When all but 7% of one of the world’s richest ecosystems remain, it is critical to take concrete conservation measures towards its protection. Yet, when more than 100 million people live within that ecosystem, applying constant pressure on a strained environment, protection is not enough. In this case, what is needed is a new model of development; one that promotes the conservation of biodiversity not by fencing off protected areas but by giving an economic value to biodiversity.
The situation described above is that of the Atlantic Forest, a forest that partially covers 17 of the 26 Brazilian states and that extends from the Brazilian Nordeste all the way into Argentina and Paraguay. This forest is home to more than 20,000 species of plants (8,000 of which are endemic) and to about 1,6 million species of animals and insects (25 to 50% of them being endemic). Local people are best placed to become the defenders of this rich ecosystem. One of the best ways to ensure that they take up this role is to provide an economic incentive to conserving biodiversity.
The Medicinal Plants project of Associação Amigos de Iracambi, a Brazilian not-for-profit organization aims at doing just that. Adopting a three-way approach to development, with an emphasis on environmental, socio-cultural and economic development, the project seeks to find economic value for both the medicinal plants themselves as well as the traditional knowledge of local people.
It is always a tremendous challenge to craft a commercial venture so that it also complements the promotion of sustainable development within small communities. After extensive research on native medicinal plants from the Atlantic Forest, the Medicinal Plants project at Iracambi looked at a number of alternatives for commercialization to find the perfect match. This proved to be with the production of soaps.
Biodiversity, especially with the Atlantic Forest, is a bottomless treasure box. We realized this mostly during the product development phase when we were looking for ways to maintain the majority of the value-chain within the local communities. Doing so, not only would we add locally produced medicinal plants extracts to an industrially produced soap base, but we could even explore using other native plants to produce that soap base.
One crop that has grown in importance in the region recently is passion fruit. This plant, native to the Atlantic forest, is mainly used to produce a delicious juice. As such, during the processing phase, the seeds are separated from the pulp and nearly always discarded — this is unfortunate, especially when one knows that the seeds contain a large quantity of an oil that can be used to produce a great soap base. Why not, then, use this by-product of passion fruit processing to create a whole new product? Passion fruit oil also possesses moisturizing properties and contains passiflora, a relaxing substance. Thus, by capitalizing on the possibilities offered by the biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest, we could create a soothing, relaxing soap with medicinal properties! And all the while making the most of the very production process of passion fruit.
Despite being grown mostly under the sun, passion fruit is a priori a shade-grown plant. To plant it in the sun, which can give higher yields, one must use a significant amount of chemicals. In order to promote more environmentally friendly agricultural practices, small-scale producers must be compensated for revenue lost implied by lower yields. This can be accomplished by introducing, as shade providers, plants that also have a commercial value. We therefore manage to create an interdependent system where both crops complement each other.
Further still, we can even think of expanding the concept to include other oil-producing plants whose farming can be beneficially coupled with traditional crops. In a region where wind causes land degradation, an oil-producing tree like the Bombacopsis glabra, which is also used to make natural fences, could improve yields of traditional crops while also being used to make a soap base. We are also looking at the possibility of using locally produced cachaça — the sugar cane alcohol from Brazil — to replace cereal alcohol in the production of the medicinal plants extracts. And who knows if one day we might not be able to produce even the packaging material from locally sourced products.
Capturing the value chain
This constant focus on trying to maintain the entire value chain within small local communities can bring about a number of benefits. By capturing most of the value chain, we maintain most of the additional income in the hands of small producers, providing a financial reward for the conservation of biodiversity. In doing so, we also support a form of development that is both sustainable and small-scale, with numerous suppliers of materials, thus promoting a better redistribution of financial benefits. Finally, focusing the production processes primarily at the local level, we reduce our impact on the environment by reducing the need for transporting materials over long distances, amongst other things, lowering emissions of greenhouse gases.
It is critical today that the conservation of the Atlantic Forest, and more generally of the world’s biodiversity, be of concern especially to small local actors. And with our evermore globalizing world, we must take into consideration the needs and preoccupations of those local actors when proposing solutions to protect the environment.
At the time of writing, Matthieu Beauchemin
was Junior Manager - Projeto Medicina da Mata, Iracambi RN
; Marcelo Mendes Amaral
is Manager of the Medicinal Plants Project, Iracambi RN