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Highlighting the origins of Brazil’s indigenous forest products

Photo shows indigenous people in Brazil sitting on palm fronds

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we invited Patrícia Cota Gomes and Luiz Brasi Filho from Brazilian NGO Imaflora to share their perspectives on the key role that indigenous peoples play in protecting forests and other native ecosystems; and to talk about their award-winning work that helps consumers identify and value sustainable forest products.

There are approximately 305 indigenous ethnic groups in Brazil who speak over 270 languages, as well as hundreds of quilombola and other communities who depend directly on forests and other native ecosystems for their survival.

These peoples often have an intrinsic relationship with the forest, and their traditional management systems tend to use multiple products, reducing pressure on individual species. What is more, their scale and intensity has a low impact on the forest and its biodiversity.

These populations have been contributing for generations to the process of plant selection and improvement through breeding, accumulating a vast knowledge about the management, reproduction and uses of the forest’s natural resources in a sustainable way. Some of these products are well known both within Brazil and further afield, and depend directly on the standing forest and the way of life and management performed by these peoples.


Photo shows line of indigenous people
Photo: Pedro Biondi

This is the case for Brazil nuts, a product collected by hand by forest peoples. And açaí, which now is widely consumed and recognised for its antioxidant characteristics, has become an important part of economy in producing states in the north of Brazil, such as Pará.

But these are not the only ones. There are many other less well known products such as copaíba and andiroba oils, which are widely used in the cosmetics industry; the cumaru seed, which is responsible for the vanilla-like aroma used in haute cuisine and also in the perfume industry.

These are just some of the examples of how the harvesting and management of these products by these peoples are supporting the development of a new economy that combines income generation and forest conservation.

Yet consumers around the world are largely unaware of the origin of these forest products, let alone how the resources are managed and harvested. In most cases the forest product value chains are informal, and include several intermediaries (middle men), who generally pay collectors very little.

This lack of awareness and absence of mechanisms to provide traceability, transparency, and to provide information on the origin of production mean that these peoples are left in the shadows, along with their histories and life styles. As a result, their knowledge of natural resource management is not recognised or valued by consumers.

On top of this, another worrying factor is the increasing deforestation in the Amazon, especially on indigenous lands and in protected areas. This threatens traditional and indigenous populations, their way of life and the country’s biodiversity.


photo shows a circular clearing in forest near Amazon river
photo: Simone Giovine

So how can we connect consumers with the forest peoples in order to recognise and value their fundamental role in conserving biodiversity and keeping the forest standing?

One way is through initiatives such as Origens Brasil which bring together different groups, including, traditional communities, indigenous peoples, civil society organisations, companies and consumers. Origens Brasil, launched in 2016 by Imaflora and Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), advocates paths for the sustainable development of the Amazon by valuing the economic activities of traditional populations and indigenous peoples, as well as their cultures and way of life.

The pillars of Origens Brasil are the articulation in network, technology and communication — bringing the producer closer to companies and to the consumer market. Through a qr code, it gives the consumer the opportunity to explore where the product originated via a virtual trip , exploring the stories of the collectors, their cultures and more. A necessary connection between those who buy and consume in the city and those who produce and preserve in the forest.

This year Origens Brasil received the FAO / UN Award for Innovation for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. The initiative has more than 1,500 member producers from 40 different indigenous ethnic groups, as well as quilombolas and other forest-dependent communities, covering approximately 90 million hectares, and trading natural resources ethically with 15 companies which positively impact these producers and their families.

And this is just one of many examples of initiatives in the Amazon that have the potential to strategically recognise the value of forest peoples and our biodiversity, helping to build a new, more inclusive, and decarbonised economy that generates wealth and conserves biodiversity.

* Patrícia Cota Gomes — Forest Engineer and Master in Tropical Forest Management. Manager at Imaflora where she coordinates the Origens Brasil® initiative

** Luiz Brasi Filho — Environmental manager and MBA in social and environmental business management. Market Coordinator at Imaflora / Origins Brasil.


Top photo: Andre Giovani