For Indigenous Zoró, the Brazil nut is a weapon against deforestation

  • The Indigenous Zoró people in the Brazilian Amazon have struck a balance between generating income and keeping their forest standing, thanks to the Brazil nut.
  • They harvest the fruit and sell it through the COOPAVAM farmers’ cooperative, which guarantees fairer prices than dealing with the traditional network of middlemen.
  • The success of this sustainable model since 2018 saw most Zoró villages abandon their previous ties to the illegal loggers operating in their territory.
  • But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic hardship, many villages have fallen back on these links, compounding existing threats to their forests posed by illegal mining and cattle ranching.

“When people see the nuts all bagged up here, they think it’s easy, but it’s really tough out there in the rainforest,” says Waratan. “You have to find them, cut them, put them together, carry them to the village, wash, dry, bag them up. This is why my people say: value our work.”

Waratan is a leader of the Zoró people, who live in a reserve the size of New York’s Long Island in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state. For the Zoró, the Brazil nut is a traditional food, and in recent years has become the key link between making a living and keeping the forest standing.

When he speaks of valuing their work, Waratan is alluding to fair trade, which isn’t always carried out in the Brazil nut production chain. There’s a longstanding tradition of middlemen in the process, intermediaries between producers and consumers. Sales is one of the most challenging and fragile links in the production chain for the Zoró people.

A Brazil nut broken open in the Zoró Indigenous Territory, Mato Grosso state. Image by Fred Rahal Mauro.

To address the problem, the Zoró have partnered with the Vale do Amanhecer Farmers’ Cooperative (COOPAVAM), headquartered on an agrarian reform settlement in the municipality of Juruena, 900 kilometers (560 miles) from the Mato Grosso state capital, Cuiabá. The cooperative has access to what’s known as a legal community reserve spanning 7,200 hectares (17,800 acres) of Amazon Rainforest and which has become a model for socially sustainable business based on non-timber forest products.

COOPAVAM brings together family farmers and inhabitants of four Indigenous reserves, including the 356,000-hectare (880,000-acre) Zoró Indigenous Territory, which lies 500 km (310 mi) west of the settlement. In addition to offering support with logistics, the co-op guarantees sales of Brazil nuts via fair and transparent contracts that pay more than the prices offered by middlemen. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which took a toll on much of the economy, it maintained those higher prices.

“Having these people as partners offers us security because in order to meet market demand, we depend on the forest people,” says co-op president Luzirene Lustosa, who has worked with Brazil nut producers for 11 years. “Ninety percent of COOPAVAM’s product comes from the forest, from the Indigenous people.”

COOPAVAM’s supplier network allows it to sell around 400 metric tons of Brazil nuts per year; it anticipates growing this number to 700 metric tons.

Workers process Brazil nuts at the COOPAVAM headquarters in Juruena, Mato Grosso state. Image by Fred Rahal Mauro.

The partnership between the co-op and the Zoró people was signed in 2018; prior to that, the Indigenous group had been selling its Brazil nuts through the Zoró Indigenous Association (APIZ) since 2000. During this period, they became known throughout the region for the high quality of their product, their production capacity, and their ability to fulfill contracts.

“Nut sales are extremely important,” says Fábio Zoró, head of APIZ. “[In 2018], people were able to buy cars and motorcycles with the money they earned from harvesting nuts.”

Lígia Neiva works on technical leadership training for Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, in Rondolândia, the Mato Grosso municipality where the Zoró reserve is located. She says COOPAVAM’s role goes beyond just promoting sales of the Brazil nuts that the Indigenous people harvest.

“Its importance lies in motivating [the Indigenous people] to generate this business. When you work outside the social organization of a people, you’re swimming against the current,” says Neiva, who has worked with the Zoró for 25 years.

Since 2018, her office has supported the Zoró’s work with COOPAVAM “because we understand that management of the territory is one of the main ways to protect it, since Indigenous presence in different parts of the Zoró reserve inhibits the presence of and pressure from recruiters and loggers in the villages,” a technical note from Funai says.

No territory, no nuts

For the Zoró, partnerships like that with COOPAVAM have made a difference in their villages and territory, which are under pressure and threats from cattle farmers, illegal loggers and gold prospectors. The Zoró reserve is part of the Tupi-Mondé ethno-environmental corridor, a 3.5-million-hectare (8.6-million-acre) mosaic of seven contiguous reserves between the states of Mato Grosso and Rondônia that are home to five Indigenous peoples: the Suruí, Cinta Larga, Gavião, Arara and Zoró.

Deforestation in the corridor has nearly doubled over the last 10 years — from 512 hectares (1,265 acres) in 2010 to just over 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) in 2020 — according to data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). From January to August this year, 345 hectares (605 acres) were deforested.

The pressure in surrounding areas is even greater: the deforestation rate outside the protected areas is four times higher than inside the corridor, with 4,400 hectares (10,870 acres) of forest cut down in 2020 within the 10-km (6-mi) strip that runs along the border of the reserves.

There have also been three applications filed to mine for diamonds inside the Zoró reserve, despite mining activity in Indigenous territories being illegal under Brazil’s Constitution. Recent reports indicate illegal prospecting is taking place inside the territories, including the suspected installation of rafts needed for the activity.

The border between the Zoró Indigenous Territory, marked by lush rainforest cover, and the mostly cleared unprotected land next to it. Image by Fred Rahal Mauro.

Illegal logging is another threat to the reserves: in 2018 and 2019, 16,600 hectares (41,000 acres) of land was illegally logged on reserves across Mato Grosso — a 139% jump from the previous two years. On the Zoró reserve alone, more than 3,800 hectares (9,400 acres) of forest was logged between 2016 and 2020, according to data from the Life Center Institute (ICV), an environmental NGO.

The Zoró warn that the deforestation could be harmful to Indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation in the region. In early August, they reported the presence of isolated Indigenous people in the village of Duabyrej. It is believed these were the last of the Piripkura people, a tribe that’s down to just two individuals, who live in the Piripkura Indigenous Territory, a few kilometers to the north. The Zoró reported a similar episode in November 2020.

“The sensation of impunity is very strong. People who work with illegal deforestation, who sell illegal timber and illegal gold don’t quarantine,” says forestry engineer Vinícius Silgueiro, coordinator of ICV’s Territory Intelligence Nucleus, referring to the risk of illegal miners and loggers spreading COVID-19 to Indigenous groups that are highly susceptible to infection.

Illegal logging surged from mid-2020 in the Zoró reserve, the culmination of the pandemic’s impact, weakened monitoring, and rhetoric by government leaders all the way up to the president inciting the invasion of Indigenous territories. A source speaking on condition of anonymity said that in May this year, trucks loaded with logs were seen leaving the central regions of the Zoró reserve.

The pandemic period has ended up reversing some of the progress made by the Brazil nut business, which had offered the Zoró a sustainable alternative to the income previously obtained from illegal logging.

Before the COOPAVAM partnership, the 23 largest villages on the reserve were all associated with the illegal loggers, directly or indirectly. Just a few months after the partnership was formed, only five villages remained involved in logging. In October of 2019, “even under heavy threats and intimidation,” the Zoró leaders demanded that all illegal logging companies be removed from their territory. By December that year, only one remote village was still working with the illegal loggers. A few months later, however, the pandemic struck, and with it, economic strife; since then, it’s estimated that some 15 Zoró villages are once again involved in illegal logging.

COOPAVAM president Lustosa says this is why it’s important to bolster the Brazil nut production chain.

“We know that the nuts play an important role in helping protect the Zoró territory and the Amazon in general,” she says. “We hope the villages will stop with the illicit activities and continue seeing Brazil nuts as good business that keeps the forest standing.”

Banner image of a Brazil nut harvester in the Zoró Indigenous Territory in Mato Grosso state. Image by Fred Rahal Mauro.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Nov. 17, 2021.