Babassu (oil palm)
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Last update: 12/12/2016
The so-called ‘true babassu’ (Orbignya phalerata Martius) is the most important oil palm in Brazilian vegetal extraction and the most adapted to the ecological conditions of the eastern Amazon and some states in the North and Northeast of Brazil – particularly Maranhão, Piauí, Tocantins and Pará. In these areas there are also other species of babassu – the ‘tall’ piassava (Orbignya Teixerana Bondar) and the ‘short’ piassava (Orbignya eichleri Drude) – whose uses are identical to those of the so-called ‘true’ babassu. These palms grow best in floodplains, on small hills and elevations, and areas close to the river valleys.
The Indians gave some specific names to babassu, such as aguaçu, uauçu, coco-de-macaco and coco-pindoba. According to Cascudo (1954), the French Capuchin friar Claude D’Abbeville, in the early 17th century, emphasised the importance of the fruits of the palm tree in feeding Northeastern Indians, who called the fruits uauaçú (in the Tupi language). The friar was so enchanted by the beauty and diversity of the Maranhão flora that in his publication History of the Mission of the Capuchin Fathers to the Island of Maranhão, compared the babassu woods to paradise on Earth itself. In general, the first European visitors marvelled at the lush native flora of the country, and recorded their fascination with travel notes, letters, reports and iconography.
Babassu is the main product of vegetable extraction in Maranhão. In the state, a quarter of the territory is covered by babassu. Each tree may can have up to six bunches of nuts, accounting for 80% of the national production of its seeds. The babassu provides about seventy sub products and every part of it is useful. Its arched leaves reach up to eight metres in length and are used as house roofs in rural areas.
Produced from its braided dry straw and the shells of its nut are many decorative and utilitarian handicrafts and objects like baskets, mats, hats, screens, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, hairpins, windows, doors, trays, cages, traps, fans, bags, towels, table covers, placemats, sandals, caps, pen holders, and packaging. These products are sold in fairs, markets and handicraft shops and are also exported, representing a valuable source of income for the population.
It is worth noting the strong support given by the Micro and Small Enterprises Support Service (SEBRAE) since 1999 in relation to Integrated Local and Sustainable Development (DLIS) projects by encouraging small handicraft businesses to generate income, alongside the Women’s Associations, in addition to the extraction and processing of babassu seeds for oil.
The palm tree pith is used in children’s porridge, and the stem in buildings and rustic carpentry. The shell of the seed can become an efficient coal for domestic use, and when burned produces smoke that acts as an effective insect repellent. The bark is also used in other products for industrial application, such as methanol, coke, activated charcoal, combustible gases and tar. During the long periods of drought, in the absence of other food sources, the animals eat the shells of the seeds.
If the palm of babassu is young, it is possible to extract a good quality palm heart. Unripe seeds, according to research from the Maranhão Institute of Natural Resources, when newly extracted, grated, squeezed with a little water and strained through a fine cloth, provide milk with nutritional properties similar to human milk, which is used in local cuisine. A substitute for coconut milk, it is used to moisten corn, rice or tapioca-based couscous, season fish, game meat and cakes, or drunk as an alternative to cow’s milk. When mature, the outside of the fruit is edible. Indians extract a liquid from the peduncle of the fruit bunch that, when fermented, becomes a prized alcohol.
Babassu seeds represent two thirds of the nut’s its total weight, and like those of the dendê and buriti have a high content of oily materials. Thus, its main destinations are extraction factories. The oil is obtained by heat or mechanical extraction using solvents. However, despite the latter process being more efficient, it is more expensive. The edible oil has mild odour and taste, and a colour ranging from white to yellow, depending on the temperature used in the extraction. Margarine and animal feed are produced with it.
There is great interest on the part of industries to understand the rheological behaviour of food. As babassu oil can compete with other oils, it has become important to study its viscosity, because it relates directly to the quality of products. (CASTRO; BRAGA et al, 2002).
Among vegetable oils for industrial use, babassu oil has the highest rate of saponification, and the lowest iodine content and refraction. These factors are important for the lauric oil market (hygiene products, cosmetics and cleaning). Gessy Lever, Nestlé and Braswey are among the largest corporate consumers of oils and lauric fats. Babassu oil is also an important ingredient in the preparation of ointments and natural soaps, which act as excellent moisturisers, and whose packaging includes fibres from the palm itself. Moreover, herbal medicine uses it as an anti-inflammatory in massaging painful parts of the body. Lubricants, fuel and glycerine are also produced with babassu oil.
Thousands of women, aided by children, work in the babassu fields of Maranhão, Piauí, Tocantins and Pará. In the communities where extraction is a part of life, it is said: if a woman has not yet been a “nutcracker”, she will one day. This is female work, by tradition, and done in an artisanal way. The women secure an axe with the sharp side up under one of their legs to support the nut and beat it with a piece of wood until it breaks. Then they remove the seeds and put them in a basket (caçuá). In this rudimentary procedure, some seeds are harmed and ferment and deteriorate on the long trips to the factories – an economic loss for those who live through extraction. According to estimates, there are about 400,000 people – almost all women – who survive by extraction, industrialisation of oil and/or other babassu products.
A survey conducted in northern Tocantins highlighted that “1 kilo of seeds is bought for a price between R$0.50 and R$0.60, while 1 litre of babassu oil (which is obtained with 2 kilos of seeds) can be sold for up to R$5.00. A nutcracker extracts an average of 5 kilograms of seeds per day” (CAMPOS, 2006). And, from one hundred kilos of broken nuts, eight to ten kilos of seeds are extracted at most.
In Maranhão, the height of the babassu economy took place from the 1960s to the 1980s, during which fifty two medium and large companies operated in the state, producing crude and refined oil to supply the food and the hygiene and cleaning products industries in domestic and international markets. However, with the advance of soybean production, and with competitive prices of the Southeast Asian oil, which competes with Brazilian prices, many factories have gone bankrupt.
Much of the difficulty of nutcrackers has its roots in the agrarian process that Maranhão experienced from 1969 when the ‘Law of Land’ was passed, propelling the formation of properties and the private appropriation of vast public areas. Extraction was prohibited, fences proliferated, and the forests were replaced by pastures and fields. In 1997, however, the ‘Free Babassu Law’ was passed, which aims to provide extractors access to palm trees, even when they are on private property, and imposed restrictions on the felling or burning of babassu fields. On the other hand, in 2003 a bill extended the Free Babassu Law to all national babassu, and brought debate on this issue to national politics (CAMPOS, 2006).
At present, in Maranhão, Pará, Tocantins and Piauí, two entities have been working with the female population – the Association of Rural Women Workers (AMTR) and the Interstate Movement of Babassu Nutcrackers (MIQCB), the former a regional entity and the latter interregional – to ensure rights and in particular to ensure free access to babassu. It is important to note that, despite all efforts, the Free Babassu Law never guaranteed the physical integrity of nutcrackers.
Because of the need for creating grazing areas for livestock, babassu fields have been targets of widespread clearing. Thus, congressman Domingos Dutra (PT/MA) – son of a Maranhao nutcracker – prepared Draft Law 231/2007, approved unanimously by the House of Representatives’ Environment Commission, which prohibited the felling of babassu palm trees in the states of Maranhão, Piauí, Tocantins, Pará, Goiás and Mato Grosso. The only exceptions relate to areas reserved for specific public works or services, or for the public good. The responsibility for the implementation and enforcement of the law falls to the Ministry of the Environment. It is hoped that in this sense the ministry can fulfill the provisions of the Brazilian Forest Code. Babassu extraction provides manual labour and settles people in these areas, whereas indiscriminate deforestation entails expulsion and impoverishment of the people occupying those areas. Despite the great fires, it is clear that the babassu is very resistant and regenerates quickly. This is made possible by the appearance of pindovas – the seedlings of palm tree which appear to be immune to it as well as to seed predators. It is estimated that babassu fields occupy 18 million hectares, mainly in Maranhão. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), babassu nut was the second product of Brazilian forests after timber, accounting for 19.4% of extractive production in 2005.
Some states have commissioned studies on various plants, aimed at energy production. Less polluting and alternative fuels to diesel have also been researched, looking for better conservation of the environment and reducing the greenhouse effect. It is possible to produce biodiesel from babassu. However, the nutcrackers fear being harmed by the changes that would arise with the implementation of mechanised production on an industrial scale.
In Maranhão, in particular, professors and members of the Alternative Fuel Group (GCA) have worked to form partnerships with government institutions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to implement biodiesel from babassu oil. And the Biodiesel Program develops its projects, beginning with each state’s oil plants. In Pará, for example, it is oil palm; Piauí, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte, castor bean; and in South and Southeast, soybean.
From 2008, the Formula 1 cars should use 5.75% of renewable fuels, as buses and cars have been using ethanol and biodiesel a few years ago. Airline Virgin Atlantic, owned by Richard Branson, reported having trialled fuelling one of the four of its Boeing 747 engines with a mix of regular fuel (aviation kerosene) and 20% babassu oil. This was done only in one of the engines as a trial on a flight without passengers, to ensure that if one engine were to fail, the others would compensate the power loss, thereby avoiding the loss of the aircraft Without any problems, the Boeing left London, England, and landed in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. Babassu oil has not yet been used solely in all engines because scientists are researching a way for it not to freeze at high altitude. (The BOEING ..., 2008).
It is worth noting that although babassu fields are located in areas where the highest socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil predominate, women nutcrackers consider these palm trees a true vegetable goldmine. Paradoxically or not, they would be in even worse shape without them.
Recife, 31 March 2008.
Translated by Peter Leamy, July 2016.
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