The cerrado or savannah, Brazil’s second most plentiful type of natural environment after rainforest, is important not only for the diversity of plant and animal life it harbors, but also because the country’s main rivers all emerge from these grasslands. Despite their ecological importance, the cerrado is rapidly being destroyed as developers expand into these territories. In the states of Maranhão and Tocantins, in the early 1990s, the Timbira Indian communities began to seek alternative means both to protect their local resources from environmental degradation and to break their dependence on federal public welfare policies.
In 1995, representatives from local groups of the Krahô and Apinajé from the north of Tocantins, and the Canela, Krikati and Gavião Pykobjê from the south of Maranhão, joined forces to set up the Wyty Catë Association of Timbira Indian Communities of Tocantins and Maranhão. Wyty Catë, which means “great meeting place” in the Timbira language, was created with the objective of fighting for the cultural, social and economic independence for these marginalized and disadvantaged indigenous groups.
With support from the Center for Indian Work (CTI), a non-governmental organization working in the region to advise Indian organizations, Wyty Catë identified several varieties of local (bacuri, buriti, cajá, caju, murici and others) as a possible source for sustainable trade. A series of viability studies were carried out, culminating in 1995 with the creation of the FrutaSã – Healthy Fruit pulp agro-industry, based in the municipality of Carolina in Maranhão. The project’s aim was both to preserve Brazil’s unique cerrado ecosystems and to generate income for marginalized Indian communities and for small-scale producers in the region by providing an environmentally friendly alternative source of income.
FrutaSã is a limited non-profit entity owned by Wyty Catë and the CTI, each of which control 50% of the shares. The partnership has designated Wyty Catë as the sole beneficiary of any revenues generated by FrutaSã’a initiatives to assure economic sustainability and promote other projects within the 16 associated communities. FrutaSã operated initially as a small experimental industrial unit supplied by produce from a cooperative network in the region. In 2000, with support from several organizations, the factory moved to a new industrial plant with superior production capacity, invested in management training and reorganized its supply structure.
General management is carried out by an Administrative Council, made up from two representatives from each of the shareholders. The Wyty Catë representatives are a bridge between the factory and the member communities. Meetings and annual assemblies provide opportunities for debate and evaluation from the Wyty Catë councilors - village elders of great importance to the Timbira society – as well as the FrutaSã manager and the administrative team.
Currently the main suppliers of the factory are small producers from the Carolina municipality, with a total of 300 non-Indian suppliers who are responsible for 95% of the fruit used in the factory. FrutaSã also buys small quantities of fruit that the townspeople gather from their own yards. This gives low-income families a unique opportunity for supplementing their income. Only a small portion of the fruit supply comes from the Indian communities, as the fruit trees tend to be widely scattered over their land, making it hard to gather produce.
FrutaSã has brought positive results to the Indian communities. By breaking through the cycle of dependence upon government actions, this initiative opens space for the Indians to be protagonists of their own future. The initiative also helps provide an alternative for non-Indian small producers who oppose dominant productive options in the region, such as soy farming. Besides, by generating both direct and indirect jobs in the town of Carolina, the FrutaSã factory has become an important part of the municipality. In addition to the economic benefits, stimulating the growing of native plants in the region helps not only to preserve the cerrado, but also to promote a healthy diet in an area where traditional hunting and fishing activities are increasingly compromised by environmental degradation.
• By investing in produce native to the cerrado region, the FrutaSã initiative can promote economic development while working towards environmental preservation.
• By concentrating on the processing operation, the Indian organization opens space for non-Indian suppliers, creating an integrated production chain within the region.
• The economic sustainability that the factory is slowly attaining provides the means for the Indian communities to break with their dependence on government policies, bringing not only economic but social and cultural independence.