Can Slow Food save Brazil’s fast-vanishing Cerrado savanna?

03 May 2021

  • The incredibly biodiverse Cerrado is Brazil’s second-largest biome after the Amazon. However, half of the savanna’s native vegetation has already been lost to industrial agribusiness, which produces beef, soy, cotton, corn, eucalyptus and palm oil for export.
  • Those wishing to save the Cerrado today are challenged by the lack of protected lands. One response by traditional communities and conservationists is to help the rest of Brazil and the rest of the planet value the Cerrado’s cornucopia of endemic fruits, nuts and vegetables that thrive across South America’s greatest savanna.
  • These include the baru nut, the babassu and macaúba coconut, the sweet gabiroba (looking like a small guava), the cagaita (resembling a shiny green tomato), the large, scaly-looking marolo (with creamy pulp and strong flavor), the berry-shaped mangaba, which means “good fruit for eating,” the egg-shaped, emerald-green pequi, and more.
  • Small family farmers, beekeepers, traditional and Indigenous communities, Afro-Brazilian quilombolas (runaway slave descendants), socioenvironmental activists, and celebrity chefs have become allies in a fast-expanding slow food network, declaring: “We want to see the Cerrado on the plate of the Brazilian and the world!”

It’s November in southeast Brazil, and the tall, feathery macaúba palms (Acrocomia aculeata) are beginning to drop ripe coconuts. By January, the ground is littered with them, as some 67 families that live nearby, outside the town of Jaboticatubas, get to work dragging the trove home.

This coconut serves as the lifeblood for these traditional farming communities in the Cerrado savanna in Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Archaeological sites trace its use back to at least 9,000 B.C.


Macaúba palms growing at an agroecological consortium in Capão do Berto, Jaboticatubas, Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

Every part of the all-purpose coconut is used, from its delicious yellowish flesh to the nut at its core. It’s a favorite kids’ snack, and is used to make a highly nutritious flour, baked into bread and cookies. Livestock eat it too.


Coconut fruits being crushed with a stone, a traditional preparation process likely thousands of years old, in Jaboticatubas, Comunidade Xirú, Brazil. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

In 2008, these 67 families from 15 small communities formed the Amanu Association to share and improve farming and production methods, and importantly, to gain collective marketing and sales clout. They then enlisted support from the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, an organization that aids sustainable agriculture projects that conserve local biodiversity and local culture.

Amanu became a registered “Slow Food Presidium,” which requires proof of environmental sustainability and fair, collaborative production practices. That designation offered the communities and families the advantage of a certified, sustainable brand, a sales platform and technical assistance.


A mother “Lillian” and her children share in the work of crushing the hard shell of Cerrado coconuts, to get at the nuts and to make the edible oil. Comunidade Capão do Berto, Jaboticatubas. Image by Daniel Felix Junquer.


A global Slow Food trend goes local

Small family farmers, beekeepers, traditional and Indigenous communities, Afro-Brazilian quilombolas (descendants of runaway slaves), socioenvironmental land rights activists, and even celebrity chefs are allying themselves in the Cerrado’s fast-growing sustainable food network.

They are also becoming guardians of the critical habitat that sustains their livelihoods. Growers use few pesticides or cultivate organic vegetables, fruits and coffee — and they grow native foods important to Indigenous communities. Honey producers nurture native, threatened bee species. Others gather and sell wild fruits, nuts, honey and medicinal plants on a smaller scale.

“We need to have a humanized way of production instead of thinking only about the product and profit,” said Mariana Oliveira Cruz, a teacher and farmer from Buração, in Minas Gerais state. “We are as dependent on the environment as other species,” she said.


Cerrado palm oil displayed at the Brazil exhibit during the 2018 Slow Food Terra Madre event in Turin, Italy, shown along with packaging made for the occasion — a part of promotional activities organized by the Macaúba Oil Presidium, which represents producers like Mariana Oliveira Cruz. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

Growing market for sustainable food

There’s one problem that local harvesters and producers must overcome: many people living outside the Cerrado have no clue what to do with the fruits and nuts grown there — and because they’re artisanally grown or hand-harvested, they’re pricey. But over the past decade, these exotic foods have gained popularity with Brazil’s rising middle class, particularly among foodies, gourmet coffee lovers and those buying organic foods.

Celebrities, including natural cuisine chef Bela Gil and Alex Atala, a chef who uses regional ingredients grown by small-scale farmers, have boosted visibility and demand. Chefs working with the Cerrado on the Plate project use regional products in recipes and dishes served in urban haute cuisine restaurants. Their motto: “We want to see the Cerrado on the plate of the Brazilian and the world!”

Cerrado products are also beginning to appear on shelves at gourmet supermarkets and specialized shops in Brazil’s big cities. They’ve always been available at local markets, but with the help of nonprofits including Slow Food, cooperatives have established farmer’s markets. Cerrado Central, a brand supplied by cooperatives, sells high-end gourmet foods at its own shops and at São Paolo’s famous Municipal Market of Pinheiros. Some packaged Cerrado-centric products are now sold online.


A scene at the CBA (Congresso Brasileiro de Agroecologia) in Brasília in 2017. A woman from COPERUAÇU (a producers’ cooperative in Peruaçu, Minas Gerais state) is selling products made with Cerrado fruits — pequi, araticum, coquinho azedo and more, made into, and bottled as, jams, compote and pastes. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

Peril and promise

Like all grassroots efforts, Cerrado slow food risks growing too fast and far. Recent gains in popularity have boosted demand for baru nut, and prices have risen too. “That means we’re at a crossroads,” Becker says. “In 10 years, will co-ops still be here? Or will they be substituted with plantations?”

He warns that even local foods can be turned into commodities. Large-scale monoculture growers generally benefit from an economy of scale, growing more and pricing it lower than traditional producers.

Another problem: with growing demand, “the price paid to the harvester is not growing proportionally, while the [agribusiness] pressure on the ecosystems is [increasing],” said de Podestà, the Slow Food Brazil coordinator.

Then there are the unpredictable market fluctuations, making business difficult for startups. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has slowed consumption for the last year, with many markets and schools closed, bringing economic hardship for many producers, says the University of Brasília’s Bustamente.


“Expedito,” a slow food producer, holding macaúba nuts, in the Comunidade do Xirú, jaboticatubas. Slow foods are offering traditional peoples new markets outside of the Cerrado and beyond Brazil. Image by Marcelo de Podestá.

Still, it remains difficult for small producers to compete, especially because most federal and state policies support intensive, unsustainable big agriculture, Bustamente said. But one government program launched in 2003 has created an important market: schools must still buy fresh food for school lunches from small, local producers through the Food Procurement Program. During the pandemic, however, many schools have been closed.

Other threats to Brazil’s small-scale sustainable food system include ongoing deforestation and land conversion for industrial agriculture, increasing climate change-driven drought and insect pests spreading from industrial farms.



A Kalunga woman displaying a native Cerrado coconut. Conservationists hope that the global boom in slow food production and awareness will be an economic boon for traditional peoples and help save the Cerrado savanna. Image by Ligia Meneguello.

Bustamente finds some hope for the traditional Cerrado in globalization: “There is increasing evidence of the connections between the world food system and global environmental change,” she said. “What we eat and how it is produced has a lot of consequences for the global environment and for local communities. And consumers have influence over what appears on their dinnerplate, and how and where it was produced.”

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