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BRAZIL: Amazon Fruit Gatherers Face Biofuel Dilemma

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

IMPERATRIZ, Brazil, Aug 4 2007 (IPS) - The babaçú, an abundant native palm tree in the eastern Amazon and in the north and northeast of Brazil, has great potential for the production of "biodiesel" and biomass fuel, but the women who make their living from gathering its fruit fear the loss of their traditional source of income.

"Experience leads us to predict new difficulties in access to the babaçú (Orbignya phalerata martins)," Eunice da Conceição Costa told Tierramérica. She is one of the coordinators of the Interstate Movement of Babaçú Coconut Breakers (Movimento Inter-estadual de Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçú), in Imperatriz, a municipality in the southwest of Maranhão state.

These difficulties have their roots in the agrarian process that Maranhão has undergone since 1969, when the Land Act was passed that drove the formalisation of property ownership and the private appropriation of extensive areas of public lands. Fences multiplied, cutting off sustainable fruit gathering activities, and the forests were replaced by pastures and fields.

The Movement is fighting for a national law – local laws already exist in some municipalities – that ensures free access for the babaçú gatherers and halts destruction of this natural resource that is indispensable for the local economy.

An estimated 400,000 people, nearly all women, make their living from the oil produced by the babaçú coconut, and other products from the babaçú used as food, in construction and in making artisanal crafts.

The fever has arrived here for agricultural-based fuels, which are less polluting than petroleum-based fuels. "Biodiesel" demands industrial scale and mechanised production, and could quash the traditional local practices.

"It is a threat for us; they want to take the babaçú away from us," says Maria Adelina Chagas, general coordinator of the Movement, which is organised in the states of Maranhão, Pará, Piauí and Tocantins.

It is feasible to produce fuel from the babaçú without taking away the source of income from the coconut breakers, but rather would expand it, Fernando Carvalho Silva, coordinator of the biofuel unit at the Federal University of Maranhão, told Tierramérica.

What is needed is a more efficient system for collecting the coconut and extracting its seeds, which contain the oil, he said.

The oil content of the palm&#39s fruit is just seven percent, but it is essential to make use of all the raw material. The hard shell of the coconut has high caloric content and can be used as fuel in industry or for generating electricity. The flesh is rich in starch and can be used to produce food for humans or livestock.

Biodiesel&#39s feasibility here depends, therefore, on a chain of production that includes industries for food, fertiliser, energy, inputs for cosmetics and others, says Silva.

In addition to studying the possibilities of the babaçú, the university team is developing a pilot fuel plant, using cheap and simple technology that is accessible for rural communities. It would be able to produce 250 to 280 litres of biodiesel in each operation, which would take two days because it purifies the fuel through decantation, avoiding the need for costly centrifuges, explained the expert.

The objective is to ensure the initiative&#39s economic viability, benefiting the coconut breakers, who have the final decision on the project that would completely change the babaçú economy, he said.

The abundance of the palm is enough to provide biofuel for several of Brazil&#39s states. The native babaçú forests cover an estimated 18 million hectares, mostly in Maranhão. Its fruit is Brazil&#39s leading forest product, after timber, and in 2005 represented 19.4 percent of all non-wood extractive production, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

But collecting the fruit – a rudimentary practice – does not keep up with the level needed for fuel production. In addition to gathering the coconut by hand, the women remove the seeds using a dangerous technique. They hold the fruit between the fingers of one hand, over the blade of a hatchet supported on the ground, and hit it with a stick held in the other hand.

"No machine can replace the coconut breakers," because a machine would not achieve the longitudinal cut that preserves the four or five seeds contained in each coconut, said the Movement&#39s Costa, underscoring the skill passed on from mother to daughter, though it has not prevented accidents from happening.

Each woman produces an average of eight kilos of seeds per day, and earns about seven reais (3.8 dollars), Chagas, the Movement&#39s general coordinator, told Tierramérica

It is not a lot of money, but is much more than biodiesel would give them, which is another obstacle to convincing the coconut breakers to join the biofuel production effort, she said.

In addition, the governmental programme of incentives for biodiesel in the poor regions of Brazil&#39s north and northeast does not include babaçú, according to Chagas.

Though Edna Carmelio, adviser of the Ministry of Agricultural Development, says that is not the case. The "social seal" given to biodiesel made from raw material coming from family farms entails a tax reduction that would make the fuel 10 percent cheaper. This makes it competitive in the fuel market, she says.

The government&#39s National Programme for Production and use of Biodiesel only mentions castor oil and palm oil for "maximum stimulus" of tax exemptions, because they are made with already proven technologies. But babaçú and other raw materials can benefit from the incentives if they can prove their viability in family agriculture, according to Carmelio.

The social seal is "a protection for the coconut breakers," which would lessen the risk that the babaçú forests would be taken over by big agro-energy business, she said.

The state-run oil giant Petrobras, for example, only buys biofuel that is certified by the seal. Furthermore, family farming, which includes extractive groups like the coconut breakers, has access to subsidised credits that would expand their advantages, said the ministry&#39s biofuel expert.

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