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Indigenous women living in the Guarayos and Chiquitano Territories of Bolivia grow and
harvest cusi, a fruit that grows on tall palm trees. Some of the women in the territories have
joined together to form women’s cooperatives where they work together to harvest and process
cusi. Forming a cooperative allows for shared benefits while reducing workload on individuals
since multiple people are working towards one goal. The non-timber forest products (NTFP) that
are made from cusi, also known as babassu, include: oil, soap, shampoo, creams and many
others. Harvesting and selling the products that come from cusi is a source of income for the
women and helps empower them socially and economically. Their business also helps to
conserve the forest since harvesting and growing cusi is done without cutting trees down and is
another way to prove “productive use” of land, a requirement to maintain land tenure in Bolivia.
An important part of Guarayos cultural identity, the cusi palm is linked to ancestral practices as
Mrs Arminda Uranungar President of ASORECU mentions, “ The cusi is a raw material that
nature gives us and we do not have to buy it, with the sale of cusi oil our grandmothers have
raised our mothers and they to us, we also want it to continue being a source of income for our
current families” (Martinez).
This project is focused on helping to connect women’s cooperatives in Bolivia to
potential buyers.The goal is to empower indigenous women, provide them with fair market price
for their products and labor, and help mitigate deforestation by supporting them and their
business. I am working with several students from Students for Indigenous Rights and
Environmental Justice (SIREJ), CIPCA, and Activa. SIREJ is a student organization formed by
several students that went on a service learning study abroad program in Bolivia in the summer
of 2019. They had visited and worked on projects in the Guarayos and Chiquitano Territories and
had wished to continue working with the indigenous communities remotely. All SIREJ members
are volunteers and donate time and resources to complete projects prioritized by indigenous
communities. Centro de Investigacion y Promocion del Campesinado (CIPCA) is a local
non-profit that helps the women’s cooperatives with training, selling, and acquiring needed
support to operate their business. Activa is a for-profit company that also works with the women
to transform the cusi oil into marketable products. Contact information for each organization can
be found in the section “Contacts and Links”.
There are many cooperatives formed by indigenous women throughout Bolivia.
Harvesting and processing of cusi is traditionally done by women only. CIPCA works with
cooperatives located in communities within Guarayos and Chiquitanos Territories in the
department of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The communities include Yaguarú, Yotaú, Momené, and El
Puente of the Guarayos Province and others from Palmarito de la Frontera community,
Concepción Municipality, department of Santa Cruz. In Yaguaru, a village located within
Guarayos territory, a group of women formed the Association of Collectors of Cusi
(ASORECU). It was established in 2013 after about five years of meetings and several attempts
to form as a group. Formation of the group and their cusi business is significant in that it
demonstrates that there are other ways to prove “productive use” of land. In Bolivia, it is a policy
that in order to maintain land tenure one must prove “productive use”. Often the case is that
trees are cut down and deforestation occurs to make way for agriculture or cattle ranching.
Growing and harvesting cusi, a plant that is local to the region, doesn’t require cutting trees
down or clearing land. It is a sustainable business that helps empower the women socially and
economically but also helps preserve indigenous knowledge about traditional ecological uses of
local plants such as the cusi palm.
What is cusi and how is it used?
Cusi palm trees (Attalea speciosa) grow abundantly in Guarayos and Chiquitano territories. The cusi palm tree is used for many things including food, medicine, and to build houses. The cusi palm tree produces a fruit that looks like a tiny coconut that envelops an almond shaped seed. It is harvested and collected to produce non-timber forest products (NTFP). Mrs. Ludovica Macue, an indigenous woman from Yaguaru shares: “The cusi is used for fuel, before there was no candle, we used it for lighter, when someone has a cough for medicine, for hair, gray hair, dandruff, with the palm tree we have built our houses , so we have faith that it can be exported” (Movimiento Regional Por La Tierra).
Medicinal uses of cusi include treatment of various ailments that include cough, wounds, parasites, and more. For a cough remedy, one can mix a few drops of liquid from boiled guava leaves ( Psidium guajava L.) with a few tablespoons of cusi oil and take it four times daily. The oil has also been used to provide relief from headaches by gently massaging the oil directly onto the head. Those suffering from dandruff can rub a small amount of the oil into their scalp twice daily to help treat dandruff . Rubbing cusi oil onto the scalp of hair is believed to help increase the rate of hair growth. To get rid of parasites, cusi oil is mixed with sugar and eaten. Constipation can also be treated using cusi as it is also a useful laxative. Cusi has been found to have many medicinal properties that include anti-inflammatory, anti-fever, and anthelmintic. Other uses of cusi palm trees include using parts of the plant to build houses and the residue from the harvesting and processing of the cusi fruit to make fuel. To make fuel out of the cusi plant residue, after extracting the oily kernels, the husks are buried in deep pits that are then covered with leaves and soil. The filled pits are set on fire and allowed to burn slowly in order to form charcoal that can be used for energy or sold in markets for income. Supporting indigenous women’s cooperatives.
Purchasing cusi oil and products made with cusi from the women’s cooperatives can be
done by contacting CIPCA or Activa. CIPCA is a non-profit organization that works with several
women’s cooperatives in the Guarayos and Chiquitano Territories to sell their non-timber forest
products. Activa is a for-profit company that is also working with some of the women’s
cooperatives. ** Please contact me if you're interested in contacting them to learn more about purchasing cusi products **.
For this project I tried organizing volunteers to help support the women’s cooperatives in
Bolivia and their business in order to connect them to buyers. One of the volunteers translated
information received by CIPCA. Another volunteer is working on a promotional video
using footage of a women’s cooperative in Momene shot by SIREJ. I have been in contact
with Mountain Rose Herbs to inquire about the potential for them to carry products such as cusi
oil, soaps, and creams. A few student volunteers have made promotional materials in English to
present to potential buyers using pictures received from CIPCA and pictures taken by SIREJ.
One of the main goals of the project is to empower women like Mrs. Ludovica, an indigneous women from Yaguarú. She is seen grinding seeds from the cusi fruit in picture 2 above. She explains, “It is for the family and children and the need to work. That is why we organize ourselves, so that there is opportunity, there is capacity to take advantage of the cycles, we have to work, we continue to meet and we have sought support, we do not coward to move forward, because bringing work here, there is no way to migrate,” (Movimiento Regional Por La Tierra). According to a study, NTFP trade partnerships between companies and societies in Amazonia showed positive effects on well-being and total income in comparison to those that did not form partnerships and those that did but also included processing of NTFP at the company level (Morsello et al.). The study examined the effects of NTFP and trade partnerships on the well-being and forest conservation of Amazonia societies. It had also found that partnerships without processing at the company level had the best outcomes in terms of gender equality (Morsello et al.). The authors reasoned the positive effects were a result of the company-community agreements that created avenues for premium prices to be paid and product purchases guaranteed (Morsello et al.). Supporting the women’s cooperatives and their business of NTFP through partnerships can potentially have positive effects on gender equality and income.
Non-Timber Forest Products and Deforestation
Deforestation is an important issue that contributes to climate change and in Bolivia the rate of deforestation has increased over time (see figure 1). Factors affecting the rate of deforestation include policies and international demand for cattle and soybean. By supporting the women’s cooperative and their business that produce NTFP like medicinal cusi oil, we can potentially reduce the rate of deforestation while also helping to empower women both socially and economically (Morsello et al.).
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