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Nov 11.13

Murumuru Butter from Brazil

Posted In: Ethical Buying

This past September, the LUSH North American buying team traveled to Brazil to establish a more transparent source for murumuru butter. The trip took us to the northern state of Para, where we met with harvester groups, visiting their communities and accompanying them into the forest to observe the harvesting process.

One of the communities we visited was located outside the city of Braganca. We stopped in the city first to visit the office of the co-operative, Cooperativa Mista dos Agricultores Familiares dos Caetés (COOMAC), which harvests the murumuru seeds.

With the president of the co-operative, Giovanni, leading the way by motorcycle, we drove to the community. The asphalt turned to red dirt, which was raised into a wall of dust by the approaching traffic, trucks mostly, moving toward us with harrowing speed over the ruts and gullies which kept our sedan to a quarter of the speed. Driving into Braganca from Belem, we had seen a lot of pasture for cattle, along with plantations of tall, narrow teak trees, and fields of soybeans. It all seemed so definitively established that it was easy to believe we would never reach the rainforest. However, after a couple of forks in the road the forest began to rise on both sides, and soon we were traveling in its shadow. Not long after, we reached the community.

We were received by a member of the community, Robert, and immediately ushered to a table where a lunch had been prepared, consisting of several dishes, including a stew of fish and pumpkin wedges. As well, we were introduced to a staple, farina, which is manioc flour. As we ate, clouds moved in and rain began to fall, which Giovanni promised would stop if one of us would go out and stand in it. When it was suggested that he do this himself, he explained the method only worked if it was employed by a new visitor. This included one of our guides and translator, Alice, who gamely stepped out. As promised, the rain ceased immediately, and it was under clear skies that we gathered ourselves and headed out on our hike into the forest.

We reached the edge of the forest, and discovered that what we’d taken for its entire height was in fact just a portion. We entered the tree line and the path sloped steeply down, carrying us down to a depth double what the height of the trees had appeared to be. We were on the forest floor. It was darker but no cooler.

Robert led the way, which required hacking the path clear with a machete. Soon enough, we were introduced to our first murumuru tree. The tree is a species of palm, and ranks at a middle height amongst the other trees of the forest. Its most notable feature is its trunk, which is covered in very long and very sharp quills. As if this wasn’t menacing enough, it’s common for scorpions to make their nests within the bark. Perhaps owning in part to these hazards, the seeds are harvested from the forest floor after they’ve fallen.

We returned to Robert’s house, to try our hand at the second step in murumuru seed harvesting, hulling the fruit. This is done with a hammer, and the trick is to bruise neither the fruit nor your fingers, while working as quickly as possible.

The second community we visited was located on the Marajo Island, which is the largest island in the world to be surrounded completely by freshwater. It sits at the mouth of the Amazon River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. To give an idea of scale, it is roughly the size of Switzerland, and the ferry ride from the mainland takes over three hours. After the ferry ride, we drove a short distance and then it was back onto water again, this time in narrow dugouts propelled by small outboard motors. We traveled upriver for a spell, then turned into a tributary, disembarking at its finish.

We were welcomed by several members of the community, and were invited into a home and offered coffee flavored with coconut flour, as well as freshly pressed juices. After a rest, we headed out to the forest. We were shown another collection site for murumuru seeds, and learned that the community employs another method of collection. Owing to the proximity to the river, the harvesters will set up nets in the river. The tide will rise, flooding the collection site, and sweep everything on the forest floor out into the river, where it is caught in the nets. Once the tide recedes, the nets are drawn in and the various seeds are then sorted.

Because of the tide, we found our time running short. We needed to make our way back onto the boats before it turned against our favor. As we hurried back to the home of our hosts, we heard the terrible lament of howler monkeys, somewhere nearby. Despite the press of time, we were invited to eat a meal, which we at first tried to turn down. However it was made clear to us that a refusal, no matter how politely put, wouldn’t satisfy. We wolfed down our meal, said our goodbyes, and got back onto the boats.

Murumuru is a wild harvested seed, requiring no alteration of the forest. Given a choice between selling a tree once and selling seeds in perpetuity, the people that live in or by the forests will choose the latter option. They understand that it’s the more sustainable choice. However, in the absence of a choice, timber will be sold, since it’s a matter of survival. Therefore, the largest issue with regards to non-timber forest products such as murumuru seeds isn’t supply, it is the development of markets. And choosing LUSH products that include murumuru is a very direct way to support the conservation of the forest.

Written by Greg Pinch, LUSH Buyer