- A women’s group in Colombia’s Amazon is successfully leading a sustainable, and profitable, business by harvesting camu-camu, an acidic wild fruit with more vitamin C than an orange or lemon.
- The business has been able to produce four to 14 tons of fruit pulp per year for sale around the country, while sustainably managing the plant species’ population.
- The women played a pioneering role in Colombia by showing that non-timber forest resources could be used to generate income in areas of protected rainforest.
- The sustainable use of such resources has become a successful conservation strategy that has received praise from scientific institutes and environmental authorities.
In the village of Tarapacá, a group of women are working to strike the perfect balance between using the natural resources of the Amazon rainforest for income and protecting this very same ecosystem. Needing to support their families and community, the task is serious. And it is in the fruits of the forest, that the women found a business opportunity.
“We, Indigenous people of the Amazon, grew up in the forest and ever since we were children, our parents and grandparents taught us to preserve our natural environment,” said Cindy Gómez, an Indigenous women and member of the Association of Community Women of Tarapaca (Asmucotar). Living in Colombia’s department of Amazonas, Gómez and her community’s physical and cultural dependence on the forest means she is well aware that no activity should threaten it — including the use of its resources.
“We’re used to the fact that if we cut down an area of the forest to way space for our chagra (traditional farming system), we’ll have to reforest the area later,” she said.
The 30 women who make up Asmucotar, the majority of whom are Indigenous, found their invaluable ally in wild fruits traditionally part of their diet, but considered exotic in the rest of Colombia. They include the cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum), the araza (Eugenia stipitata) and the açaí (Euterpe oleracea). It is the camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia), however, that is the star of the show for these women.
The camu-camu, a small, acidic, gem of a fruit that contains more vitamin C than an orange or lemon, is testament to the unique biodiversity of the region. It grows naturally along riverbanks, on lakeshores, and on the plains flooded by whitewater rivers, known as várzeas. They can also be found in the Igapós of the Amazon, meaning the forests flooded by blackwater rivers. But the fruit can be difficult to find, since it can only be harvested once a year.
Diana Carolina Guerrero, an associate researcher at the Amazonian Scientific Research Institute SINCHI, said that in the past, the harvest season for the fruit stretched from December until January or February. But climate change, she told Mongabay, has led to the fruit not maturing until March or April. For scientists, the change in the camu-camu’s harvest season is an irrefutable piece of evidence of a changing climate. And women in the Amazon have borne witness to these changes.
Camu-camu trees are not very leafy and grow near lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water in the Amazon. Images by Amazonian Scientific Research Institute SINCHI and Asmucotar.
From a mom group to a savy business
As an organization, Asmucotar took an unusual path. They started in 1994 with the goal of creating a mutual support network for women who had no one to leave their children with while they were working in the fields. But they realized that, by working together, without worrying about whether they were Indigenous or colonos (non-Indigenous small-scale farmers who settle in rural areas), they could achieve their goals. They could solve difficulties faced by villagers who live in areas that receive little-to-no support from the state.
Their initial work was modest in scale: they organized raffles, sold empanadas and sancocho, a traditional type of stew, to raise funds. Over time, they were able to get enough money to buy a plot of land and request help from the local government to build an educational institute.
“Around here they say that [Asmucotar] is the mother of the school in Tarapacá,” said Trinidad Polanía, who is currently Asmucotar’s legal representative and is the daughter of two colonos who arrived in this part of the country in 1934 with the goal of getting land for themselves. Trinidad is the owner of a 90-hectare (222-acre) plot, of which only 10 hectares (24 acres) are dedicated to livestock farming. She has 20 heads of cattle which help support her family going through milk and cheese production, and uses both products in the bakery that she runs with one of her children.
Trinidad is aware of the threat that activities such as livestock farming pose to the Amazon, and does not plan to expand this activity to the other 80 hectares (197 acres) of land that she owns. “We keep [the 80 hectares of land] as a nature reserve and it will stay like that. I learnt that it is important to look after the rainforest,” Trinidad said, who also runs a small kiosk where she sells juices made from Amazonian fruits.
Asmucotar’s artisanal efforts reached a new height when in 2009 a team from the Amazonian Scientific Research Institute SINCHI arrived to carry out an inventory of plant species in the area and analyze the territory’s productive potential. At the time, Diana Guerrero explained, there was a boom on the Peruvian side of the border in the use of camu-camu.
“They would come to all the lakes and would harvest all of the fruit. They [the Peruvians] were very much leaders in harvesting [camu-camu],” she said. This led the SINCHI Institute to offer help to associations that wanted to make sustainable use of wild fruits, with Asmucotar taking them up on this offer.
“On the Colombian side, the camu-camu can be found in areas where forest reserves are located,” said Guerrero, “so we had to start looking at how we could use the resource in a sustainable and legal way.”
They then created a management plan for Corpoamazonía, the environmental authority responsible for the southern part of the Colombian Amazon, and requested permission to put the plan into action. They stressed the fact that the camu-camu was a non-timber resource and there would therefore be no need for the elimination of the individual plants, as is the case with timber products.
Corpoamazonía agreed, issuing a new resolution to regulate the sustainable use of non-timber resources in nature reserves. This meant that local communities could now apply for permission to sustainably use these resources. “It wasn’t the best at the time, but it allowed us to access the harvesting permit later on,” Diana Guerrero explained.
The environmental authority discovered that generating sources of income for local communities allowed them to tackle poverty, as well as served as a conservation strategy that could help to reduce deforestation in departments such as Caquetá, Putumayo, and Guaviare. It would also avoid the uncontrolled spread of deforestation to the department of Amazonas, which is, for now, the least deforested of the Colombian Amazon.
“It is necessary to establish requirements that allow associative groups to access the forest under legal conditions,” Corpoamazonía explained in a subsequent resolution which established the guidelines for accessing forest resources.
In 2011, Asmucotar obtained its first license from Corpoamazonía to carry out their activities. They could now harvest up to 75% of camu-camu fruits on an area measuring 21 hectares (about 52 acres) and near the lakes of Pechiboy, Juro de Brasil and Santa Clara.
“By sustainably harvesting it, the species can be maintained in sustainable conditions. We don’t intend on decimating the population,” explained María Soledad Hernández, coordinator of the SINCHI Institute’s sustainability and intervention program. “Studies and research allowed the Corpoamazonía to be sure about the permits that they were planning to issue.”
Growing the business
Asmucotar now has its second license. The association continues to work hand in hand with the SINCHI Institute, which constantly monitors the plant species’ population and supports Asmucotar in their application for co-financing projects and securing resources to buy equipment needed to process the fruit. Cindy and Trinidad said that they currently have a cold room, two pulping machines, two packing machines, a dehydrator, an electric plant, and industrial-sized stove and pot. They have also recently started using a water purification plant.
The men and women who collect the fruit from the Indigenous communities of Puerto Huila and Puerto Nuevo are the first link in the value chain of the camu-camu from Tarapacá. These men and women, Hernández said, prepare the fruit for processing. They are in charge of collecting the fruit and taking it to the collection center, where it is then processed by the women from Asmucotar. María Soledad Hernández explained how the pulp from the camu-camu has been a great opportunity, especially because its functional and nutritional properties do not vary after having been frozen.
“We installed a space where the product can be handled so that a high-quality pulp can be obtained, and the processing unit gives the women themselves the capacity to produce it and keep it frozen,” Hernández added.
The women of Asmucotar learnt quickly and now produce their own pulp for sale. The quantity of the product they produce depends on the orders they receive, Trinidad said.
“We’ve been able to extract a minimum of four tons [per year], up to even 14 tons per year,” she said. The women have clients in Leticia and Bogotá, but have found that it is not so easy to distribute the product, owing to the high costs involved in transporting the pulp to other parts of the country, which adds considerably to the logistics and distribution side of the costs involved.
“It’s a 30-minute flight from Tarapacá to Leticia, and up to 5 days if you transport it by boat,” Cindy Gómez explained.
The high costs of transporting their goods are not the only problem that the entrepreneurial women of Asmucotar face: there is also climate change. The women say they’re directly experiencing changes to the climate as the fruits’ harvest season shifts. “Sometimes it is late and sometimes it is early,” Cindy said. Trinidad added that there was one year in particular in which it was so dry that “the plants aborted their fruits,” leaving production levels to plummet to close to nothing.
The camu-camu’s harvest season coincides with rising waters level in the rivers. But Diana Guerrero explains that SINCHI and locals are witnessing two impacts of climate change. On the one hand, there are times when the river rises so quickly that it covers the camu-camu and it cannot be harvested. While there are other times in the summer when the lakes dry up completely and there are cracks in the soil.
“This means that some plants do not flower,” she said.
Making new products from the fruit
Because the women of Asmocutar want to increase their profits by making many products with camu-camu, rather than just processing it, they’ve begun making jams. They have taken the jams to laboratories to undergo the necessary microbiological studies in order to be able to obtain permission from the National Institute of Food and Drug Surveillance (Invima) for their production and trading. The women have already taken the jams to different fairs and markets, where they have found success.
The SINCHI institute also created a spray-drying technique for the camu-camu that creates a powdered form of the fruit. The resulting product, Hernández claims, is even more stable than the camu-camu pulp, and in cooperation with one of their clients, a company called Salud por Nuestra Tierra, they created a line of flavored waters, called Waira, which have begun to be sold in restaurants in Bogotá.
While the dehydrated form of the camu-camu is a revolutionary step in the use of this wild fruit, the women of Asmucotar have their eyes set on expanding the range of products they produce, beyond the processed pulp and jams. Their plan is to do with the camu-camu what they have already done with other Amazonian fruits such as the cupuaçu, which is similar to cacao and can be used to make a type of chocolate (known as Copolate), biscuits, cakes, chocolate bars and even alcoholic spirits.
Sabajón, as the cupuaçú-based spirit is known, was created by Cicerón Polanía, one of Trinidad’s brothers, who one day saw an opportunity in the discarded ‘waste’ of the processed cupuaçú. Although many of the seeds that resulted from pulping were taken to the nursery and planted, many were also thrown away. Cicerón decided to try and make an experiment with them and, with the help of Colombia’s National Learning Service (SENA), he created a unique new drink, which even went on to win first prize in a regional fair organized by SENA.
Abraham Polanía, another one of Trinidad’s brothers, is a forestry engineer and originally worked as a contractor from the SINCHI Institute. He is the only man who was accepted as a member of Asmucotar, where he is responsible for fieldwork, management planning, and advising on marketing and project development. Just like his sister Trinidad, he has become fascinated by the uses of Amazonian fruits and conservation efforts in the rainforest.
“We try to mitigate all the possible impacts,” Abraham Polanía explained, adding that, in the case of the camu-camu, the seeds that are left over after the fruit has been processed are either returned to the lakes or planted in some of the community’s fields that lie in flooded areas.
Abraham said he feels lucky to be able to work with the women of Asmucotar who went from selling empanadas together to producing tons of wild fruits for sell. He added that as an organization, Asmucotar has even done work to recover ancestral knowledge, like the use of medicinal plants.
“Our parents and grandparents want us to learn our customs and pass them on to our children,” explained Cindy Gómez. Gómez says that spreading her love of the rainforest onto others is perhaps the only way to protect it. “We live off it, it sustains us, it gives us food and life,” she stressed.
The organization’s work has been so exemplary that Corpoamazonía updated its guidelines. The environmental authority created a new resolution that repealed the original 2010 one, providing updated guidelines on the evaluation of plant species and eliminating the previous need to inventory 100% of the plant population, which made the studies more wasteful and costly.
Asmucotar, under Trinidad’s leadership, will continue working to promote the legacy of the Amazonian women. Cindy Gómez, meanwhile, will continue to empower all those who wish to maximize the potential of the region’s fruits, not only through her work with Asmucotar, but also through the SINCHI Institute, where she supports other entrepreneurial womens’ groups.
Banner image: The processing of the pulp of the camu-camu and its subsequent use for products such as jams or alcoholic spirits has created a business opportunity for the women of Asmucotar. Image by Amazonian Scientific Research Institute SINCHI.
This article is part of the project ‘Amazon rights in focus: peoples and forest protection’, a series of investigative articles about deforestation and environmental crimes currently happening in Colombia. It is funded by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. Editorial decisions are taken independently and not on the basis of support from donors.
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