Indigenous crops bring climate solutions for farmers in Brazil's Caatinga – IFAD and Slow Food take the lead

Longer dry seasons and unpredictable rainfall are having a serious impact on the farming communities in the semi-arid zone, or Caatinga biome, in the state of Bahia in north-eastern Brazil.

Against this background of water shortages across the Caatinga, IFAD has focused on reducing rural poverty through income generation, increased production, better nutrition, and the creation of agricultural and non-agricultural employment opportunities.

Part of that work is to develop the production of indigenous crops, such as umbu and licuri, which cope better with the dry conditions. IFAD is working with its local partner the Government of Bahia (which implements the Pro-Semiarido Project), Slow Flood Brazil, local farmers’ organizations and technical assistance providers,

In Testa Branca, in the municipality of Uaua, umbu fruit is grown and processed locally; and in the village of Raposa, in the municipality of Caldeirão Grande, investments in processing and education are helping the local community increase the income from the licuri palms that grow here.

"In the semiarid zone there's not much rain and high levels of poverty,"  said IFAD's Custodio Mucovale. "But also in this region we are lucky to have umbu and licuri… these are drought resistant native species and through this project we're helping communities add value to these crops."

"Before these native trees used to produce fruits that were consumed in a very short period, say one or two months, but communities have learned to add value to licuri and umbu by processing them and this has provided farmers with an opportunity to make more money. The products once processed can also last longer and be distributed for sales further afield."

Drought for seven years

Revecca Tapie, Regional Coordinator for Slow Food in the north east of Brazil added that the drought has had a serious impact for the last seven years.

"We’ve seen a reduction in production of umbu and people are scared… before they had a rainy period and they had maize, beans and cassava, but now they aren't growing these crops as they don’t know how long the rainy season will last for," said Tapie. "This is complicating things as they are buying the products in from outside. This means they are losing contact with the land."

"This is also a threat for the younger generation as they don't see their parents work the land."

But things are changing – previously licuri and umbu were not valued by farmers nor were they  protected. Today you see farmers in Testa Branca in the municipality of Uaua protecting young plants and avoiding cutting down these trees as they give value to the land.

"There is one more benefit - women are participating very much in processing of licuri and umbu. Before they were not so involved in income generating activities but now they are very much active in day to day income generating activities," added Mucovale.

With umbu there are number of products that can be produced through the local processing unit of the Cooperative (COoPERCUC) in the town of Uaua, about 30 minutes away from Testa Branca. Today the unit, which was built with support from IFAD in 2016, produces juice, jams and pulp. But in the future it will be possible to produce a lot more.

Slow Food Brazil's Revecca Tapie explained that back in 2003 umbu trees were at risk of extinction in the semiarid zone of Bahia so they decided to look at ways of promoting it commercially through the Slow Food network in Brazil.

IFAD and Slow Food have been working together since 2009 and more recently, in December 2017,  IFAD Brazil also signed a cooperative agreement in the framework of the IFAD knowledge management programme SEMEAR International which is under implementation in Brazil.

"We started working with umbu in 2003 first by encouraging local communities to rediscover local traditional recipes for umbu, such as umbuzada," explained Tapie. "Then we opened up to a wider more urban market by producing jams - this was really liked by people in the cities."

Apart from developing new products and income streams by selling to a broader market IFAD and its partners are also working on the heart of the environmental impacts being felt by farmers in the region.

Building resilience

Together with the local communities they have been building resilience to the drought: working with young people to build nurseries where they plant drought resistant plants; developing ways of saving water with underground tanks; and rainwaters harvesting and better irrigation systems.

"I think the solution is how to live with this reality and people are very creative and people want to stay here," said Tapie.

Meanwhile, licuri production is at present at a very artisanal level and focused on cosmetic products, such as creams and soaps. But as the processing unit is soon to be built we will start to see more products coming on line.

Licuri palms, with their hanging bunches of green fruits, are easy to spot from a distance. The palm was once an integral part of the landscape and its fruits a common food. There are records of the fruit dating back many centuries: O Tratado Descritivo do Brasil, published in 1587 by the Portuguese explorer Gabriel Soares de Sousa, contains a description of the flavour and quality of the licuri fruits. 

The bunches are cut using a knife or a scythe, collected in a typical basket made from woven lianas called a balaio and transported on the backs of mules or on women’s heads. The women both pick and process the fruit. Sitting at home or in the shade of a tree, they use a stone to break the shells of the small nuts. Birds love to eat the outer flesh of the licuri palm fruits. The flesh surrounds a shell that in turn hides a kernel with a very intense coconut-like flavour. 

The licuri plays a fundamental role in the local economy, and for many families it represents the only source of income. The fruits can be eaten unripe or ripe, raw or toasted. They can also be pressed into milk or oil. Children use them to make necklaces that they wear while playing so that they can have a snack whenever they like. The licuri is still an essential ingredient in traditional Easter dishes, served with fish or chicken, while the milk is used to flavour rice.

Investing in the future of the Caatinga

IFAD's work in the Caatinga is all about investing in rural people. Through this particular project IFAD is helping the communities through education and showing where important investments can be made and through that to improve their livelihoods and incomes. Technical assistance plays a central role in IFAD interventions.

"For us the future is a big challenge, we need the new generation to see how important is the food and recipes here in the Caatinga," added Tapie. "For us it is important to get young people involved in agriculture, processing and selling these products."

"IFAD is a great partner for Slow Food, we speak the same language, not just in the commercial way but we also give value to the people behind the products, that's so important as these people are the guardians of biodiversity, and if you don't empower local smallholder farmers those products are going to end… we complement each other," said Tapie.