In the heart of the Amazon jungle, Alexandre Amaral da Silva stoops and picks handfuls of light brown seeds about an inch long from the tropical undergrowth. The murumuru seeds grow on palm trees up to 15 meters (50 feet) high. The seeds will put precious cash in the pockets of people like Alexandre, while providing a prized ingredient for cosmetics companies that used their byproducts in haircare and makeup products.
The seed-gathering outpost of Providencia was founded 20 years ago in one of the remotest parts of Brazil. A few wooden huts in the middle of the jungle, it lies a three-hour boat ride up the Jurua river from the town of Carauari (25,000 inhabitants), some 700 kilometers (435 miles) from Manaus, the capital of Amazona (North). Crowds of children flock to the sandy shore to meet arriving boats.
Alexandre waits until the seeds ripen and fall to the ground to harvest them. Then his wife Maria Terezinha gets to work, crushing them one by one with a hammer, removing the shells and keeping the hearts in a sack.
The gatherers sell the seeds to a local cooperative. At a factory in the jungle, the cooperative processes them into the palm oil prized by beauty companies because it melts into damaged hair to repair it and make it silky.
Precious hair oil
For fifteen years, the families who live on the banks of the Jurua river have improved their income with the sale of the murumuru seeds. A family like theirs can make the equivalent of up to US $460 a year to boost the income they gain from gathering other products. Official statistics show average per capita income is about BRL 2,200 US (about US $660 at the current exchange rate) a year in Carauari.
Brazilian beauty giant Natura, one of the main users of murumuru seeds, currently works with some 400 families in the Medio Jurua reserve, where little more than half the people know how to read and write, according to research by Natura. The company provides training and investment for processing murumuru and other seed oil products such as andiroba and ucuuba.
Without big businesses, "there are many production chains in the Amazon that would disappear", says Carlos Koury, director of the Amazon Conservation and Sustainable Development Institute, a non-government organization. The murumuru gatherers are part of "a traditional production chain that would struggle to survive without a powerful ally such as Natura."
The region was once a major rubber producer but that industry declined and locals turned mostly to gathering cassava and fishing.
The support that cosmetics companies provides to Amazonian communities helps them to get additional income sources from the rainforest products and contributes greatly to encourage forest preservation. A hot issue at present times.