The Sertão is an arid and harsh region of north-eastern Brazil. It is no surprise that it is one of the poorest areas of this part of South America; here poor soil fertility and sporadic rainfall create difficulties for many types of farming activity.
Yet there are people, plants and animals that have managed to adapt well to the demanding environment. Maize, beans and manioc are some of the few varieties that local farmers can grow.
It is in these barren expanses that the umbu fruit is found: it is not cultivated but gathered and its importance has grown significantly in the short space of a few years. Umbu trees grow spontaneously and have a distinctive green umbrella-shaped crown. They are scattered throughout the plains, bringing an attractive contrast to the straw-colored grass scorched by the sun.
In the native Tupiguarani language, the word ‘umbu’ means ‘tree that provides drink’ and in such a dry place the tree certainly is a miracle of nature. On the rare occasions when it rains, the tuber-like roots can collect and store up to 3 000 liters of water, enough to hold out for many long months until the arrival of the next thunderstorm.
Gabrio Marinozzi, an official at the Ministry for Rural Development and the Slow Food Convivium leader in Brasilia, deserves the credit for being the first to spot that the umbu—a fruit with a very pleasant sweet but slightly acidulous taste—might represent a great opportunity for people in the state of Bahia, who have always appreciated its quality.
His suggestions led to the creation of a Presidium and a series of projects that are yielding results beyond the most optimistic expectations. Until a few years ago the fruit was completely unknown outside its area of origin and consumption was inevitably restricted to the local area.
Presented at the last Salone del Gusto in October 2004, the umbu, which is not at all sickly-sweet like many other tropical fruits, has gained international popularity. A promising venture has been created with Alter Ego, a major French company that markets fair and socially responsible products in Europe, while always focusing on quality.
The initiative has unexpectedly boosted employment prospects for Brazilian gatherers. The excellent European response to the product has given a stimulus to local communities. They have organized themselves into cooperatives, improved production methods and developed conserves — the fruit is very suitable for processing into jam, juice or jelly.
Just recently there has been news that, with the help of just a few thousand euros, ten communities in the sertão of Bahia—in the municipalities of Canudos, Uauà and Curaça—have set up small workshops to enable local communities to process the umbu and earn a respectable income from selling the fruit, both fresh and processed.
All this has been made possible thanks to the commitment of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity and the Veneto Regional Authority, which, linked to Brazil by emigration in the past, undertook to support all the existing Brazilian Presidia. It wasn’t an excessive effort but it was enough to set into motion a virtuous cycle and promote an excellent product.
It is even more important to highlight the fact that new prospects have been created in a region where, apart from drought, the presence of large landholdings, unequal distribution of resources and the abandonment of rural areas by large numbers of people — who end up swelling the endless outskirts of coastal cities — are serious problems.
The situation has improved by backing a completely sustainable activity. The positive experience of the Brazilian umbu supports me in my belief that in order to help rural economies grow, it is not necessary to invest disproportionate sums of money that devastate traditional cultures, nor to construct who knows what sort of infrastructure that blights the environment and doesn’t last a moment.
Often it is enough to provide practical help that inspires confidence in those who already belief in the potential of the land where they live.
First printed in La Stampa on January 23, 2006
Adapted by Ronnie Richards