Community pine nut harvests help protect Brazil’s araucaria trees

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  • Pine nuts from the araucaria trees of the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina are driving a chain of sustainable production involving more than a dozen municipalities from the mountain region of the southern Brazilian state.
  • With devastating logging by the timber industry, the original extent of araucaria forests has fallen by 98%; today, keeping the trees standing — and selling their nuts – has proven to be a better alternative source of income for the communities living in the highland area.
  • Despite these conservation efforts, legal obstacles persist: 70-90% of araucaria pine nut sales take place informally, which opens the way to middlemen, while low levels of mechanization in the production chain hinder the chances of expansion.

SANTA CATARINA, BRASIL — A serene orange hue cuts across the horizon with the first rays of sunlight as dawn breaks in the mountainous countryside of Brazil’s second-most southerly state, Santa Catarina. The clear sky hangs above the ground, which is covered in a thin layer of frost. As the sun rises, the frost melts and water vapor rises from the ground, leaving a thin, slightly white curtain of mist. The smoky landscape of a morning frost is a typical occurrence during winter in this highland region. In the kitchen of Sara Aparecida and Silvino de Liz Rosa’s house, a wood fire crackles as it warms the room while the couple serve themselves chimarrão, the traditional hot drink of people in southern Brazil, similar to yerba mate.

The day starts early on the Santo Antônio do Caveiras farm, located in the community of Mortandade, in the municipality of Painel, in Santa Catarina’s rural interior. Just a few steps from the slightly ajar front door, one can see the trunk of a 20-meter (65-foot) tall araucaria tree. The tree is a female of the species and is nearly 45 years old. “When they built the house, the pine was barely 2 meters tall. Today, it guards over the land below and is something of a family treasure, since it produces more than 200 pine cones a year,” said the couple’s son, Jaison de Liz Rosa.

As the owner of a neighboring farm just a few kilometers away in Morro do Bacheiro, the family farmer and his father have been araucaria pine nut harvesters for as long as they can remember. The practice is generations-old in the region, which is home to the largest population of araucaria trees in the state. In the area that forms the Planalto Serrano Catarinense, the Araucaria angustifolia — also known as the Brazilian or Paraná pine — is the predominant species. It is the main feature of the moist araucaria forests, or mixed ombrophilous forests as they are officially known, which form part of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. It is also the only naturally occurring forest of its kind in the country.

The tree’s seed, known as the pinhão in Portuguese, is a symbol of the region’s culture and cuisine. This type of pine nut is also the driving part of a productive chain involving more than a dozen municipalities in Santa Catarina’s southwest. Lages, Bocaina do Sul, Painel, São Joaquim, Bom Retiro, Urupema, Urubici, São José do Cerrito and Bom Jardim da Serra account for roughly 75% of the araucaria pine nut market in Santa Catarina.

In this rural area, different segments of society, such as NGOs and farmers organizations, are working together to promote actions that aim to combine empirical and academic science while valuing traditional knowledge and know-how to strengthen sustainable production chains that preserve and restore native vegetation, and in doing so, ensuring the subsistence of local communities.

Araucaria pine nut extraction, integrated into the agroecological system, generates income for hundreds of families in this highland region and provides opportunities to promote inclusive agriculture, collective consciousness and environmental preservation. Investment in real food combined with active community associations point the way forward for the people and forests of the region.

An araucaria forest in the municipality of Urubici, Santa Catarina. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

Legal obstacles

Natal João Magnanti, coordinator of the Vianei Center for Popular Education — an association that has been providing advice on family agriculture, agroecology and food security in the region — said that a large part of current initiatives had been discussed for a long time. “Everything is part of a process of sustainable development for the region. Growth is gradual, as we’re talking about a chain that is still in a position of marginality, in a market that is only interested in profit,” he said.

In 2009, rural farmers won an exemption from ICMS, a value-added tax on sales and services that was a burden on the final price of their products and represented another obstacle to the formalization of the chain of production and retail, which is still very low. “We’re talking about a production chain that is mostly informal, with few exceptions. The legal part of the industry makes up somewhere between 10% and 30%,” Magnanti said. Hundreds of araucaria pine nut harvesters sell their products in both their natural and processed form, without the necessary tax documents. A large part of the harvest is sold clandestinely, with current regulations being one of the main obstacles in the production chain.

Jaison de Liz Rosa in the storage shed for the araucaria pine cones, on his farm, located in the municipality of Painel, Santa Catarina. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

According to Adilsom de Oliveira Branco, an auditor for the economic activity of a local municipal association, the data available for analysis are rather unclear. “Based on the invoices that passed through local councils in each municipality, 234 producers were recorded in the year 2022, who sold 1,500 [metric tons] for an average of 3.37 reais [$0.70] per kilogram, corresponding to a total of 6 million reais [$1.2 million],” the auditor said.

Magnanti, meanwhile, estimated that, in actuality, the financial turnover of the production chain came in at 20 million reais [$4.1 million] last year. A survey carried out by the Agricultural Research and Rural Extension Company of Santa Catarina showed that, in 2022, 1,700 metric tons of araucaria pine nuts were sold in the municipality of Painel alone.

To get a sense of scale, the latest census carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics showed that 3,386 farming establishments said they have araucaria pine nuts on their property. “That shows a projection of the overall productive capacity, which can then be divided between the part that is registered for sale, the part that is sold without being recorded, as well as the part that is not sold because there is insufficient labor to carry out the harvest,” Branco explained.

A challenging market

As a seasonal crop, with the harvest period falling between April and July, the income that comes from extracting and processing araucaria pine nuts is hardly enough to support a family through the year. One solution has come from Aldo Niehues, who idealized the prototype for a machine that removes the shell from the nut. The extraction of the kernel required additional manpower due to the hard bark of the nutshell. Increasing capacity was an important step since processing the araucaria pine nuts once they have been shelled allows for them to be sold outside the harvest season.

Niehues lives in the community of São Pedro, in the municipality of Urubici, and is part of the Renascer Agroecological Association. The project to facilitate and increase the productive capacity of the araucaria pine nut farmers was developed between 2014 and 2017 at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in partnership with the Ecoserra Ecological Cooperative from the city of Lages, also in Santa Catarina. Urubici is also where the first processing plant for the araucaria pine nut was established.

“Back in 2010, we managed to get funding from the Ministry of Agrarian Development and Family Agriculture to set up a small facility on public land, which belonged to the local council,” Magnanti said. The Renascer Association and the Ecoserra Ecological Cooperative worked together to produce a rotation scheme for families in the community to carry out work on the facility.

The following step saw the distribution of approximately 15 kits among the farmers, which included machines to shell and grind the nuts, as well as machines that could be used to seal the plastic bags used to store the roasted nuts. The aim of the project was to widen the scale of processing for the product, giving the nuts a longer shelf life. Without these techniques, the storage of unprocessed nuts can lead to farmers losing out, both in terms of the quantity and quality of their product, as they face the risk of their crop becoming infested by pests, namely a type of moth, the Cydia araucariae.

Despite these efforts, the number of legal plants that process the araucaria pine nut for sale are still extremely low in number. According to data from the Intermunicipal Consortium of the Santa Catarina Mountains, a total of 13 have been registered in municipalities such as São Joaquim, Lages, Correia Pinto and São José do Cerrito, where Agroindústria Pinhão Garcia, the largest processing plant of all, processes nearly 30 metric tons of araucaria pine nut each harvest.

A pine nut extraction machine in use in the community of Rincão do Tigre, in the São Joaquim municipality, Santa Catarina. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

An age-old source of food

The kernel, which is the edible part of the araucaria pine nut, has been eaten for centuries by the inhabitants of the southern highlands of Brazil. The most traditional way of preparing the nut is the sapecada, whereby it is roasted over a grimpa, or a stack of dried araucaria branches, which are set alight and burn quickly and intensely. This ancient method was previously used by the Indigenous inhabitants of the region, and later by the mule drivers who used to travel through the countryside transporting supplies for local traders. The sapecada is still a favorite of those who work during the harvest. On a day spent harvesting the nut in the forest, a sapecada is the go-to dish to keep them well-fed while they work.

Machines are seldom used for the extraction, transportation and processing of the araucaria pine nut on these farms, where manual work predominates. The work to harvest the nut is carried out entirely manually and can be dangerous. In 2022, the properties belonging to Jaison and Silvino de Liz Rosa produced a crop weighing 10 metric tons from their 47 hectares (116 acres) of land. “We sell directly to the consumer, as door-to-door salesmen. People send us a message, asking for the quantity, and then come and pick it up from us here,” Silvino explained. They sold their product at 5 reais ($1) per kilogram.

When the harvest is good, they take in around 600 pine cones per day. “It’s a heavy and dangerous job, it tires you out. We want to diversify our production, make cooked pine nuts, whole or ground, or even make a [pine nut] flour that we can sell the whole year round. That way it’ll be easier and we’ll run fewer risks,” said Jaison, who has been involved in the harvests for 30 years.

The harvesters fearlessly climb the towering pine trees, aided only by a couple of metal spurs. It takes a lot of skill to be able to climb 15-30 of these trees a day, with each movement at every step being carefully measured. After climbing 20-30 meters (about 65-100 feet) up the tree trunk, the harvesters reach the crown of the tree and must then take care to make sure that the branch on which their feet are resting is not going to break, which could lead them to fall and suffer serious injury, or even die.

Plínio Rogério Mota de Souza harvesting araucaria pine nuts in São José do Cerrito, Santa Catarina. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

Once in the crown of the tree, the harvesters must also navigate themselves through the tree’s branches, which are covered in spines. Finally, with the help of a stick or aluminum rod, the harvesters strike at the pine cones, knocking them down to the ground below. Despite the effort and risk involved, the harvesters are only able to get less than half of what the araucaria produces. “If we get around 40% of the harvest, that’s a lot. We can’t reach everything,” Silvino said.

Wildlife feed off the scraps and husks that fall to the forest floor and are left behind after the harvest. The azure jay (Cyanocorax caeruleus) is the species that most contributes to seed dispersal. It will often bury the araucaria pine nuts, storing them for later consumption, but will not always remember to return to the spot where it previously hid the nut. “In terms of planting [new araucarias], it’s a comrade of ours,” Silvino said. “There’s also the red-spectacled amazon [Amazona pretrei] that comes here in flocks from Rio Grande do Sul and only stays during the pine nut season, when all it does is eat.

A rich lexicon exists for the araucaria pine nut, with every community giving the tree’s seed a different name according to the seed’s characteristics, such as its appearance or stage of ripeness. Pinhão São José, pinhão macaco, pinhão cajuvá branco e vermelho, pinhão do cedo, pinhão do tarde and pinhão de 25 de março are a sample of the various names the nuts are given. The araucaria pine nut harvest season is officially opened by law from April 1, however the harvesters — who have an intimate relationship with and understanding of their environment — say that part of the harvest is lost because of this, as some of the tree’s fruit has already ripened by March. The fruit here refers to the bulbous pine cones that weigh, on average, 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) and hold 100-150 pine nuts. Pollination rates cause the size of the pine cones to vary greatly from tree to tree and from year to year, with climatic conditions influencing whether the cones end up larger or smaller than average.

Among the rich variety of the araucaria pine nut, the cajuvá is held to be the cream of the crop. Beautifully shaped and at the ideal point of ripeness, the cajuvá is a gastronomical treasure. An infinite number of dishes are prepared with the araucaria pine nut, with the entrevero — beef and pork with araucaria pine nuts fried in lard — and paçoca — a araucaria pine nut-based farofa, or toasted and seasoned flour mixture that is used as an accompaniment to many Brazilian dishes — being the most popular. Araucaria pine nuts are also used to make croquetas, gnocchi, souffle, cakes, puddings, candy and pesto.

In 2008, the Santa Catarina araucaria pine nut was added to the Brazilian edition of the Ark of Taste, a list compiled by Slow Food, an Italian body that aims to promote local and sustainable growing and harvesting of food, safeguarding products that are part of a diverse human food chain. “Slow Food was a chance to make an international connection. Twenty years ago, the araucaria pine nut market was just starting to grow. Forty years ago, there was none to speak of. Slow Food put an ingredient that was new to many in the shop window. It was a great move,” Magnanti said. In the same year, the pine nut producing region became a Slow Food Presidium, and the only one in southern Brazil.

Maria Elizabete Oliveira Damas cooking entrevero, a typical local dish that uses araucaria pine nuts from the Santa Catarina highlands. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

A food at risk of disappearing

Food heritage and food security are linked to forest management by traditional populations. The Santa Catarina highlands were once a borderless land inhabited by Indigenous peoples from the Xokleng, Kaingáng and Guarani peoples. The eldest members of these groups speak of how, during the period in which the rural areas of the state were occupied, the state government paid settlers, known as bugreiros or “Indian hunters,” to wipe out the Indigenous population of the region. The mark of this dark episode in the region’s history has been left on the land, as Jaison de Liz Rosa recalled. “The name Mortandade, the place where my father’s farm is, comes from this period,” the farmer said, referring to the community whose name means “bloodshed” or “slaughter” in Portuguese.

As the years have passed, local farmers have come to see the importance of keeping the forest standing, as well as of integrating different tree and plant species, which they already intuitively did on their properties, without knowing that it was an agroforestry system. Managing the forests has allowed the landscape to be protected.

Facing this is the expansion of the agricultural frontier, which, as it encroaches ever farther into the forest, generates a number of obstacles to the evolution of the productive chain. The cultural landscape of the Santa Catarina highlands is faced by a number of major threats, such as the conversion of forests into pasture, the leasing of land for pine plantations to be created, monocultural sowing of grains such as soybeans in rural areas and the construction of small-scale hydroelectric plants.

Natal Magnanti emphasized the cultural, as well as geographic, nature of the territory. “The araucaria can be found above an altitude of 500 meters [1,640 feet] [above the town of] Rancho Queimado. This whole part of the state had a different history of occupation from other parts of Santa Catarina. It was an area that was part of the province of São Paulo. It only became part of the state much later, so the formation is ethical, ethnic and also political. It is not a given territory, but a constructed one,” he said.

A pine cone bud growing on an araucaria branch. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

A large part of the fragments of forested land that are home to the araucaria are found on private estates. The vegetation that once covered almost 200,000 square kilometers (77,220 square miles) of high-altitude land has been decimated. Over a century, the predatory exploitation of natural resources that powered southern Brazil’s timber industry saw the area of araucaria forests fall by 98%. It was only in 2001 that the National Environment Council (CONAMA) outlawed the felling of the araucaria — a tree species that has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. There are fossilized remnants of the araucaria that have been dated to 250 million years ago, from the Triassic period, the first period of the Mesozoic Era.

Today, only 1% of the 3% of remaining areas belong to the original forest cover. The species is critically endangered and was included in the official list of endangered Brazilian species and in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is forecast to go extinct within the next 50 years if no action to preserve and recuperate the species is taken.

According to Marciano Coelho Correa, a director at the Ecoserra Ecological Cooperative, clandestine felling of the araucaria still goes on, despite the fact that it is illegal. “The local inhabitants need to be trained. When I say trained, I mean that they need to be backed up with the science and the law so that they can promote the management of the trees on their properties.”

The araucaria pine nut harvesters who manage the resources of the forests, therefore, play a vital role in the construction of the landscapes of the region. On Silvino de Liz Rosa’s farm, plant management integrated with small-scale agro-ecological crops characterizes the conservation of an agroforestry system. Araucarias, tree ferns, yerba mate, feijoa trees and Mimosa scabrella grow among the forest. “The connection between araucaria forests and agroecology changes the lives of those who depend on the land, as it gives people the chance to make use of things that are important to them,” Correa explained.

The couple Adriana and Jaison de Liz Rosa in their home, in the municipality of Painel, Santa Catarina. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

Managing agroforestry systems

However, there are also demands that go beyond the safeguarding of native species. One such demand refers to the overpopulation of araucania pines on properties such as Silvino’s. Silvino and his son have observed how the araucania pine nut crop has diminished over time. “Surviving on harvesting is becoming more difficult, because the araucaria are so highly concentrated. You don’t get many pine nuts [from areas] where they amass like this,” Jaison de Liz Rocha said. Upon the family’s appeal, a research project was developed, titled, “Conservation through the use of Araucaria angustifolia in agroforestry systems for pine nut production.”

The study, developed by the postgraduate program in Agricultural and Natural Ecosystems at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, seeks to formulate conservation strategies through use for the maintenance of the species in the landscape and culture. According to the study’s coordinator, Alexandre Siminski, the evaluation of historic, economic and social aspects aims to contribute to the development of reference units in agroforestry management with araucaria.

The ongoing project has received funding from FAPESC, the Research Support Foundation of the State of Santa Catarina, and has partnerships with the Vianei Education Center, the Environmental Institute of Santa Catarina and the Santa Catarina State University campus in the city of Lages. On the majority of the properties that are part of the focus area of the study, at least 50% of the area is covered by araucaria trees. Silvino’s farm has 24,000 trees — coming in at 600 per hectare. This is a fairly significant number, and three times more than what would be expected in an araucaria forest that had not undergone any type of intervention.

“They have been carrying out activities that interfere with the landscape for a very long time. What they would need to add to what they have traditionally done is thinning out [the forest] in areas where there is a high density of trees,” Siminski said. What the study argues is that the conditions that farmers in that region have are different. “The harvesters aren’t going to turn their land into soybean plantations or cattle-ranching pastures. What they want is to manage the araucaria numbers in a way that allows them to carrying on producing pine nuts in the long term. And legislation needs to be modernized to attend to this situation, which is very specific,” he added.

José Natalino Ribeiro, an araucaria pine nut harvester, sorts araucaria pine cones and wood for domestic use on his family’s farm, in the town of Urubici, Santa Catarina. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

Cycle under construction

Social and economic well-being and the defense of life are the basic concepts of agroecology. In the community of Cruzeiro, in São Joaquim, the farm of Joelce da Rosa Damas and Maria Elizabete Oliveira Damas is part of the Acolhida na Colônia ecological agrotourism route. The locals open their doors to the visitors, sharing their stories and culture. The regional nucleus, made up of some 200 families, holds the valorization of the countryside way of life as its guiding principle.

The agroextractivist couple collected nearly 80 bags weighing 50 kilograms (110 pounds) each in 2022. That’s four metric tons of pine nuts. “Some of it I got from our farm [9 hectares in size] and the rest I got working as a sharecropper on my neighbor’s farm,” Damas said. Joelco is a highly skilled woodworker. He built the community’s sheds that are used for storing and processing the araucaria pine nuts and has also made a machine that can separate the pine kernel from the husk, based on the teachings he received from an old farmworker, who worked back in the days when, in order to climb the araucaria trees, the harvesters would make a ladder in the trunk of the araucaria tree itself with a machete. This method has since been dropped by the harvesters of today, for it is even more risky than the current way of scaling the trees.

Joelce changed from his traditional methods to an agroecological approach after being hospitalized three times with a serious infection because of the use of chemical products. “I nearly died. They were really traumatic experiences for me and my family. No money can replace the health and quality of life of the plants, the animals that feed on them and those who make their living from the land,” he said. The return to an integrative and systemic understanding changed how the farmer saw and related to nature. Now Joelce and his wife, Maria, grow a variety of vegetables and fruits, such as strawberries and apples. “Most of our income comes from selling apples, which are seasonal, and from strawberries, which produce fruit year-round,” he said.

Joelce da Rosa Damas, an araucaria pine nut harvester, in one of the storage and processing sheds he built in the town of São Joaquim, Santa Catarina. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

Faced with the necessity of creating a structure that transcended the local economy, the rural producers came together to create the Ecoserra Ecological Cooperative. Organic agriculture in the region has been strengthened by the territorial brand for twenty years. “There was little demand for a large volume of products for sale. We needed to have an intermediary that would go beyond direct sales, especially in terms of the institutional market, through which we have access to public policies such as the Food Acquisition Program and the National School Meals Program,” explained Marciano Coelho Correa, who manages the cooperative, which is responsible for the annual distribution of 40-80 metric tons of every harvest and off-season product, including araucaria pine nuts processed in 500-gram (1.1-lb) and 1 kg (2.2-lb) bags.

In general, the farmers sell their products in the local market, in fairs, grocery stores and they supply federal government programs. A considerable part of the harvest, however, is sold abroad. “It’s important to remember that the vast majority of the araucaria pine nut harvest, sold in its natural, unprocessed form, circulates [through the economy] via middlemen,” Natal Magnanti said. Farmers in places such as Painel, São José do Cerrito, São Joaquim and Capão Alto sell their goods to the CEASA, a wholesale distribution center, of the city of Florianópolis, or to other regions in Santa Catarina or to states such as Paraná, São Paulo and Minas Gerais.

Another vital form of distribution is the direct sale of produce at roadside stalls. The Santa Ceia Stall, located on kilometer 182 of the BR-282 highway, in the municipality of Bocaina do Sul, is literally flowing with araucaria pine nuts. For 16 years, the owner Antônio Milton Amarante has been selling the araucaria pine nut to a whole range of consumers. “At my stall I sell all kinds of farm products, such as salami, beans, honey, onions and yerba mate, but the araucaria pine nut accounts for 90% of my income. Last year, just to give you an idea, I sold 55 tons,” he said. From the first day of the harvest season onward, Antônio, a champion salesman, does not close his stall for even a single day.

Antônio Milton Amarante sells araucaria pine nuts at his stall on the roadside of the BR-282 highway, in Bocaina do Sul, Santa Catarina. Image by Fellipe Abreu/Mongabay.

This article was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Apr. 10, 2023.


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