Keeping cultures alive: How cooking and singing can save the Amazon forest

BOGOR, Indonesia (16 April 2012)_Scientists are hoping to strike a cultural chord with Amazonian forest communities by combining in-depth research with traditional stories, songs and recipes as a way to promote forest conservation and food security.

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Photo by Neil Palmer/ CIAT

BOGOR, Indonesia (16 April 2012)_Scientists are hoping to strike a cultural chord with Amazonian forest communities by combining in-depth research with traditional stories, songs and recipes as a way to promote forest conservation and food security.

“Scientists are limited in their knowledge of forests,” said Patricia Shanley, CIFOR senior research associate and editor of Fruit trees and useful plants in Amazonian life.

“By weaving in traditional knowledge … it is people in their cultural contexts who daily decide whether forests stand or fall.”

The book, a mammoth 380-page volume, is the English-language version of a creative guide that aims to help stem deforestation by showing villagers that conserving trees enables them to secure long-term financial gains from non-timber forest products (NFTPs) such as fruit for medicine or food.

To communicate key messages to forest dwellers, many of whom are semi-illiterate, Shanley and her colleagues sought to make the book practical and entertaining. As such, they spent the last two decades collecting contributions from 130 people including policy makers, scientists, hunters, midwives and farmers.

The end result was a unique compilation of forest management techniques, medicinal recipes, marketing tips and trade information, delivered in a series of posters, jokes, theatre and songs, none of which need a lengthy formal education to understand.

“The book is a tapestry of voices celebrating forest value,” Shanley said. “[Although] it was originally written for folks that do not read … much of it was written by folks that do not read.”

It points out opportunities communities have not yet realized. While forest dwellers currently earn as little as 1.5 Euros for the timber of an entire tree, hundreds of Euros can instead be generated annually by harvesting and selling their fruit, Shanley said in a recent speech.

She added that villagers were initially lured into the timber trade for the instant cash.  As time goes on, however, loggers fell more species at smaller diameters, reducing diversity and eventually degrading the forest until fire enters and consumes the rest. Repeated cycles of logging, followed by fire, creates conditions that prevent some of the most nutritious fruit and powerful medicinal tree species from regenerating.

“Forests are the pharmacies and supermarkets of Amazonians,” she said. “As forest loss occurs, nutrition deteriorates … when the species of greatest nutritional value are selectively logged, this also has a deleterious impact on people’s health and wellbeing.”

For example, wood from the Piquiá tree is highly prized for boatbuilding, so much that its abundance near boat factories has plummeted. The Piquiá also produces carbohydrate- and protein-rich fruit, a more sustainable alternative that can be eaten or pulped for cooking oil, while the seeds have potential use in the cosmetics industry and the rind can be used for soap. Piquiá flowers are also a nutritious food source and tend to attract wildlife. The report says the sale of Piquiá fruit generated roughly US$47,300 in 2004.

Food security and sustainable agriculture is a key theme at this year’s Rio+20 conference, an event that aims to assess and secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development. Brazil’s former Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva, stated that the book, “makes the notion of sustainability concrete”.

Currently in its fourth edition, the publication was originally written in Portuguese. The popularity of the book prompted Brazil’s Environment Ministry and Embrapa (the Brazilian Agriculture Research Institute) to print 10,000 copies to distribute free to smallholders in 2011. A concrete tool for fostering sustainability in Amazonian, small holder organizations have requested an additional 30,000 copies which they are pressing governmental and non-governmental organisations to make available during Rio + 20.

“If there is one message this book seeks to convey it is this: scientific results can and should be shared with local people,” the book said.

To ensure that  Rio+20 delivers a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment! 

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