Andiroba - first aid from the Amazon
"Are you watching your badly sprained ankle swell and turn purple? Are you nervously swatting the dengue-carrying, white striped mosquito to avoid disease?" The questions are posed by Patricia Shanley, a researcher at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), to researchers working with local communities living in the Amazonian forests of northern Brazil.
Traditionally, Amazonian communities use oil from the andiroba tree (Carapa guianensis) to repel insects such as mosquitoes and to relieve skin problems, fever and sprains. But increasingly, this member of the mahogany family, which can grow to over 80 feet tall, is being targeted for its valuable red-tinted timber.
Of three hundred tree-species currently logged in the eastern Amazon, one third are also valued for their fruits, fibres, medicinal qualities and natural dyes. Andiroba, meaning 'bitter oil', is especially prized for its medicinal properties. But the felling of trees in Brazil's northern state of Para has led local communities to ask whether the forests are worth more for their timber, or for their other products.
Shanley explains: "Loggers arrive at their doors with cash in hand and many villagers have little basis on which to make a decision. Cash and information-poor, communities often sell their forests for scant sums, only later realising the costs."
Sparing local communities these costs, as well as the loss of access to the fruit, fibre and medicines previously taken for granted, has driven Shanley's interest. She has encouraged researchers to investigate locally valuable trees such as andiroba, and has used mapping techniques, workshops and films to make local people aware of the value of andiroba products.
Andiroba seeds are a four-cornered nut, containing roughly 60 per cent oil. Normally collected from forest debris, flood plains and river estuaries, the seeds are boiled and left to ferment for 25 days. The pulp is then extracted from each individual seed and shaped into small balls, which are placed on a sloping surface to allow the oil to drain.
This traditional method takes up to 50 days, with 40 kilograms of seed producing one to four litres of oil, which is then sold in local medical outlets, at a quarter of the price of pharmaceutical equivalents.
Some communities are ashamed that they still use indigenous forest products and extracts to treat their ailments, unable to afford neatly packaged pharmaceutical products such as aspirin. But one group of women have started to value their knowledge of plant medicine, and to directly participate in forest management, an activity usually dominated by men. The Women's Association of Oil Producers in Gurupa, Para State has encouraged women, especially of the older generation, to share their knowledge about andiroba oil.
By making detailed records of seed collection and oil extraction, the Association has calculated potential oil production and income. This was not an easy task, as the amount of seeds produced by trees varies tremendously each year, and differing extraction methods make quantity-based calculations of oil difficult. Through their research, however, the group has managed to prove to forest communities that the value of the trees standing is more than their worth as timber. Some communities have even developed their own system of labels, which show that products are local and from a co-operative source.
A green future
Internationally, the market for andiroba oil is growing. It is sold in Europe and the US as medicinal oil for a host of different complaints - from worms to arthritis. To meet demand and compensate for the loss of felled trees, new trees are being planted in areas previously destroyed by logging or fire.
Unlike other tree species, andiroba grows well in nutrient poor soils and, as part of an agroforestry system, can help to restore degraded land. By joining associations such as the one in Gurupa, many women are finding the courage and support to say 'no' to logging, or to negotiate far more effectively with logging companies.
In conclusion, Shanley remarks: "Although the deck is stacked heavily against forests, I believe that science can generate relevant information to help conserve forests and to promote greater equity for forest-reliant people."
As the saying goes, "You don't know what you have got until it has gone." This time, Shanley believes, people have realised the value of what they have and are winning their battle to preserve andiroba and other valuable Amazonian trees.
Date published: May 2007
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