Protected Atlantic Forest
“When folks arrived here saying we could eat the Juçara palm tree fruit, we thought it was weird… That was something for the birds… People were scared of even trying it. For us, that tree gave us the palm heart.”
In the beginning, there was resistance. Then, some braver ones tasted the Juçara palm tree (Euterpe edulis) fruit juice, and the fate of this tree, already on the Atlantic Forest’s list of species in extinction, began to change. The possibilities of protecting and recovering the Atlantic Forest biome also changed.
When the first Europeans moored their ships on South American shores, they found lush forests with thousands of trees of all kinds and sizes, and numerous animals they had never seen. Of course, they also encountered a diverse population, spread from the extreme south to the north, living a full life adapted to this complex ecosystem we now call the Atlantic Forest.
After five centuries, little of this original landscape, or of the inhabitants who contributed to its diversity and richness, has survived. Dona Dalva, who opened this story talking about her experience with the Juçara palm tree fruit juice, is a descendant of that original population – seacoast dwellers (caiçaras) who still face many challenges to maintain their traditional lifestyle. She is a very active community leader, the vice-president of the Sertão de Ubatumirim Residents Association. This is a tradtional community located in the Ubatuba municipality, on São Paulo state’s northern coast.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know the Juçara palm tree fruit juice,” added Dona Dalva. “I lived in Ubatumirim all my life. I raised my children and now I have five grandchildren. These families around here… everybody knew the palm heart to eat, to sell… but not the fruit. Now, with the production of the juice, everything has changed!”
Dona Dalva talks happily of the great change in her life after she got to know, tasted, and liked the Juçara palm tree pulp juice, and after she became part of a network of producers, researchers, and promoters of this powerful food that also has helped to preserve the forest.
Dona Laura, a leader in the Quilombo da Fazenda community, also located in Ubatuba, is another representative of this population. They are helping to preserve the forest through their form of occupation. However, she also admitted that the community used to cut the palm hearts to sell, unaware of the environmental damage this practice caused.
“We here didn’t know the Juçara palm tree was becoming extinct. We used to sell [the palm heart] without noticing we were helping to finish the forest off. Nobody knew we could eat the fruit. When I tasted it…I loved it! If there is juice every day, I’ll drink it. I got addicted to it.”
Biospehere reserve, national heritage
The importance of the Atlantic Forest led UNESCO to declare it a biosphere reserve. Even Brazil acknowledged its importance when the 1988 Constitution recognized it as a national heritage. Conservation units were initiated to protect what remains of the Atlantic Forest (8.5%). Economic interest groups wanting to exploit those same areas immediately confronted them. This also revealed a little known reality: the traditional populations have cared for and managed those forests, enabling them to survive to this day. They were the Indigenous peoples, Quilombolas, seacoast dwellers, people who always dealt with the forest, farming small lots, collecting plants, and hunting – such as Dona Dalva and Dona Laura’s families. Despite the illegal extraction of Juçara palm hearts that brought the Euterpe edulis to the brink of extinction in this biome, these communities have helped to preserve the forest. Their engagement in the Juçara project means they can reverse that situation.
Getting to know and working in the Atlantic Forest
To try to understand and work in this biome, the CASA Fund created a special program to support projects and initiatives, working in partnership with other institutions and organizations to identify problems and invest in possible solutions.
Support for community-based tourism is one alternative that helps families and communities to remain in threatened areas of the Atlantic Forest. Other such initiatives include: projects with fishers and family farmers’ associations; support to communities fighting to block large projects and other interventions damaging to the environment; reforestation projects; confronting advances of soybean, eucalyptus, and mining activities; projects to publicize and circulate information involving publications, courses, and documentaries; education and capacity building; and public policies.
A network promoting the wellbeing of forests and life
Perhaps the Juçara Network, with dozens of nodes in all states along the Brazilian coastline (from Rio Grande do Sul to Espírito Santo states), is the factor that has raised more hopes for protecting what is left of the Atlantic Forest, and for recovering degraded areas. It involves the active participation of communities, as protagonists, beneficiaries, and multipliers of this experience. Dona Dalva’s story continues:
“This work has been going on for eight years. I’ve been part of this project for five. Since then, the number of Juçara palm trees in the forest has increased a lot – and here in my backyard and on the small farm where I spent my childhood. I really like this work. Together with other women, we clean and wash the fruit carefully, then we leave it soaking in warm water to soften the fruit pulp, extract the pulp, and make the juice. Adult and young men climb the palm trees to get the Juçara bunches. This is difficult. The tree is very tall, and they have to be careful not to damage the fruit. They use a piece of cotton waste bag to support their feet when climbing. They call this kind of strap peconha.”
Learning about the Juçara palm tree
Dona Dalva said that the children in the community are now used to drinking the Juçara fruit juice.
“We blend it with other fruits too. It’s very tasteful and good for your health. The community supplies the fruit for school snacks. Thus, school kids eat healthy food, from our region, and learn to appreciate forest fruits.”
Just as other communities that resisted in the Serra do Mar, between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states, this community’s territory overlaps areas of the Serra do Mar State Park (PESM) and the Serra Bocaina National Park (PNSB) – thus restricting the community’s use of those lands. Utilization of the Juçara palm tree fruit gave a new breath to those communities, improving their diet, generating income, reinforcing their relation to the land, and offering work involving several generations.
“The Juçara Project was very important for our community,” said Dona Laura. It’s not just the juice; it changed our lives. Today, we have a special affection for the Juçara. It improved the kids’ health because it’s full of good properties, brought us more joy, partners, and possibilities. The Palmares Foundation recognized our territory as a quilombo in 2005, but the land hasn’t been legalized yet. We are inside the Serra do Mar State Park and this makes it very hard for us to have projects approved, and manage to survive on our land. That’s why this project is so important.”
Dona Dalva also says she feels very glad to see new palm trees growing in the forest. “After taking out the juice, we use the seeds for seedlings. We also throw the seeds directly on the ground to grow more palm trees. We learned all this with the people from the Atlantic Forest Permaculture and Ecovillages Institute (IPEMA), who came here to show us the value of the Juçara and teach us the procedures.”
Hamilton Bufalo is one of the “fathers” of the Juçara Network. “The Network was born in a bar conversation, during a Ministry of Environment Demonstration Projects Subprogram (PDA) meeting in Rio de Janeiro, in 2007. Research work and implementation of Juçara management projects had been going on for years, in isolation, in different regions. It only began to gain momentum in 2008, when the Network was organized. Sometimes, the person is there, working hard and alone. He or she has no idea of the importance or the direction their work could take. When they can participate in workshops, meet other people who experience the same issue, then the exchange is very exciting.”
Conflicts between conservation units and traditional populations
Hamilton began working at the IPEMA Institute as a volunteer. IPEMA is a public interest civil society organization headquartered in Ubatuba. Because of his involvement and direct work with the communities, he focused on the conflict with the Conservation Units.
“The legislation doesn’t include a harmonious sharing of territory, and makes any initiative very hard. All of a sudden, communities cannot plant cassava and bananas that provided for them. They cannot extract materials for arts and crafts; they no longer manage to survive on their land. Juçara management has brought about new possibilities. The project was very well accepted, as returns are visible and fast. The Juçara fruit juice was well received, seeds were returned to the forest, and a species in extinction was reborn. It all started slowly, with artisanal production, but it has gradually grown because people could see the result of their effort. Today, here in São Paulo state, the Ubatumirim community is the most advanced. It has a processing kitchen, equipment, and supplies products to the São Paulo municipality. There are over 20 families providing several products in this Juçara project.”
The CASA Socio-Environmental Fund played an important role in the construction of this Network. We supported the 2010 Juçara Network Meeting held in Registro, in São Paulo state’s Ribeira Valley. Over 300 people came together, involving 15 partner organizations and other invited institutions. The CASA Fund also directly supported the work of some communities, such as the Quilombo da Fazenda, the Ubatumirim Association, and the seacoast community of Praia do Bonete. It has also supported many communities to develop agroforestry projects, following the Juçara Project, as the Juçara palm tree is just one of the species that can be managed sustainably in the Atlantic Forest to improve the lives of traditional populations.
The Juçara Network pools together organizations from several regions in the country, each one with its own reality and specificity. The Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ) has been a very important partner in research and analyses that helps to develop projects. The palm tree Euterpe edulis was becoming extinct, but is now recovering well in the areas where the project unfolded. That, in addition to enhancing the local fauna, demonstrates its importance. Human intervention also changed the social and cultural scenario in those areas, with more appreciation for their work, empowerment of communities, increased self-esteem, improved food security, and income generation.
“Each community has its own pace,” said Hamilton. “The Indigenous and Quilombola communities involved in the Juçara management make progress according to their culture and pace. But they also feel the benefits. There are still lots of issues to be settled. The market is our biggest bottleneck. These communities don’t have the knack for marketing. That’s why we need to invest now in this commercial area, providing tools so producers can reach consumers directly.”
Traditional communities that only recently discovered this fruit already included the Juçara in their typical dishes. They invented new dishes, creating a new caiçara (seacoast dwellers) gastronomy. The Quilombo da Fazenda is still trying to open a restaurant to serve its new creations, but in the meantime it has launched two recipe books with dishes that use the Juçara.
“I make a delicious squid stroganoff with Juçara! You’ve got to come here and taste it,” invited Dona Laura. And, for all those who want to have fun with the caiçara music, dance, joy, and tastes, here is an invitation to the Juçara Festival, always held in July in the communities of Ubatumirim and Quilombo da Fazenda.
|Text by: Angela Pappiani – Journalist, cultural producer at Ikore and CASA’s advisor since its foundation.
English translation by Jones de Freitas.