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ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: New Ice Cream Flavours to Save the Cerrado

Mario Osava

GOIANIA, Brazil, Oct 23 2007 (IPS) - A chain of ice cream shops in the capital of the central Brazilian state of Goiás is not only tempting tourists with unique native fruit flavours, but is also promoting the endangered biodiversity of the Cerrado savannah ecosystem.

The three shops, to be joined soon by a fourth, in this city of 1.4 million are supplied by the family of Clóvis de Almeida, a 54-year-old former small farmer who struck it rich thanks to the plant knowledge he accumulated in his childhood and youth in the remote Goiás countryside.

Life has changed radically for Almeida, who is no stranger to hard times. "It was a two-day horseback ride to the nearest town," 60 km away, he said. And there were no pharmacies, so "we cured everything with medicines from the forest, while we hacked our own roads out of the wilderness."

When he grew up, Almeida moved to Goiania, where he supported his wife and three children by selling ice cream from handcarts on the street.

He was doing well. But in 1990 he went broke when he was caught off guard by a government anti-inflationary plan, which froze bank accounts. As a guarantor for three friends, he was left with unpayable debts in the subsequent recession.

He then decided to capitalise on his extensive knowledge of native fruits, developing new ice cream flavours that he eventually began to produce on an industrial scale in his new company, Milka Frutos do Cerrado.

Today the ice cream is sold through shops that operate under a franchise system in Goiania and in other towns in Goiás and the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais.

"We fill up on the weekends," even in the wintertime, Antonio Neto, manager of an ice cream shop on Avenida 85 in Goiania, told IPS. In the shop he runs, which has 19 tables and over 90 chairs and stools, Cajá-manga is the most popular of 46 flavours.

The list also includes old stand-bys like chocolate and strawberry, "because we have to cater as well to the children, who are used to the more mainstream flavours," said Neto.

Thousands of people eat Frutos do Cerrado "picolés" (popsicles) every day, whether in shops or from ice cream carts, which are a tradition in Goiania. But the number of customers soars in the summer.

There are many people interested in purchasing a Frutos do Cerrado franchise, including foreigners "interested in our products because they have no agrotoxics," said Almeida.

Almeida’s business, which employs over 200 people in its factory, is also involved in another mission: preserving and promoting the importance of biodiversity in Brazil’s Cerrado region, a vast tropical savannah or grassland that covers approximately one quarter of Brazil’s surface area in the central part of the country.

Through the company’s ice cream, the names of fruit like cajá-manga, gabiroba, araticum, burití, jatobá and jenipapo have gradually been incorporated into the vocabulary and tastes of young city-dwellers, while bringing back sweet memories for adults who grew up in rural areas.

Almeida is passionately dedicated to saving the Cerrado. Because of his familiarity with and expertise on the region, he has even been invited to give talks at universities.

The Cerrado ecosystem is characterised by great natural wealth, because of the abundance of native fruits and medicinal plants, and as the source of rivers that form part of the country&#39s three biggest watersheds, including Amazonia, he explained to IPS.

"Anyone who owns land in the Cerrado has a potential gold mine," he added, saying that just one hectare producing local fruits can bring in 165,000 dollars a year, compared to 4,400 dollars a year per hectare of soybeans, Brazil’s leading agricultural export.

He especially criticises deforestation and the clearing of land in the region for the purpose of producing export crops, a practice that he described as "irrational."

His enthusiasm is based on the success of his business, whose expansion is limited not by lack of demand but by the difficulty in obtaining raw materials. This year’s drought in Goiás forced the company "to seek fruit in distant areas, even as far away as Piauí," he complained.

Piauí, a state in northeastern Brazil located 2,000 km from Goiania, is at one tip of the Cerrado, an ecosystem nearly as rich in biodiversity as the Amazon jungle, although it is much less well-known and protected.

A 2004 report by Conservation International (CI) warned that the Brazilian Cerrado may disappear by 2030, given that "57 percent of the 204 million hectares of original vegetation cover have already been completely destroyed and half of the remaining areas are very impacted and may not be appropriate for biodiversity conservation."

CI also warned of an "alarming" rate of deforestation: 1.5 percent, or three million hectares, a year, due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, fires, and unplanned urban development.

A new study, with higher-resolution satellite images, should be ready later this year, Ricardo Machado, CI-Brazil director for the Cerrado programme, told IPS. He said fluctuations in the international market for soybeans and the boom in biofuels have likely led to changes in the deforestation rate.

The problem is the popular view of the Cerrado as a poor, useless ecosystem of low-growing bushes and scattered twisted short trees. Brazil’s 1988 constitution does not include it among the areas granted the status of national natural heritage, which are the Amazon jungle, the Mata Atlántica (Atlantic Forest), the Pantanal do Mato Grosso wetlands, and coastal areas.

The Cerrado was also scorned because of the low fertility of its soil. But technological advances and the use of fertilisers brought an expansion of the agricultural frontier in the savannah over the past three decades.

However, this led to further degradation of the ecosystem. For example, the intensive use of lime to correct acidity has modified the chemical composition of the soil, hurting the native vegetation.

Taking economic advantage of the biodiversity of the Cerrado, which has now been recognised as rich in medicinal and food plant species, as well as plants that provide ingredients for the cosmetic industry, is one way to help preserve what remains of the original vegetation, said Machado.

The use of native fruits in ice cream, juices and preserves is an "interesting" way to promote the popularity of the species of the Cerrado, boosting their value and generating a significant number of jobs – albeit insufficient to curb deforestation – added the activist.

That route has already proven successful in the case of some Amazon jungle species like açaí and cupuaçú, he said.

But he stressed that it is necessary to expand the sustainable use of the region’s biodiversity by organised local communities, and to encourage further initiatives, by means of government policies and soft loans, for example.

However, the business opportunities do not have to be limited to the mere harvesting of wild fruit, and can expand to "small-scale cultivation," he said.

The Association of Producers and Processors of Fruits of the Cerrado (Benfruc), founded by 10 people in 2004 in Damianópolis, a town of 4,000 people in the northeast of Goiás, is taking part in that effort.

Benfruc members harvest and process 30 tons of fruit annually, to be increased to 100 tons when a new plant begins to operate at the end of the year.

The association’s fruit pulp is sold to an ice cream shop in Brasilia, 300 km from Damianópolis, or used to produce preserves of piqui, a fruit that is abundant in Goiás, for shops in Goiania, 535 km away.

The association emerged because "in Damianópolis there is no work. Only the school and the city government provide jobs," said Giovanda de Souza Brandao, president of Benfruc.

"Now we want a fruit-harvesting reserve to be created," said Brandao. The proposal for a 27,000-hectare reserve that would enable the harvesters to expand the area where they collect fruit, medicinal plants and honey has already been presented to the governmental Brazilian Environment Institute.

The demand is there, she said; the bottleneck in the production chain is at the stage of harvesting fruits.

Extractivist Reserves (Resex) are areas in Brazil dedicated to the regulated use of natural resources in such a way that ecological balance is not affected. The idea emerged in the Amazon jungle on the initiative of Chico Mendes, the leader of the "seringueiros" (rubber-tappers) and defender of the environment whose 1988 murder had repercussions around the world.

Benfruc is currently training 90 families, to expand the business. The group’s members are also planting new fruit trees and bushes, but they are facing the problem of a shortage of land.

Their efforts will only take off if a Resex is created in their area, which would ensure them access to sufficient land as well as government loans, said Brandao, a 40-year-old farmer with two children who dreams of one day having a farm where she can dedicate five or 10 hectares to cultivation of the native fruits of the Cerrado.

(*Corrects failure to clearly differentiate between "rivers" and "watersheds" in paragraph 15.)

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