Nut Harvesters Are Changing the Local Economy

Maranhão is one of the poorest Brazilian states. Despite its wealth of natural resources, 62.3 percent of the population lives below the poverty index defined by the World Health Organization, with the poorest families living in rural areas. Landlessness is one of the root causes for the widespread poverty in Maranhão. Without land, many peasant families struggle to eke out a living through seasonal jobs on plantations or large farms and through the harvesting of wild fruits such as the nuts of the native Babaçu palm tree. Barely able to feed themselves, these families are subjected to backbreaking work conditions and are often forced to migrate to cities and other regions. For the hard work of collecting the Babaçu and then breaking the shells to expose the nuts, peasants, mostly women, are paid a pittance by intermediaries who resell the nuts for a larger profit to pharmaceutical or cosmetic companies.
 
Collectively, however, the nut harvesters are winning rights and royalties that benefit the whole community. 
 
Created in 1986, the Association of Agrarian Reform Settlement Areas of the State of Maranhão (ASSEMA, a Grassroots International partner) supports rural families through specialized economic development and sustainable agro-forestry programs. An association of rural (largely women) workers, ASSEMA provides technical support to improve food production and peasants’ share in the local economy. The association also organizes peasant communities to lobby for a more equitable distribution of resources and to address the structural inequities that have kept the poor in Maranhão hungry for generations.
 
ASSEMA has developed agroecological practices to increase food production and protect the Babaçu trees, an important income source for local peasant women. Families have been encouraged to substitute conventional methods such as slash and burn practices, use of heavy machinery and chemical fertilizers, for practices that enhance soil fertility and conserve biodiversity.
 
In addition to the development of sustainable practices, local communities have been able to influence local governments to protect Babaçu reserves in Maranhão and guarantee harvesters’ rights to access to Babaçu reserves on private farmland.
 
Another challenge for the families has been the low price paid by the intermediaries. To address this problem, ASSEMA took on the challenge of understanding the new concepts and formal market rules related to fair trade. In 1991, local organizations came together to strategize ways to better organize their production and marketing, and move away from dependence on intermediaries. As a result, they created the Cooperative of Small Producers of the Lago do Junco Community (COOPAJL) to increase families’ income by creating an alternative system of cooperatively-controlled product marketing.
 
Through low-interest loans, members of COOPAJL were able to build a small oil extraction plant to process the production of affiliated communities and six small storage facilities or bodegas where families leave their weekly produce, and where the COOPAJL staff collects the nuts for oil extraction. COPPAJL buys over 80 household products (from food to hygiene supplies) in bulk and distributes them to the community cooperative stores, where Babaçu harvesters can trade their produce for less expensive basic goods. Through the bodega system, families are able to buy staple foods, such as rice and beans, at cheaper prices than they would otherwise find in other markets.
 
Their strategy is producing impressive results:
 
§ ASSEMA is providing technical support to 1,336 families of 12 settlement areas in 4 municipalities of Maranhão
 
§ Through extraction of oil from the Babaçu nut, families were able to receive 330 percent more for their product. Because of the processing plant, the amount paid to families increased from $0.15/kilo to $0.65/kilo.
 
§ Local intermediaries were forced to match COOPAJL’s Babaçu purchase price.
 
§ Profits are shared and the cooperative pays affiliates’ dues in the local rural labor unions. Families pay the dues as a requirement to access social security during retirement. 20 percent of COOPAJL members have already retired.
 
§ ASSEMA created the “Free Babaçu” product line, after their legislative victory in passing a law that guarantees freedom of access to Babaçu trees on private farmland.
 
§ ASSEMA has developed contracts between COOPALJ and international beauty product companies like The Body Shop, AVEDA, and others.
 
§ ASSEMA sued the Brazilian national beauty product company Natura and won. Now they have a contract with the company for processing the mesocarpo—outer hull—of the nut for beauty products. For the next three years, the company has to pay royalties to the community, acknowledging the traditional knowledge behind their beauty products. The community in turn will use these royalties to pay for organizer training and support to the collectives. The contract that ASSEMA developed with Natura has been celebrated as a model for indigenous communities, and a viable alternative to efforts to protect traditional knowledge rights.
 
§ ASSEMA received the first royalty for use of traditional knowledge, but Natura hasn’t launched its marketing plan. The company will have to pay 15 percent of the sales of Babaçu-based products to ASSEMA, and to other local organizations.