Izautino Curuaia Pereira (Sinha), fom the Rio Xingu Extractivist Reserve: bananas produced with ancestral techniques were distributed in Altamira, state of Pará

How the Ribeirinhos of Xingu are feeding the outskirts of Altamira with forest products

Action to fight hunger follows the PAA or Programa de Aquisição de Alimentos [Food Acquisition Programme] notice and should distribute around 50 tons of food produced with ancestral techniques

Text: Roberto Almeida/ISA
Photos: Carol Quintanilha/ISA
Video: Cama Leão/ISA
Translation: Philip Somervell

At the Rio Xingu Extractive Reserve, in Pará, northern Brazil, there is so much diversity and abundance that Dona Marinês Lopes de Souza is already warning us that if we were to mention everything there, we’d be talking all day.

Just in the garden, after five minutes of careful looking, there are cashew nuts, ducks, murici, chickens, mangoes, turkeys, andiroba, pigs, Brazil nuts, spices.

And the list goes on and on, not to mention the cassava fields, the bananas, the chestnut and babassu groves that she so cherishes as a producer of babassu coconut flour, and even the goose, whose name pays homage to the singer, composer and former radio broadcaster of Rádio Nacional da Amazônia, Edelson Moura.

Marinês cooks babassu porridge.

Created on 5th June 2008, the Rio Xingu Extractive Reserve, in the Amazon, covers an area of 303,000 hectares — or half the area of Palestine. The territory is a narrow strip on the left bank of the Xingu River, shielded on all sides by other protected areas.

On the other bank of the Xingu River are the Araweté and Apyterewa Indigenous Lands. To the west and north, the Terra do Meio Ecological Station. To the south, the Rio Pardo National Park. And within all this, there is a vast sociobiodiversity under pressure from deforestation, land grabbing and timber theft.

Today, according to the Middle Xingu Residents Association (AMOMEX), 51 ribeirinho (riverine) families live in the extractive reserve. They live and generate life.

A glance at the satellite says it all: the forest is standing throughout the territory because these people look after it. The animals, plants and activities are repeated and reproduced in homes and communities. It is an economy that takes care of the present and the future.

Still protected, the gardens and fields of the ribeirinhos, such as Marinês’s, are an example of the positive management of Amazonian biodiversity, as is the collection of Brazil nuts, rubber and the babaçu coconut, which are part of a broad list of forest products.

Up the Xingu River, in the Volta da Pedra community, Herculano Costa Silva and his companion Diane Ferreira Barbosa make manioc flour while the living room floor is lined with bananas, avocados, cará, cassava and tapioca starch. Everything will be sent to Altamira.

Further up the road, in the Morro Grande community, Izautino Curuaia Pereira, known as Sinha, is soon going to the fields to gather produce, while his neighbours have already left their share in the storehouse. He has cassava flour, bananas and other fruit. Everything will also go to Altamira.

The bountiful goods of the ribeirinhos is headed to Altamira because the residents’ associations of the extractive reserves have organised and decided to access a public notice of the Programa de Aquisição de Alimentos (PAA), under the Purchase with Simultaneous Donation modality, launched in 2020 by the National Supply Company (CONAB) of the federal government.

The PAA, created in 2003 as part of the Programa Fome Zero (Zero Hunger Programme), was renamed the “Programa Alimenta Brasil” in late 2021, but retained its two basic purposes: to assist access to food and encourage family agriculture. Both producer and consumer win.

Even so, since 2013 the PAA has been drained with major budget reductions, meaning less food purchased and distributed, and less of an incentive for family farming. If in 2011, the federal government was investing over R$700 million to purchase food for simultaneous donation, in 2020 that amount had dropped to less than half: R$223 million (around US$ 44 million).

The public notice accessed by the ribeirinhos, with a total value of only R$ 215,000 (or US$ 41,800), together with the results obtained so far, show that the public policy works, even if it is fraught with obstacles for traditional communities.

Products such as those of Marinês, Herculano, Diane, Sinha and other families from the Rio Xingu Extractive Reserve filled baskets with the best of the region to fight hunger during the Covid-19 health crisis on the outskirts of Altamira — from Brazil nuts to babaçu coconut oil, as well as fruit, flour and tubers.

Bananas, avocados, babassu flour, Brazil nuts, cará, cassava and tapioca starch: products sent to Altamira

So far, over 10 tons of food produced with the knowledge of the communities have been distributed with help from partners. And by the end of 2022, this figure should reach 50 tons. But the fact is, it could be much higher.

Watch the film that tells this story (choose English subtitles on Youtube):

‘It arrived in good time’

Ribeirinhos and indigenous people who live in the mosaic of Indigenous Lands and Extractive Reserves in the region of Altamira, Pará, produce tons of food, all pesticide-free, in their traditional fields. The surplus production from these fields, which keep the forest standing, could reach the city more often to fight hunger.

“Our region is perfect, there is nothing lacking with regard to the land here in our state, in our region, especially here in Xingu. What is lacking are incentives and investments that respect all this and ensure that all people have the right to land”, observed Maria das Neves Morais de Azevedo, Secretary of Assistance and Social Promotion in Altamira.

The department coordinated by Azevedo, a partner of the ribeirinhos, has been receiving and distributing food from their fields to the Centros de Referência de Atendimento Social (CRAS — Reference Centres for Social Assistance), gateways for families to obtain assistance from the municipal government.

“What is needed perhaps is more awareness so that more can be had, so that more can be produced, so that more can be shared and also so that this can reach our region more often,” she continued.

Azevedo and Dimas: food is distributed with assistance from the municipal government.

Efraim Dimas, a computer technician, left Venezuela in 2018 to try to make a life in Brazil. He is unemployed and depends on the food basket. “Through social assistance, I have received rural produce. My wife likes it very much. She is pregnant. She is about to have a baby. This has supplied a lot of things in our house,” he said.

“Altamira is the largest municipality in Brazil and 95% of its area is rural, but people in the centre of Altamira are going hungry,” said Jackson Dias, the coordinator of the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (MAB), an organisation that also receives and distributes the food from ribeirinho farms.

The municipality, which has a population of about 115,000 people, faces a harsh reality. According to Dias, the movement has registered around 1,500 families in a state of social vulnerability.

Some of these families are in the Reassentamento Urbano Coletivo (RUC) [Collective Urban Resettlement] Laranjeiras, which has received about 2,000 people displaced from the urban area of Altamira due to the construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant. There, Francinete Pinto Novais, also a MAB leader, is the one knocking from door to door.

Unemployed single mothers open the door, receive the food and without exception say: “it arrived in good time”.

Novais and Diana Gomes da Costa, a Collective Urban Resettlement Laranjeiras resident.

“You know the struggle we go through and we can only be grateful when we receive these things, especially food, which is very difficult for us. Sometimes we get up in the morning, we don’t even have breakfast to give our children”, said Eulaine Lemos, a neighbourhood resident.

For Dias, of MAB, accessing the Programa de Aquisição de Alimentos (PAA) is “a form of resistance in the Amazon”. “Agro-extractivists will only remain in the Conservation Unit if they are able to produce, if they have technical assistance and if they are able to sell their production”, he stressed.

“Preservation can only be achieved with people there, with people who are environmentally aware, but also with people who have the means to remain in that place,” he said.

Everybody wins

With an office in the ribeirinho associations’ shed in Altamira, Francinaldo Lima follows the progress of the Rede de Cantinas da Terra do Meio [Terra do Meio Canteen Network], an arrangement that brings together indigenous and ribeirinho communities in the Middle Xingu to sell a basket of products linked to caring for the forest and the territories.

Lima considered the outcome of the action an “incredible experience”.

Vem do Xingu, the network’s collective brand, sells to companies such as Mercur and Wickbold, to local businesses and businesses in other states, and to the region’s municipalities for school meals. The main products are tons of Brazil nuts, rubber and babaçu coconut flour.

With the possibility of adding value to the ribeirinho fields and providing a new source of income, the group also decided to help fight hunger in urban centres. According to Lima, this is the first PAA public notice with a simultaneous donation that the ribeirinhos can access, and the brief experience has already shown some of the lessons learned.

The price of the product indicated by CONAB does not cover the cost of the logistics to make the operation work. At its closest point to Altamira, the Rio Xingu Extractivist Reserve is 150 kilometres from the city by boat. The journey is costly.

“We sometimes need a partner to subsidise the price of the product, because the product often arrives here below the local market price,” Lima noted.

“Another challenge is that we need to have our own working capital to pay the producer, because the public policy also does not provide an advance,” he continued. “We need to pay the producer and put him at ease, so that he can return to his fields, go back to the forest and continue his work.”

In other words, to work with public policy one needs to gain trust, as Herculano Costa Silva, a leader of the Reserva Extrativista Rio Xingu, says: “It only works if it’s cash in hand, because we’ve been knocked down a lot and people don’t believe it anymore”.

Herculano: ‘We are thinking of selling. Selling flour, tapioca, bananas and so on.’

“Thank God there was this request, because we were at a standstill. No more people thinking and saying ‘let’s stop now because there’s no one to sell to’,” said Herculano. “Not today. We are thinking of selling. Selling flour, tapioca, bananas and so on.”

Even with the necessary improvements in the process, Lima considered the outcome of the action an “incredible experience”. “It is very important to work with public policy resources. For the communities, in a year of low nut production, having these options is very important to enhance the forest economy,” he stressed.

“This gives the communities greater peace of mind to monitor and protect the territories against any activity that is inconsistent with the objectives of the Conservation Units. Having the opportunity to generate income is a way of confronting illicit activities”, he said.

The strength and insistence on the PAA and other public policies for food security, even with all their difficulties, show that they are good for those who produce and indispensable for those who are fed.

Novais: ‘I know what it feels like not having enough to feed my children’.

“We are getting by with the leftovers of a basket that we received last month. This one will be welcome, we needed some flour because mine had run out. This one was sent just in time”, said Eulaine Lemos, resident of RUC Laranjeiras.

The actions to distribute food from ribeirinho fields through the PAA public notice are supported by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), the European Union, the Moore Foundation and the Rainforest Foundation Norway.

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