Indigenous seed collectors grow a network of restoration across Brazil

Mongabay - - 18/10/2023
Indigenous seed collectors grow a network of restoration across Brazil

by Kevin Damasio on 18 October 2023 | Translated by Matthew Rose

Nearly 150 Indigenous seed collectors from the Amazonian Bioeconomic Seed Network, the first of its kind in the state of Rondônia, traveled to neighboring Mato Grosso state to meet with Brazil's oldest network of seed collectors, the Xingu Seed Network.
In the absence of a government-led program, exchanges like these between existing grassroots groups have been the best way to help newer networks gain expertise and consolidate themselves as organizations, with technical training and management strategies.
The seed collector networks are the base of the ecological restoration chain and will play an essential role in enabling Brazil to reach its goal of restoring 12.5 million hectares (30.9 million acres) of native vegetation by 2030 - vital in the fight to avoid climate breakdown.
Brazil's Ministry of Environment and Climate Change says it hopes to implement a national plan of action this year aimed at filling the gaps in the restoration chain, by expanding forest cover, incentivizing certain sectors of the economy, and developing financial mechanisms.

NOVA XAVANTINA, Brazil - This past July, 15 Indigenous women made the thousand-mile journey from their home of Rolim de Moura, in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Rondônia, east to Nova Xavantina, in the state of Mato Grosso. They went as representatives of the 146 seed collectors from Reseba, the Amazonian Bioeconomic Seed Network, an organization founded in mid-2021 by members of the Aikanã, Gavião, Sabanê, Suruí, Tupari and Zoró Indigenous peoples. After a day on the road, they reached the region where the Amazon gives way to the Cerrado savanna, and met with Brazil's oldest association of seed collectors, the Xingu Seed Network.

Such networks of seed collectors are a foundational part of the ecological restoration chain and will play an essential role in enabling Brazil to reach its goal of restoring 12.5 million hectares (30.9 million acres) of native vegetation by 2030, including 4.8 million hectares (11.9 million acres) in the Amazon and 2.1 million hectares (5.2 million acres) in the Cerrado. In the absence of a government-led program, exchanges between existing grassroots groups have been the best way to help newer networks gain expertise and consolidate themselves as organizations.

"It's very important for us to gain this knowledge from other people who teach us how to produce, clean and harvest seeds," said Rubithem Suruí, a member of Reseba and representative of the 56 collectors from the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory.

Rubithem, 27, is a leader among the women of her village of Gamir, whose previous knowledge of the economic potential of seeds was limited to the species used for making handicrafts, such as tucumã (Astrocaryum aculeatum). This changed when members of the group Guaporé Ecological Action (Ecoporé) proposed the creation of the state of Rondônia's first network of seed collectors.

Ecoporé is a nonprofit NGO that has supported restoration efforts in the Amazon for 35 years. It grows 600,000 saplings a year at its nursery in the municipality of Rolim de Moura, a large part of which are used for restoration projects.

"Reseba was created to coordinate the buying and selling of seeds with Indigenous groups and to supply both the nursery's needs and the state's demand," said Aline Smychniuk, one of Reseba's socioenvironmental analysts.

Gaining practical knowledge
During their visit to Mato Grosso, Reseba's seed collectors and technical staff were introduced to the parent trees of the urban seed collectors in Nova Xavantina, who are part of the Xingu Seed Network. "On the way, I'll go around the feet of different species and collect everything that I can and that is in season," said Milene Alves, 25, a biologist and seed collector who has worked with the Xingu Seed Network since she was 16. "The role of a collector is to monitor the flowering, to see if the flower will bloom, open, turn into fruit, and if the fruit will ripen."

In the public squares of the city, Alves pointed out parent trees of species such as angelim (Dinizia excelsa), angico (Parapiptadenia rigida), paina-barriguda (Ceiba speciosa), cashew (Anacardium occidentale), tamboril (Enterolobium maximum), and ipê (Handroanthus spp.). Along the BR-251 highway, remnant specimens of jatobás-do-cerrado (Hymenaea stigonocarpa) and baru (Dipteryx alata) trees can still be found on some rural properties, with the landowners granting access to the trees - something that can often prove to be a major challenge for urban seed collectors. "This is what is left of the rainforest for us," Alves said, looking over a landscape dominated by livestock farming, as is the case for some 60% of the municipality's land.

On the edge of one property, the Indigenous members of Reseba were taught how to properly select fruit from the baru tree that had fallen to the ground. On the roadside, they collected jatobás-do-cerrado using a bamboo pole with an iron hook at the end. On the way back to the city, the group stopped at a square to look for caroba, or Brazilian jacaranda (Jacaranda brasiliana).

Following this, Alves and her mother and fellow seed collector, Vera Oliveira, taught the visitors different techniques for processing the seeds. They left caroba seeds to dry out in the sun, which allows them to remove the tip of the fruit and cut it open with a machete. With seeds from the garapa (Apuleia leiocarpa), a tree found in several Brazilian biomes and that can grow to a height of 40 meters (130 feet) in the Amazon, they rubbed them in a sieve with a flip-flop to separate the small seeds, using a brush cutter to speed up the process. To extract the seeds of the jatobás-do-cerrado, they placed them on a tarpaulin on firm ground and drove over them with a car to break them up. The different seeds were then divided into batches and taken to the seed houses, where they were stored in a cool, dark, dry and controlled environment.

"It's important that the seed is healthy, clean, that it isn't mixed with other species, and that it doesn't have fungus, beetles or borers. That's [what] a quality seed [looks like]," Alves said. "The seed collector's eye has to be meticulous."

"I really enjoyed it," said Lucilene Maparoka Tupari, a seed collector from the village of Colorado, located in the Rio Branco Indigenous Territory. "We got to see a lot of trees that we don't have in our village. Now I'm going to talk to my daughter about it, to my husband, [and] pass on [everything I learned]. This tree is so short [here]. Over there [in the Amazon], it's not like that, it's really tall. That's why it is more difficult for us."

Challenges facing seed collector networks
Since the start of this year, Reseba anaysts Aline Smychniuk and Joana Gomes have visited five Indigenous territories in Rondônia to help structure Reseba as an organization. They held theoretical and practical workshops, before later going into the rainforest to identify potential species, such as the Brazilian firetree (Schizolobium parahyba) and diesel tree (Copaifera langsdorffii), and to set out the collecting guidelines.

During the presentations by the Xingu Seed Network, one element caught the attention of the women from Rondônia: that of the elo, or "link," the leader who represents each group of collectors. "The link is the one who communicates between the group and the network," said Roberizan Tusset, who has been the elo for Nova Xavantina for three years. Tusset spoke of the responsibilities of the elo, who, she said, is the one who "receives the potential lists from the collectors, then passes them on to the network. They then hold meetings and divide up the requests among the collectors. They supervise the quality of the seeds, which they then receive and pass onto the person in charge of the [seed] house. They receive their payment and then divide it up among the collectors."

Reseba has adopted a similar strategy. "In every territory there are representatives with whom we engage directly, explaining as much as possible to them, so that they can then relay [the information] to the rest of the community," Gomes said.

The Xingu Seed Network was founded in 2007 and today is made up of some 600 members spread across 25 Indigenous groups as well as family farmers and urban inhabitants. From its inception until 2022, the network collected 294 metric tons of seeds, contributing to the restoration of 7,400 hectares (18,300 acres) of land in the Amazon and the Cerrado. In that 15-year period, the network's collectors have earned a cumulative total of 5.3 million reais ($1.05 million).

Milene Alves attributed the success of the network to a number of factors, including its appreciation of the different Indigenous cultures of those involved, its partnership with the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an advocacy group, and its pioneering use of the muvuca method, in which a mix of seeds from up to 80 species is sown directly into the soil. Technical training, Alves added, has also played an important role, such as workshops on seed quality and management.

Alves is a technician for Redário, a coordinating body for 24 different networks across Brazil, encompassing nearly 1,200 seed collectors. Redário advocates for issues such as better governance, market access, and logistics. "A lot of levers, in most networks, are the base. There's a lot of technical dependence from the groups. This holds back growth," Alves said.

In the Tubarão/Latundê Indigenous Territory, in southern Rondônia, a lack of knowledge dampened the residents' first experience with seed collection. In 2015, a company ordered seeds from them, but didn't instruct them any further, said Dorvalina Sabanês, a resident of the village of Tubarão Gleba. "We just collected the seeds and handed them over. We didn't know what you had to do to keep seeds. [So] there were a lot of bugs, a lot of stuff [inside]."

This experience discouraged many of the village's 26 families from becoming Reseba members, but Dorvalina was excited to return to the community and get her relatives involved. "This time around, we learned a lot and could contribute in the village, so that we didn't hand over seeds that were all spoiled [and] full of bugs, and we learned how to take care of things."

Public policies
In 2017, Brazil's government drew up its National Plan for the Recovery of Native Vegetation (Planaveg). Though later shelved by the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, some of the commitments of the plan include the provision of technical training, "structured and relevant" forest extension, and the improvement of the seed and sapling production chain.

"Forestry extension will be fundamental to the success of these restoration projects," Rita de Cássia Mesquita, the secretary for biodiversity, forests and animal rights in the current administration's Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, told Mongabay. Mesquita said the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is working to reestablish Conaveg, the commission that oversaw restoration policies. Once this step has been completed, Planaveg will be reviewed and revived.

The national plan of action also outlined market stimulus and financial mechanism development to incentivize the recovery of native vegetation. The fate of this front of the bioeconomy depends on rural landowners "willingness to restore," Mesquita said.

The Forestry Code, approved in 2012, is currently the only law that requires landowners to address their environmental liabilities. Under the code, there are more than 20 million hectares (49.4 million acres) of land eligible for restoration across the country, according to the Forestry Code Observatory. Half of this is in the Amazon, and about a quarter is in the Cerrado.

According to the code, all rural properties should have had their registrations regularized by Dec. 31, 2022. However, in June this year, Brazil's Congress made the deadline for joining the Environmental Regularization Program (PRA) individual. The change means that once a landowner has been summoned by the responsible state agency, they have one year in which to join the PRA.

This change has had a destabilizing effect on the seed collector networks, Alves said. "The [landowner] has a piece of land that needs to be restored, but holds onto it and waits for a change in the Forestry Code. If they find a loophole, then they no longer need to do it."

"It also creates uncertainty for us with regard to the sale of seeds," said Marcos Vinícius Lima, head of commercial operations for the Xingu Seed Network, which sells mainly to the ISA, the Brazilian Ministry of Finance, and the Pequi Institute. "We're facing problems now that are very similar to the [seed] networks that are only just starting out."

The lack of action on the part of landowners is also being felt in Rondônia. Ecoporé is part of a joint project with the Rondônia state government that seeks to restore 500 hectares (1,240 acres) of degraded forested land along the BR-429 highway. Much of the target area lies within small landholdings whose self-declared registrations haven't yet been regularized. Ecoporé carries out visits to the areas, identifies what's needed to restore the land, donates the saplings, and provides technical support.

"We aren't managing to get producers on board," Joana Gomes said. "There need to be more incentives and [also] more pressure from the government. We have already carried out projects on public land, but we now need to turn our attention to private properties, which are most in need of restoration."

External threats
Agriculture accounted for nearly all, 95.7%, of the deforestation in Brazil in 2022, according to the MapBiomas network. Over the past decade, monitoring by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows 8.24 million hectares (20.4 million acres) of deforestation in the Amazon and 9 million hectares (22.2 million acres) in the Cerrado, which together make up an area of land the size of Uruguay.

Luciana Gatti, a researcher at INPE, said the government's goal of eliminating deforestation by 2030 may not be enough to prevent climatic collapse in the Amazon - the notorious "tipping point" at which the world's greatest rainforest unravels into a dry savanna. Studies indicate that this will take place if deforestation reaches 20-25% of the entire Amazon, which encompasses nine countries. The current figure of the original forest cover that's been lost to deforestation stands at 17%.

"We're heading ever faster toward collapse. It's not just about stopping deforestation, we also have to restore the forest that has been lost," Gatti said. She added restoration efforts must be focused on areas where the rates of vegetation loss exceed rates of growth. The extent of the challenge is laid bare by the fact that parts of the Amazon now emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb.

"Deforestation levels in states such as Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia and Acre are already more than 50%, so these areas need to be restored," Gatti said. With forest restoration, "evapotranspiration increases, which helps to restore rainfall and reduce the temperature. This will make it easier for the forest to survive, and for us to be able to avoid reaching the point of no return."

In Nova Xavantina, 52,000 hectares (128,500 acres) of savanna and rainforest have been converted for agriculture, leading to a 20% loss of vegetation. Some 180,000 hectares (445,000 acres) of degraded pasture have been replaced by soybean monocultures, with the area of land dedicated to the production of this crop tripling since 2000.

"Right here just around the street we used to collect a lot of mother seeds - it's all gone now," said Vilmar Tusset, 64, a small-scale farmer and seed collector who has worked with the Xingu Seed Network since 2012. "Now we have to plant in order to collect [seeds], otherwise we won't be able to do it anymore. Soybean [plantations] are coming on strong, and it is destroying the environment."

Tusset lives with his wife, Roberizan, on a 12-hectare (30-acre) farm. The couple are going through something of a transition. Four years ago, they stopped raising pigs and chickens, and this year will stop raising cattle. Their plan is to dedicate themselves solely to seed collecting and the restoration of the land, by planting species that are native to the Cerrado region.

The seed collectors of Rondônia have faced threats from a number of hostile actors. The Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory, for example, has suffered attacks from "illegal miners, illegal loggers, land grabbers and rural estate owners," according to Reseba's Rubithem Suruí. Rainforest covers 96.7% of the territory's 248,000 hectares (613,000 acres). But between 2018 and 2022, it lost 2,718 hectares (6,716 acres) to deforestation, according to INPE. To carry out their work and collect seeds from mother trees, the seed collectors of the Sete de Setembro Indigenous Territory must pass through land occupied by invaders.

The women of the Suruí Indigenous group are waiting for the first order from Reseba to come through. "We've already been to see the mother trees, to see how many trees have seeds ready to harvest, and we will collect whatever they request," Rubithem said.

The seed harvest will contribute to the fight to avoid the collapse of the Amazon Rainforest, yet Rubithem also sees it as having an important impact on a local level too: it will allow the women of the community to gain an income as well as autonomy, and reduce pressure on resources, in turn helping the restoration of the land they live on.

Banner image: Jacaranda (Jacaranda brasiliana) seeds being processed in Nova Xavantina, Mato Grosso state. Image by Kevin Damasio.

This story was reported by Mongabay's Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 27, 2023.
Florestas:Recuperação de Áreas Degradadas

Áreas Protegidas Relacionadas

  • TI Rio Branco
  • TI Sete de Setembro
  • TI Tubarão/Latundê
  • TI Xingu

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