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Research Report

Riches of the forest:: Fruits, remedies and handicrafts in Latin America

Citlalli López
Patricia Shanley
Alfredo Celso Fantini
Copyright Date: Jan. 1, 2004
Pages: 153
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. vi-vii)
    Miguel N. Alexiades

    While humans have always depended on plants for their survival as well as for their physical, aesthetic and spiritual well-being, the links between people and plants have become increasingly vast and complex. Many plant products are still consumed and exchanged outside of the monetary system, close to the same forests where they are harvested or produced. Other products however, are transformed well beyond recognition and transported half-way across the world, generating millions of dollars in foreign exchange and creating considerable employment among harvesters, processors, traders and retailers. This trend in turn, reflects a fundamental historical process: the increasing interconnections -...

  2. (pp. 1-4)

    This book compiles traditional and specialized knowledge about 26 plants used by rural and urban people in Latin America. The pages tell real-life stories about a wide range of forest products and the people who use and manage them. Did you know, for example, that Panama hats are woven by artisan women in Ecuador? That linaloe oil now produced and exported by India was originally a Mexican industry? Or that a tall palm tree is cut down to extract the delicate, white ‘heart’ used to grace your salad?

    What can we learn from the people who carve out a living...

  3. Fruits

    • (pp. 5-8)
      Socorro Ferreira and Gabriel Medina

      Have you ever noticed that every time you sample a new fruit you try to associate its flavour with one that you already know? This is next to impossible in Amazonia however, because the multitude of native fruits have quite unique tastes. Ice-cream and juice shops boast more than 50 different fruit flavours, attesting to the region's extraordinary biodiversity* and the cultural importance of its aromatic, flavoursome produce. Of the abundant fruits, locals know what few outsiders do - that bacuri (Platonia insignis), a native* fruit of the forest, is one of the best.

      Bacuri's tasty white pulp* is extremely...

    • (pp. 9-12)
      Charles R. Clement

      Rural people and urbanites alike, from Costa Rica to the Brazilian Amazon, know and value 'pupunha' for its starchy, oily, energy-rich fruit. The plum-sized fruits come in a range of colours, from bright red to brilliant yellow and everything in between. But harvesting the fruit can be a bit tricky as the tree trunks are heavily armoured with spines which can easily pierce the hands, legs and even rubber boots of those who dare to climb them.

      The fruit of pupunha (Bactris gasipaes) has a nutritional composition similar to maize and the red and orange types are rich in vitamin...

    • (pp. 13-16)
      Mario Pinedo Panduro

      Ten years ago, camu-camu fruits were consumed only by the inhabitants of north-eastern Peru. Nowadays, these small purple, plum-like fruits have found favour with a much broader consumer base both within and outside Peru. In fact, throughout the late 1990s, most of the harvested fruit was being exported, mainly to Japan.

      In the north-east region of Peru, people sometimes eat the fairly acidic camu-camu fruits fresh, but traditionally they have used them to make refreshments and liquors. They also use the skin of the fruit to create a purple colourant for dying fibres and fabrics, while the fruit itself is...

    • (pp. 17-20)
      Claudio Urbano B. Pinheiro

      The “tree of life” is a fitting name for north-eastern Brazil's babassu palm. Nearly every part of this versatile plant can be used as a source of food, shelter or ingredients for soaps and cosmetics. Nature is to thank for the combination of so many practical and useful functions in this single plant.

      For more than a century, babassu palms (Orbignya phalerata) have been a cornerstone of subsistence living for rural people in the north-eastern state of Maranhão. The babassu displays all its virtues in the rural household economy. Babassu fruits and nuts remain an important source of food for...

    • (pp. 21-24)
      Yolanda Nava-Cruz and Martin Ricker

      Long before the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, indigenous* groups of south Mexico, including the ancient Maya civilisation, appreciated the remarkable 'zapote mamey' (Pouteria sapota). Its fruit was so sought after that the Maya used it to pay tributes, a type of tax. The cultivation of mamey and other fruit trees was so integral to the Mayan sense of cultural identity that the Spaniards resorted to cutting down household orchards to exert their authority and force the Maya of Yucatán to leave their homeland and resettle in newly established missionary centres.

      The Spaniards may have succeeded in shifting the Maya away...

    • (pp. 25-28)
      Patricia Shanley and Gloria Gaia

      Forest people who consume uxi, a greenish egg-shaped fruit from the Amazon, say that they never get sick or weak during the fruiting season. Rich in vitamin and minerals, uxi was known as the “fruit of the poor” due to its cheap price and accessibility. Today, all Amazonians enjoy this versatile fruit - fresh or in the form of uxi juice, popsicles or ice creams. In addition to uxi's high nutritional value for humans, the fruit also helps to sustain a wide variety of Amazonian wildlife, while the bark is used to make a tea to treat arthritis, diabetes and...

  4. Leaves

    • (pp. 29-32)
      Marianne C. Scheffer

      "God is the best doctor, and nature is the best pharmacy", says a phrase on the wall of a Brazilian farmers' co-operative. No other statement better conveys the link between local people and natural resources in Brazil, especially in relation to plant products traditionally used as remedies. Espinheira-santa (Maytenus ilicifolia) is a testament to nature's healing properties, with extracts from the leaves being used as an analgesic (pain-reliever), tonic, disinfectant, and as a treatment for gastric ulcers and the healing of scars.

      The local names of medicinal plants often reflect their importance to people who live far from the ease...

    • (pp. 33-36)
      César Carrillo Trueba

      Since the nineteenth century, potted camedor palms (Chamaedorea elegans Mart.) have adorned homes, and in recent times a new market has also opened up for the palm fronds* - in flower bouquets. Palma camedor or palma xate as it is known in Mexico, can grow up to 2 m high, with long thin stems and relatively short fronds of around 30 cm in length. The attractive cut leaves stay fresh for up to a month, making them useful to florists worldwide.

      The popularity of ornamental plants bloomed in Europe during the Victorian era when it became fashionable to decorate homes...

    • (pp. 37-40)
      Rocío Alarcón Gallegos

      ‘Panama hats’ are famous the world over as a Central and South American fashion icon, but they actually originated in Ecuador, where they are made from the fibre of a plant known as toquilla. Indigenous* people living in Ecuador's Pacific area have been using this fibre for around 4,000 years, and even with the coming of the Spanish conquistadores*, the new mestizo* people continued their weaving of the fibre to make distinctive headware. Over the last two centuries, toquilla has been used to produce the finest hand-made hats in the world - the Panama hat - known locally as sombrero...

    • (pp. 41-44)
      Erik Arancibia and Fausto López

      Jipi japa, a palm-like species that grows wild in tropical and sub-tropical forests in Central and South America, has woven itself deep into the everyday lives of Bolivian villagers. A wide array of goods is produced from its fine, white fibres - including the famous Panama hat (see the previous case in this volume).

      The Panama hat originated in Ecuador, gaining its name from the trade route to Europe, which passed through Panama. Jesuit missionaries introduced the weaving techniques used to make hats and baskets into Bolivia in 1908. It was a worthwhile initiative. By 1911, the Norwegian explorer Erland...

    • (pp. 45-48)
      Fabrice Edouard

      A cultural and musical revival along the border of Mexico and the United States of America has ensured that a vital thread connecting the past and present remains unbroken. The centuries old art of using ‘pita fibra’ - a plant fibre as bright and smooth as silk but stronger and more versatile - had been in danger of dying out. Its saviour was the emergence of a fashionable musical phenomenon called Onda Grupera. Reminiscent of the days of the Charro (Mexican cowboys), the musicians wear beautiful embroidered leather piteada garments - previously the attire of cowboys alone. This musical phenomenon...

    • (pp. 49-52)
      Walter Steenbock

      The southern Brazilian plateau is an enchantingly beautiful place, with its mix of majestic Araucaria forests* and native grasslands. The forest borrows its name from the Brazilian pine (Araucaria angustifolia), a tree with an impressive height and trunk diameter, and a crown* that has a distinctive architecture all its own. But the plateau is remarkable for more than its rugged, beautiful landscape - it also sustains a diverse range of hardy plant species, several of which have medicinal qualities that are proving valuable for local rural communities.

      The soil and environmental conditions in this region are somewhat harsh so commercial...

    • (pp. 53-56)
      Javier Caballero, María Teresa Pulido and Andrea Martinez-Ballesté

      Long before the arrival of the Spanish colonisers, the xa'an palm (Sabal yapa) was integral to the lives of the Mayan people from the state of Quintana Roo, south Mexico. This palm has provided the Maya with food, medicine, fodder and a resilient material for constructing the roofs of their houses. In fact, the thatched roofs built from the large xa'an palm fronds* or leaves can last more than 15 years. The Mayan name for the palm (xa'an) means "the one that gives shade", perhaps alluding not only to the shade that the palms provide, but also the shade from...

  5. Seeds, Roots and Shoots

    • (pp. 57-60)
      Miguel Angel Martinez Alfaro, Virginia Evangelista Oliva, Myrna Mendoza Cruz, Cristina Mapes and Francisco Basurto Peña

      Do you know where the black speckled seasoning comes from that gives dishes that distinctive sweet, hot peppery flavour and delights people around the world? 'Allspice' is similar to Asia's 'black pepper' but with a sweeter, more aromatic flavour and smell. Sourced from the pepper tree (Pimenta dioica), the flavour comes from the dried, ground fruits, which first appear as small, strongly scented green berries. In addition to the ground seasoning, essential oil is also extracted from the dried berries, for use in the medicinal, cosmetic and food industries.

      The pepper tree grows in several Central American countries and in...

    • (pp. 61-64)
      Cirino Corrêa Júnior and Lin Chau Ming

      Is there a plant-based medicine capable of curing all kinds of diseases? This may sound too good to be true, but many farmers and forest people in Brazil regard fáfia (Pfaffia glomerata) as one such plant. For centuries, the herb known as paratudo ("for everything" in Portuguese) has restored ailing bodies and treated illnesses ranging from diabetes to diarrhea and hemorrhoids.

      Keen to test this local lore, scientific research has shown that extracts of the plant have analgesic (pain relieving), cell-regenerating and blood purifying properties, and they can also be used in the treatment of skin ailments and tumors. The...

    • (pp. 65-68)
      Rafael A. Ocampo Sánchez

      The radiant rule of the fabled "Sun King" of France, Louis XIV, may well have faded early if not for a small plant growing in the forest shade half a world away. Ipecacuana (Psychotria ipecacuanha), which flourishes in the humid tropical forests of Central and South America, is rumoured to have cured Louis XIV of dysentery in the eighteenth century. Since the 1760s the plant has been used in Europe as an amoebicide (to kill intestinal parasites), expectorant (to expel congestion from the respiratory tract) and powerful emetic (to induce vomiting). But the Guarani Indians of Central America were familiar...

    • (pp. 69-72)
      Alfredo Celso Fantini

      'Palm heart' or palmito is a treat from the forest, appreciated by the native* Indian people well before the arrival of Europeans in America. It has since become one of the most popular forest products in Brazil. Consumed mainly in its preserved, slightly salty form, it makes an enjoyable side dish for any type of meal. Although some chefs from famous restaurants insist on covering palm heart with sophisticated seasonings, a true gourmet does not mask its natural flavour.

      Until recently, in southern Brazil, the palm heart was an indispensable item served at important gatherings. Indeed, the abundance and diameter...

    • (pp. 73-76)
      Patricia Shanley

      Are you watching your badly sprained ankle swell and turn purple? Nervously swatting the dengue-carrying, white striped mosquito to avoid disease? Taking your pup to the vet to cure his infected cut? Or, are you in need of fine looking, durable furniture? If any of these apply to you, you may want to track down the wood, bark or oil of a tree called andiroba (pronounced 'anjeeroba').

      Dubbed 'crabwood' in Guyana and 'bastard mahogany' in Central America due to its lovely, red tinted, resistant wood, Carapa guianensis is a medium-sized tree with a buttressed base. Its straight trunk can reach...

  6. Bark and Wood

    • (pp. 77-80)
      Silvia E. Purata, Berry J. Brosi and Michael Chibnik

      The Mexican state of Oaxaca is well known for its rich culture and artistic traditions. In the Valles Centrales region, where the city of Oaxaca (echoing the state's name) is located, a new form of handicraft arose a little more than 20 years ago. Colourful wooden figures known as alebrijes are carved in the form of fantastic animals, mythical figures like mermaids and dragons, and human-animal hybrids. The informal tradition of wood carving stretches back many generations, but these newer figures are novel creations that lack the longstanding cultural significance associated with the more traditional carvings. Over a short period...

    • (pp. 81-84)
      Wil de Jong and Walter Nalvarte

      For centuries, the indigenous* Cashibo, Conibo Shipibo and Asháninka people of Peru have used bark from a vine called 'cat's claw' to make a medicinal remedy and beverage. Traditionally, cat's claw is prepared as a decoction* by boiling the inner layer of bark from the stems or roots. The resulting drink is either consumed for its health giving properties, or is steeped into an alcoholic beverage using locally produced sugarcane rum. The bark decoctions are considered to have an anti-inflammatory* effect and to act as a stimulant for the body's immune system. In rural communities in or near the tropical...

    • (pp. 85-88)
      Citlalli López

      Tourists in La Ciudadela, Mexico City's largest handicraft market, wander along alleyways lined with beautiful textiles, ceramics, wooden masks and piles of distinctive, creamy brown paper bearing colourful paintings of flowers, birds and rural life. Called 'amate', this traditional paper is now made mainly from the bark of the Trema micrantha tree, using techniques that date back to pre-Hispanic times. Tempted to buy some? For many tourists this is a perfect souvenir - light, easy to transport, and cheaper than other handicrafts.

      Evidence of bark paper manufacturing in Mexico dates back to 300 A.D. In the fifteenth century, before the...

  7. Exudates

    • (pp. 89-92)
      Ynocente Betancourt Figueras and Maria Josefa Villalba Fonte

      Next time you clean the acrylic paint off your paintbrush with turpentine, remember to thank the pine tree for its resin! Turpentine is one of the products manufactured from the thick, translucent pine resin - which is extracted from tall coniferous* (or 'cone-bearing') pine trees. Different Pinus species can be found growing naturally in various parts of the world, including Europe and Asia. Species like Pinus radiata are also grown within plantations in many countries, given the well developed market for pine products and the versatility of the timber.

      In Cuba, a species called Pinus caribaea (known as 'male pine')...

    • (pp. 93-96)
      Paul Hersch-Martínez

      When you hold a wooden linaloe box from Mexico in your hands, you are in for a delightful surprise. On opening the lid of one of these beautiful lacquered handicrafts, decorated with colourful figures of rabbits, birds and flowers, you are greeted with the delicious scent of fragrant linaloe. These distinctive boxes are made from the wood of the linaloe tree, which belongs to a group of trees known as copales - valued in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times for their pleasant scents and ritual uses.

      Linaloe's secret is that, unlike many copales, it exudes almost no resin when its trunk...

    • (pp. 97-100)
      Mariana Ciavatta Pantoja

      Take a plane for several hours, or a bus for a couple of days. Then take a boat up-river for a few days. Finally, walk into the forest until you get tired. You are now in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, astounded by the beauty and abundance of the vegetation. But living here is not easy, as the migrants who arrived at the end of the nineteenth century soon realised. Far away from everything and everyone familiar, they came to understand that survival meant learning to live off the forest's resources. They planted, hunted, and used their imaginations to...

  8. (pp. 101-108)

    Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) have played a huge role in shaping the history of Latin America, particularly tropical forest regions. As forest cover declines and a growing number of rural people move to cities, it becomes increasingly important for collectors and consumers of forest products to reflect on the role of forest products in their daily lives. An estimated 1.2 billion people still turn to forests and waysides to find food, shelter, remedies and tools for their daily subsistence (White et al. 2002). Some of the forest products they collect make their way to markets around the globe and are...