Aguamel’s results and discuss a new project at a community meeting in July to keep things going.

He says the first stage of the project was important for organizing production. Now, he intends to bring the three other villages in the territory into the project. “They all have space to put in apiaries,” he says.

Aside from the high demand for honey regionally, these villages have the advantage of not being surrounded by industrial farms, where crops are routinely dusted with chemical pesticides — an increasingly common reality weighing on other Indigenous territories throughout Brazil. “The land surrounding us is used for cattle farming,” Miranda says.

In partnership with the environmental organization Ambiental MS Pantanal, APROAB plans to build a greenhouse to raise seedlings of native plants like aroeira or Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia), cumbaru or baru nut (Dipteryx alata), sucupira (Pterodon emarginatus) and jatobá-do-cerrado or Brazilian copal (Hymenaea courbaril), together with fruit trees like lime, guava and acerola, as well as other plants considered important for honey bees to feed on. Their flowers will be ideal for attracting the bees and boosting honey production while contributing to the floral diversity of the Cerrado.

The first 100 seedlings have already arrived, but the association plans to produce a total of 10,000 in 2023 and another 15,000 in 2024. “We will fill our riverbanks, swamps and other spaces with these trees,” Miranda says.

Beehives belonging to the Terena people in Água Branca village, in the Nioaque Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of APROAB.

Baru nuts: An economic opportunity for Kayapó women

Over in the Capoto Jarina Indigenous Territory, in neighboring Mato Grosso state, Indigenous Kayapó will experiment with roasting baru nuts, native to the Cerrado, during their harvest from July to September this year.

“Their children love the nuts,” says Bruno Américo Carvalho Pereira, an agricultural engineer at the Raoni Institute, which advocates for the Kayapó people.

The Kayapó traditionally eat baru, but not roasted. “We tried it, and the children liked them. The women saw the children eating them, decided to taste them, and liked them as well,” Pereira says.

This new way of consuming the traditional nut should generate additional income for the women, who already produce oil from the babaçu palm (Attalea speciosa) for sale. The oil is widely used by Indigenous women for cooking, for treating wounds, and for moisturizing skin and hair.

This project, created together with the Kayapó women and approved by the CERES Project, aims to guarantee greater economic autonomy in a community where socioeconomic power has culturally been controlled by the men. In large part, this is because most Kayapó men speak Portuguese, while most of the women don’t. The project is considered to be a “paradigm shift” in this Indigenous territory, covering 635,000 hectares (1.57 million acres) of the Cerrado. Most of the Kayapó territories in Brazil are located in the Amazon Rainforest.

A CERES Project planning workshop in the Capoto Jarina Indigenous Territory in November 2022. Image courtesy of Takako Metuktire.

The Kayapó sought out Central do Cerrado, an institution that works with traditional products from the biome, to be their business partner. Central will help with organization and technical training within the communities, and sponsor an event in June to teach the women the importance of familiarizing themselves with the production chain of the nuts they select for generating their income. This will be followed by cultural exchange activities, which are fundamental to kicking off the harvest and nut-processing period. There are no plans yet to buy special equipment, so the nuts will be roasted in each village’s existing yucca flour mill. The Raoni Institute will then sell the nuts according to mapping carried out by Central do Cerrado.

There are 35 women involved in the experimental project, and the Capoto Jarina Cultural Association is expected to support the project until the women can fully coordinate it themselves. With an 18-month timeline slated to finish in 2024, the project also aims to leave a legacy for Indigenous youth.

As with other Indigenous territories, external threats are putting pressure on Capoto Jarina.

“We have been concerned about agribusiness and the attempts being made to convince Indigenous people to rent out their land,” Pereira says.

He adds that a state government project to pave the MT-322 highway, part of the supporting logistics network for the EF-170 railway, poses the great risk to nature and traditional ways of living because it runs along the border of Xingu Indigenous Park. This controversial project has already been given priority by the federal government, Mongabay reported earlier this year. Indigenous leaders have been meeting to demand prior consultation by the developers with their communities during the environmental licensing process. Aside from paving the road, the project involves construction of a bridge that would essentially eliminate the ferry service that the Indigenous people run across the Xingu River.

Every part of the fruit is used in babaçu nut processing. Here, the husks of the fruit are burned to make charcoal. Image courtesy of Peter Caton/ISPN.

‘Their existence must be seen’

“Indigenous peoples play a fundamental role in biodiversity conservation in the Cerrado because they have a lifestyle that coexists harmoniously with nature,” says forestry engineer Terena Castro, a technical consultant with the Society, Population and Nature Institute (ISPN), one of the organizations behind the CERES Project. “In order for these peoples to be protected, their existence must be seen.”

Castro notes that the Cerrado “is home to diverse Indigenous ethnicities who have lived here for centuries” and says that “deforestation needs to be stopped in the biome through creation of protected areas like Indigenous territories and conservation units.”

The CERES Project supports six Indigenous initiatives in the Cerrado, Castro says, from honey production and food farming, to medicinal plant studies and scaling up of both babaçu oil and baru nut production. She also points to ethno-tourism as another potential alternative for socioeconomic development.

Castro says the main obstacle to these projects is legal insecurity, “because of the lack of land regularization in the territories.” She says this is why it’s “urgent that recognition and ratification of Indigenous lands be carried out,” adding that “there must be funding for these initiatives.”

Another obstacle to progress is the lack of public policy protecting the Indigenous territories and income generation based on “proposals and projects that are of interest to the Indigenous communities themselves,” Castro says, adding there needs to be greater support for Indigenous leadership on these initiatives.

Luciane Moessa, executive and technical director of the Sustainable Inclusive Solutions Association (SIS), agrees that economic growth for Indigenous peoples requires consistent public policy, but points to the importance of private sector involvement.

“The financial sector should no longer provide credit for, nor invest in, activities that are harmful to Indigenous communities,” she says. “The issue is already clearly addressed in banking regulations.”

Moessa says Indigenous projects “can and should be included in a green taxonomy — the classification of economic activities aimed at making capital flow toward activities that benefit the environment, society and the climate.” A study published by SIS in 2022 presents recommendations for Brazil along these lines.

Kuikuro honey producers in Ipatse, a village inside Xingu Indigenous Park. Image courtesy of Bob Kuikuro.

Hopes for honey production

Another Indigenous initiative funded by the CERES Project in the Cerrado is honey production in Ipatse, a Kuikuro village that’s home to some 800 people inside Xingu Indigenous Park, also in the state of Mato Grosso. Yacagi Kuikuro Mehinaku, president of the local Indigenous health council and ex-president of the Xingu Indigenous Association, says the communities are eagerly awaiting their first harvest at the end of this year from 80 hives. Of these, 45 were paid for by the CERES Project and the rest by funding from the Mato Grosso state government.

“The project made it possible for us to buy the materials we needed to organize apiculture in our village,” Yacagi says.

The Kuikuro in the Upper Xingu are following in the footsteps of the Kawaiwete, Yudja, Kisêdjê and Ikpeng, other Indigenous groups from the Lower and East Xingu who have been raising bees for many years now. The projects there grew so strong that the Xingu Indigenous Land Association (ATIX) was awarded the United Nations Equator Prize in 2017. By then, 39 villages were already producing around 2 metric tons of certified honey per year for sale at large national supermarket chains. In 2022, the Xingu Seed Network Association received the same prize for its role in helping restore native plant species in the region.

Kuikuro bee farmers prepare boxes for hives in Ipatse village, Xingu Indigenous Park. Image courtesy of Bob Kuikuro.

“Standing forest brings in money,” Yacagi says. He’s about to get his degree in public administration and plans to develop more projects and apply for funding for Indigenous entrepreneurism. Aside from making communities stronger economically, he says, the honey produced in the villages will provide a welcome and healthy alternative to the processed foods that the Indigenous residents often consume.

The Xingu park, too, is surrounded by industrial soybean farms and under pressure from infrastructure projects.

“The Xingu Indigenous Park is like and island,” Yacagi says, describing it as a holdout where large swaths of nature and culture are preserved in the midst of the devastation being wrought across the Cerrado and Amazon biomes. Just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the park is the region where the EF-170 rail line will cross. Even closer, just 10 km (6 mi) away, is the route for the BR-242 highway, which is expected to connect Brazil’s Central West region with the state of Bahia, where agribusiness is booming at the expense of the dwindling forests.

The proximity of the road has facilitated access to processed foods in the villages, resulting in health problems among the Indigenous population, Yacagi says. “We want to develop organic farming projects and sell the produce in the cities as well as feed our own people.”

Banner image: Kayapó residents in the Capoto Jarina Indigenous Territory in Mato Grosso state are banking on roasted baru nuts to generate additional income. Image courtesy of Camila Araujo/ISPN.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on June 5, 2023.

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