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Indigenous Suruí turn invaders’ crop into high-quality Amazonian coffee

  • The Indigenous Paiter Suruí people of Brazil have reclaimed the coffee farms established by invaders on their land, in the process opening up a new source of livelihood and strengthening community bonds.
  • Through training and partnerships, this Indigenous community has learned how to process coffee beans to specialty standards, yielding a high-quality and highly valued product.
  • Today, coffee production is a significant source of income for 132 families of various Indigenous ethnicities living in Rondônia state.
  • Growing coffee has also become an opportunity for the Suruí to tell their own story, through ethnotourism and the training of Indigenous baristas like Celesty Suruí.

Coffee was not a crop traditionally grown by the Paiter Suruí people, an Indigenous community in the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory, deep in the Brazilian Amazon. The Suruí’s first contact with the plant was in 1969, which was also their first contact with non-Indigenous people.

At the time, Brazil’s federal government was encouraging settlement in the country’s Amazonian region, with promises of land concessions and better living conditions. The region was soon occupied by loggers, miners and others taking advantage of the opportunity. Hundreds of Indigenous people died, mostly from introduced diseases like measles.

“The people who invaded the territory planted some coffee trees. But they weren’t good plants, they damaged our soil,” says environmental engineer and community leader Xener Paiter Suruí, son of Chief Almir Suruí, a well-known figure in the fight for sustainability.

Following many conflicts with the settlers who had exploited their land, and with the government, the Suruí eventually won official demarcation for their Indigenous territory in 1976; the land was permanently handed over to them, albeit partially, in 1983.

That was when the Suruí began to reforest the degraded areas and learned to cultivate coffee. The plantations inherited from the people who had colonized the territory gave the Suruí their first experience as merchants — they started by selling the beans, unprocessed, in neighboring cities.

A Paiter Suruí coffee farm inside the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of Walela Soepilema.

Based on their knowledge of the forest’s dynamics, the Suruí understood that coffee needs shade. They began planting coffee alongside other crops such as cacao, Brazil nuts, bananas and cassava, all without the use of pesticides. The agroforestry areas contrast starkly with the deforested landscapes surrounding the territory.

“They don’t plant large areas, but rather small patches and always at the edge of the forest. That way, the coffee absorbs everything the forest can provide, including water,” says Indigenous technical consultant Thamyres Ribeiro, who works for the Kanindé Ethno-environmental Defense Association and who has also worked with the Paiter Suruí for about 25 years. “The dynamic of this forest is nothing more than the much-studied agroforestry system, of which the Suruí possess authentic, ancestral understanding.”

Limited editions for all of Brazil

In 2018, the Suruí established a partnership with Brazilian coffee producer 3 Corações called Projeto Tribos. The project encourages Indigenous people to become leading participants by providing professional training, infrastructure, and coffee processing. Small, limited harvests are released annually — the next will be the fifth edition — and sold across Brazil. The community gets back 100% of the sales revenue, and 3 Corações buys the entire harvest.

The product label, with paper made from basil seeds, has a tag with Tupi Mondé writing, which is the Paiter Suruí’s official language, describing the product. The project was developed together with the federal agencies for Indigenous affairs and agricultural research, and other institutions, and involves 132 Indigenous families from diverse ethnicities spread across 28 municipalities in Rondônia state.

The coffee is characterized by a taste and aroma with notes of dried fruits, black tea, Brazil nuts and dark chocolate, a creamy-to-liquory body, and low acidity. Classified as a specialty coffee because of its high ratings, this robusta variant thrives in hot, humid climates like that found in Sete de Setembro.

Indigenous coffee grower Djonatan Suruí, with a suspended coffee drying rack. Image courtesy of Walela Soepilema.

The region’s terroir for coffee has won it recognition: in 2021, it was awarded the Rondônia Forests Geographical Indication Tag. While many people still turn their noses up at robusta coffee, it’s a variety that, when well-cultivated, has started to catch market interest and is worth more on the specialty coffee scene due to its characteristics and complexities.

Once they were involved in the project, the Suruí began fermenting and selecting the beans — two essential steps in raising the quality and rating of specialty coffees.

The 3 Corações partnership hasn’t been the only important one: another with COFFEA Trips has also been key.

Owned by Brazilian journalist Kelly Stein, COFFEA Trips offers tour packages to various coffee plantations, historical farms, roasting houses, cafes and cooperatives around Brazil. One of these expeditions heads to Rondônia every year, with a visit to the village of Lapetanha in the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory. Participants get to join all the stages of coffee growing and processing.

Robusta coffee beans in Suruí territory. Image courtesy of Walela Soepilema.

Stein also has a social project to train Indigenous baristas, where Celesty Suruí, a coffee grower, received her training. “We are working to educate people about coffee so they can become respected professionals, provide consulting, give classes and take part in competitions,” Stein says. “I see this as an opportunity to give coffee a new meaning for the Suruí people: instead of the wounds from genocide, this is a story of overcoming obstacles and survival. This is how Celesty can decide to become a barista.”

“It was really a difficult decision to make because I was afraid of being criticized,” Celesty Suruí says. “But [being able] to speak as part of a community who fights for survival and to tell our true history spoke louder for me than the fear.” Asked about her motivations for representing the Suruí as a barista, she says, “I received training so that I can teach the women in my community to prepare coffee and continue to learn so our work can be valued as much as it deserves.”

Indigenous barista Celesty Suruí. Image courtesy of Walela Soepilema.

Engaging youth

Growing coffee is a significant source of income for Suruí communities. Since the partnership with 3 Corações was established, they’ve been able to sell their beans at much higher prices than before. “Most of us are young entrepreneurs who want to develop our territory in a sustainable way,” Xener Paiter Suruí says. “Coffee is important because it has given us visibility, and has therefore improved the quality of life for our farmers.” He adds the group is carrying out a market study to develop its own brand of coffee.

The coffee business has also led to new opportunities for ethnotourism. Actively receiving people from other places provides viable income to bolster the economy inside Indigenous communities while protecting biodiversity. In Lapetanha, there are already facilities offering accommodation, traditional foods, coffee tasting, dance and music activities, hiking and river swims, with presentations of Suruí history, knowledge, culture, medicine, crafts, graphics, pottery and other customs.

Lapetanha village, in the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of Bruno Carvalho.

For Thamyres Ribeiro, tourism is helping strengthen traditional culture and a sense of belonging, especially for the young people. “It was gratifying to watch the young people’s involvement in creating a structure for tourism inside the territory. Many have tried to hide their Indigenous roots because of prejudices before. But now that they see that the visitors value and respect Suruí culture, the young people are becoming proud to be Indigenous people. They are learning songs that they never wanted to learn before. When the tourists arrive, they are the first to receive them. They tell their story, sing, and paint their graphics.” Ribeiro adds that the elder population is shrinking, and so the involvement of the young people is vital.

Ribeiro also says Indigenous culture is dynamic and transforms itself over time, depending on interactions between the villages and the outside world. One example has been the introduction of coffee to the Paiter Suruí diet.

“We drink it a lot in our day-to-day life, mostly because it gives us energy,” Xener Paiter Suruí says. However, it hasn’t replaced ancestral beverages like juices made from sweet potato, yucca, corn, açaí and patfuá (an Amazonian palm similar to açaí), or gongo, a larva that lives in the trunks of many palm trees and is a source of proteins and carbohydrates. The Suruí diet is based on what the forest offers in each season of the year. “They aren’t like coffee, but they do give us energy that lasts all day long,” Xener Paiter Suruí says.

Banner image of Celesty Suruí, an Indigenous barista and coffee farmer who lives in the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of Walela Soepilema.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 25, 2023.

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