The pequi trees of redemption

UN Development Programme
Feb 20 · 4 min read
Living in one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, the Kisêdjê faced widespread incursions and deforestation that led their culture to the brink of collapse. Photo: UNDP Equator Initiative/Kamikia Kisedje

For generations the pequi tree has held profound cultural significance for the Kisêdjê people. And more recently it has also saved their lives.

The Wawi Indigenous Land in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil is one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. The Kisêdjê faced widespread incursions and deforestation that led their culture to the brink of collapse.

At one point in the 1960s, as the result of devastating diseases and conflicts with invading miners and ranchers, there were only 62 people.

The Kisêdjê community. Photo: UNDP Equator Initiative/Simone Giovine

Reclaiming their rights

In the mid-1990s, they led an extensive campaign to reclaim their territorial rights and today the Kisêdjê number more than 500, who live in the four villages of Khinhatxi, Horehusikrô, Yarumã and Ngôsoko.

More recently, because of widespread incursions and deforestation by surrounding farmers and loggers, the Kisêdjê were forcibly displaced. They have started over, building a brand new village.

Because of incursions and deforestation by surrounding farmers and loggers, the Kisedje were forcibly displaced. They have started over, building a brand new village. Photo: UNDP Equator Initiative/Kamikia Kisedje

“Since we moved here, we are less worried about soil pollution. Now there are more animals. We can allow our children to play outside,” says representative Waduwabati Suya.

“Since we moved here, we are less worried about soil pollution. Now there are more animals. We can allow our children to play outside,” says representative Waduwabati Suya. Photo: UNDP Equator Initiative/Mike Arrison

The pequi tree has been critical in helping this community to thrive; the villagers have planted more than 3,000 trees to restore damaged lands and produce fruit.

The pequi plays an important role in reforesting those areas that some people usurped for agriculture. Over time we started working with the fruit on this very successful project for us,” says Waduwabati Suya.

In 2005, they founded the Kisêdjê Indigenous Association. Its goal was to provide food to its communities by sustainably managing its land.

In 2011, the association created the Pequi Oil project, Hwĩn Mbê, which, combines new technology with traditional methods to sustainably extract over 300 litres of pequi oil every year.

Indigenous to the area and long domesticated, the pequi has grown in Kisêdjê gardens for centuries. It is present in the myths, rituals and festivals of the Kisêdjê people.

The villagers have planted more than 3,000 pequi trees to restore damaged lands and to produce fruit. Photo: UNDP Equator Initiative/Simone Giovine

It’s a tropical tree whose fruit is as big as an orange, egg-shaped, and with emerald green skin when fully ripe. The oil extracted from its seeds contains a large amount of Vitamin A. It’s used for cooking and in traditional medicines. It can also be used as a skin emollient and as a ritual paint. The fruit is integral to several traditional Brazilian dishes, as well as in liqueurs and traditional sweets such as paçoca.

The refining of the pequi oil is an activity traditionally carried out by women. The Kisêdjê Women’s Group decides how the proceeds will be distributed.

Using an innovative entrepreneurial model to connect to local and national markets, the Hwĩn Mbê project enables the next generation of Kisêdjê to sustainably manage their forests, earn income, and celebrate indigenous culture.

The refining of the pequi oil is an activity traditionally carried out by women. The Kisêdjê Women’s Group decides how the proceeds will be distributed. Photo: UNDP Equator Initiative/Rogério Assis/ISA

The oil is sold as part of Origens Brasil, a collaborative network focused on the connection between indigenous producers and buyers, promoting sustainable supply chains with ethics and transparency. It is also supported by Slow Food International.

Origens Brasil links buyers with indigenous producers in Amazonia. It aims to change the conventional way of doing business by encouraging more ethical and transparent practices.

Products sold through Origins Brasil are registered on a digital platform and given a code that allows buyers and consumers to track their origin and history, increasing transparency and minimizing the need for intermediaries.

The oil is sold as part of Origens Brasil, a collaborative network focused on the connection between producers and buyers, promoting sustainable supply chains with ethics and transparency. Photos: UNDP Equator Initiative/Kamikia Kisedje

Pequi oil is sold to the US-based cosmetics company New Harmony, Grupo Pão de Açúcar supermarkets and São Paulo-based restaurant Dalva & Dito run by Michelin-starred chef Alex Atala. It is also exported and available on-line in partnership with Soul Brasil at Culinary Culture Connections.

The income from the production and sales goes entirely to the Associação Indígena Kisêdjê. The association in turns pays the working groups and invests the surplus into community needs.

In 2019 the Associação Indígena Kisêdjê received the prestigious Equator Prize in recognition of its exemplary work in combating climate change and promoting sustainable development. The Kisêdjê people stand out as a model of resilient global entrepreneurship. Despite adversities they have created alternative forest livelihoods for their community, while reclaiming and reforesting their lands.

In 2019 the Associação Indígena Kisêdjê received the prestigious UNDP Equator Prize in recognition of its exemplary work in combatting climate change and sustainable development. Photo: UNDP Equator Initiative/Mike Arrison

Click here to learn more about the Associação Indígena Kisêdjê Project.

Author: Anna Giulia Medri

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