An award-winning seed collection network in Brazil's Amazon is improving incomes and food security - and may be cutting prejudice
By Laurie Goering
LONDON, July 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - By law, builders of roads and dams and others who destroy forests in Brazil's Amazon are required to replant an equivalent area of trees elsewhere.
To do that they need the right seeds - and collecting those has turned into valuable business for indigenous communities in the Xingu basin of Mato Grosso state, as well as for other indigenous groups around Brazil.
Since 2008, more than 560 collectors - most of them women - have gathered almost 250 tonnes of seeds from 220 native species as part of an effort now known as the Xingu Seed Network.
The work has helped them earn an income, reconnect with their forests and restore more than 6,600 hectares of degraded land, according to Ashden, a British charity that this week awarded the group one of its sustainability prizes for 2020.
The network has also helped protect indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, as families that once would have shopped in town for food have learned to harvest from their home forests, said its director Bruna Ferreira.
"Through the seed network, people have gotten back to their forests to learn the variety of fruits, leaves and roots the ancients used to know how to eat," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Brazil after a virtual awards ceremony.
"They are getting that knowledge back and they are eating a lot more of those resources," she said.
Brazil's Amazon is one of the hardest-hit regions in a country with the world's second-highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths, behind the United States.
Brazil has registered nearly 62,000 deaths from COVID-19, with at least 11,000 of those in the Amazon region, which has only 8% of the country's population, according to official data.
Ferreira said three seed collectors in one village she works with have fallen ill, with one elderly woman dying.
Families may have contracted the disease after an eight-year-old child died at a health facility and was brought home for burial ceremonies, which involve community members laying hands on the deceased.
"A lot of people got contaminated," she said, noting that in the last 15 days she had seen "a lot of deaths start happening in the municipalities around the Xingu park".
Dealing with cases of the virus is difficult due to a lack of intensive care units in cities, she noted.
"The one or two beds they have are already taken - and it's a 20-hour drive to the capital, where there are more beds," she said. "It's really a catastrophe."
SEEDS NOT SAPLINGS
The indigenous collectors have discovered that planting seeds, rather than saplings, is a more efficient and effective way to rebuild forests quickly and help young trees survive drought.
Their seeding technique also makes it possible to plant 10 times as many trees per hectare as using seedlings, at half the cost, Ashden noted.
The project got its start when the more than 20 indigenous tribes living in the Xingu reserve - and officials in the region - noticed water quality worsening as farms replaced forests on the borders of the reserve.
Efforts to restore vegetation around rivers and springs in the Xingu watershed eventually landed on seed planting as the best way forward, said Eduardo Malta Campos Filho, a forest expert with Brazil's Instituto Socioambiental.
Today there is "huge demand for seed", mostly from private companies, farmers and green groups trying to meet restoration requirements, said Campos, an advisor to the network.
The Xingu group works in coordination with other seed networks in Brazil to meet demand and ensure the seeds provided are adapted to each ecosystem, have good genetic variety and are selected for resilience to climate shifts, Ferreira said.
One of the network's unanticipated benefits has been bringing together Amazon farmers and indigenous people, who live in "different worlds", she said.
Working jointly on water quality projects, for instance, has given farmers exposure to indigenous communities, which at some level has helped alleviate misconceptions, she noted.
Beto Borges, one of the Ashden competition judges and an expert in community forest stewardship with U.S.-based non-profit Forest Trends, said such efforts were particularly crucial as the country faces "challenging times with the Brazilian government we have now".
Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has vowed to encourage economic development in the Amazon to lift indigenous groups from poverty and improve the lives of the 30 million Brazilians who inhabit the region.
But environmentalists say his plans are speeding up destruction of the world's largest rainforest, which is a crucial bulwark against global climate change and regulates rainfall in South America's agricultural zones.
"While there's progress because of our work, there's still a lot of prejudice" against indigenous communities, Ferreira admitted.
"It's one of the biggest challenges indigenous people in Brazil face," she said.
(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.