The Cerrado: Brazil's Second Biggest Biome, Part 2 of 2

Brazilian Farmers Develop Alternatives to Deforestation

By David Dudenhoefer

NIOAQUE, Brazil, June 10, 2003 (ENS) – On his farm in Assentamento Andalucia, a settlement of formerly landless families in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Antonio de Oliveira showed off 500 recently planted baru saplings. Though still tiny, he has high hopes for those trees, which in five years should begin producing seeds similar to peanuts.

Baru is fairly common in the surrounding cerrado – a mosaic of forest and savanna that covers nearly two million square kilometers in central Brazil – but few people harvest their seeds. Like most of the cerrado’s 10,000 plant species, baru trees are commonly destroyed as land is cleared for crops and pasture. But at the Andalucia settlement, baru is one of three native trees being promoted by a project that aims to diversify the community’s income base while improving its relationship with the environment.

Oliveira

Cerrado farmer Antonio de Oliveira with a newly planted baru sapling. (Photo © D. Dudenhoefer)
The coordinator of that project, biologist Rosane Bastos of Ecologia e Ação (Ecology and Action), explained that slash and burn agriculture threatens wilderness all over the municipality of Nioaque, which has eight settlements in addition to Andalucia.

The 166 families that the Brazilian government settled on the Andalucia ranch in 1997 grow various crops and raise cattle, which puts increasing pressure on the area’s remaining cerrado.

Bastos is consequently promoting the propagation and exploitation of three local tree species with economic potential - baru, which produces edible nuts; pequi, which has a popular fruit; and jatobá, the seed pods of which yield a flour used to flavor cakes and cookies.

“Our goal is to promote the use of these trees so that people don’t cut them down,” Bastos said.

The project is funded by the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme (SGP), which is implemented by the UN Development Programme. Donald Sawyer, the SGP national coordinator for Brazil, said the cerrado is a diverse and threatened biome that has largely been neglected by conservationists. He noted that though more than half of Brazil’s cerrado has been destroyed, only 1.5 percent of the biome is protected within conservation areas, which makes environmental management on private lands essential.

“The priority in the cerrado is sustainable land use,” he said.

Sawyer hopes Andalucia can reap the kind of success enjoyed by a comparable project in Montes Claros, in the drier cerrado of northern Minas Gerais state. That innovative enterprise started by the Centro de Agricultura Alternativa (Center for Alternative Agriculture) buys fruit from poor farmers who collect it in the wild, and turns it into juice pulp. The bagged pulp is sold to schools and hospitals, where it is mixed with water to make juice.

dos Santos

Jair dos Santos displays coquinho palm fruit. (Photo © D. Dudenhoefer)
The project began in 1997, when the SGP funded construction of a pulp plant, and has since grown into a cooperative enterprise that buys fruit from 230 families in 56 rural communities scattered around the city of Montes Claros. The sale of fruit is a boon for those families, many of which survive on less than $3 a day.

The pulp plant, which last year produced 32 tons of fruit pulp with a market value of about $43,000, has been supplemented by a distribution center built with a grant from the federal Fondo Brasileiro para a Biodiversidade (Brazilian Fund for Biodiversity). Though the enterprise has received funding from various sources, it is becoming a self-sufficient business, owned and managed by local farmers.

One of those farmers, Jair dos Santos, began selling coquinho palm fruit to the project in 1997. Since then, a dozen of his neighbors have followed suit.

Dos Santos said that from October to January, the palms produce so much fruit that he and his neighbors cannot collect half of it. Pointing out the numerous small palms that have reproduced naturally in the cerrado around his home, he attributed their abundance to the fact that his neighbors have stopped lighting fires, which were commonly used to clear land for planting.

“Everybody who collects fruit is conserving the cerrado,” he said. “They quit burning, they quit cutting, they quit destroying.”