The Ribeira valley region, located between the cities of São Paulo and Curitiba, shelters the largest remaining area of Atlantic Rain Forest in the country. There are roughly 600,000 hectares of forest, in great measure preserved in conservation units like parks and environmental protection areas. It is a natural heritage that contrasts with the precarious economic situation in which many of its inhabitants live. Other than the cultivation of bananas and yerba mate and, on a smaller scale, the practice of cattle raising, the lack of alternatives leads a part of the inhabitants to the illegal extraction of timber, palm hearts, and medicinal and ornamental plants, thus contributing towards a reduction of the natural populations of the native species of the region.
One of the ways out for this problem is to implement the so-called sustainable development, in which the economic exploitation of nature can be carried out without the destruction of forests and any other kind of natural environment, bringing social and ecological benefits. A good example of the implantation of this system is to be seen in two projects carried out in the last four years by Atlântica Assessoria Agroambiental, a company from the town of Registro, in São Paulo. The first dealt with identifying and extracting from the forest, using scientific methodology, medicinal plants, which are beginning to be sold, dried and packaged. The other project uses, for example, buds (small pieces of the shoot) of the beautiful bromeliads that are native to the region and reproduces them in the laboratory, with thousands of identical individuals, without destroying the original plants or removing specimens from the forest.
Besides the environmental, scientific, and economic gains from these two projects, there are social gains: the population of the region is directly benefited. The knowledge acquired with the medicinal plant project, both in respect of their extraction and of the processing of the raw material, is being passed on to the quilombo communities of the region, populations made up of descendants of runaway slaves. Actually, in the case of the medicinal plants, this process is a return, in the form of new benefits, for the information that these inhabitants had, at the beginning of the project, passed on to the Atlântica researchers. The traditional knowledge of the quilombo communities about the use of these plants as a medicine originated the choice of the species taken from the forest. The researchers’ work was to give guarantees of the natural regeneration of the plants, within a programmed extraction cycle.
To carry out the projects, Atlântica enjoyed finance from FAPESP’s Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE). The coordinator of the medicinal plants project was agronomist engineer Alexandre Mariot, who started a few works with Atlântica eight years ago, when he did an end of course attachment out at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC). Founded in 1996, Atlântica’s main business is developing technology for handling native species of the Atlantic Rain Forest, with sustainable use. One of his customers is the Eldorado Agroindustrial Group, for which the company provides consultancy, in work on handling the jussara palm (Euterpe edulis) on 18,000 hectares of Fazenda Colônia Nova Trieste, in the municipality of Eldorado, 259 kilometers away from the São Paulo capital.
As the partnership between Atlântica and the business group allows for research to be carried out on site, the field survey of the medicinal plants chosen to be studied was carried out on 2,500 hectares set aside for handling palms. The farm, which has in all 30,000 hectares with forest cover – corresponding to 30,000 soccer pitches – was bought in the 1950s by a steel company from the group as a reserve for timber, which would be burnt in the blast furnaces during one of the stages of the process for transforming iron ore into steel. The new techniques used in the production of steel dispensed with the timber and contributed towards keeping the property conserved.
The selection of the species began with visits to the inhabitants of the quilombos of Pedro Cubas, Nhungara, Ivaporunduva and São Pedro, located in Eldorado, by the coordinator of the project. Mariot would ask which plants were used, in which areas they occurred, and what purpose they were used for. The recognition of each one of them was carried out around the houses of the residents, who cultivate them, and in the forest areas. The coordinator classifies his work as a rescue of traditional knowledge, because the region concentrates the largest number of communities remaining from quilombos in the state of São Paulo.
There are 52, some now with a definitive right to tenure of the land. With the abolition of slavery, many of the slaves who used to work in mining, the predominant activity in the region in the 18th century, remained in the area as farm workers. “The communities are important for the preservation of the Atlantic Rain Forest, because they are neighbors of the conservation units”, says agronomist engineer Ronaldo José Ribeiro, one of Atlântica’s partners. The other two partners are Joanir Odorizzi, also an agronomist engineer, and agricultural technician Jefferson Viana do Nascimento.
In the course of the interviews, the inhabitants pointed out 137 species of plants – native and exotic (not original) to the Atlantic Rain Forest – used and, in some cases, marketed by the communities. To start with, 14 of these were chosen for studies. The criteria for the choice took as a basis the plants that the communities have been using for a long time, the species known to the market, and those for which pharmacological studies their use. The effectiveness, the safety of use, and the quality control of some plants were confirmed, and others continue under study, by means of pharmacological, toxicological and chemical tests carried out at the Phytomedicaments Laboratory coordinated by Professor Luiz Cláudio Di Stasi, from the Biosciences Institute of the São Paulo State University (Unesp), in Botucatu, who worked on the project as a consultant. He has been taking part in the studies of medicinal plants in the region since 1986.
In the course of the research, the studies were concentrated on eight plants: pariparoba (Piper cernuum), cana-do-brejo (Costus spiralis), jaguarandi (Piper gaudichaudianum), apepa-juan (Piper lhotzkianum), embaúba (Cecropia pachystachya), espinheira-santa (Sorocea bomplandii ), avenca (Adiantum sp.) and cipó-abuto (Cissampelos sp.). These plants are used by the quilombo people to treat toothache (jaguarandi), stomach pains (espinheira-santa), bronchitis and colds (embaúba) and even as a diuretic (cana-do-brejo).
The researchers also characterized the difference of the true “cow’s hoof” from the false one, because one has medicinal value (Bauhinia forficata) and the other does not (Bauhinia candicans). Other plants studied were the guaco (Mikania glomerata), used for respiratory ailments, and another species of espinheira-santa (Maytenus ilicifolia), also for stomach problems. On the Eldorado Group’s farm, a survey was carried out to assess the quantity and the potential for exploiting each species. Even though it is a private property, the research was done with the authorization of the State Natural Resources Protection Department (DEPRN), connected to the State of São Paulo’s Secretariat for the Environment and responsible for the environmental licensing of native species.
This authorization is necessary for any work that has as its object the native vegetation of the Atlantic Rain Forest of the State of São Paulo. The study was carried out by field sampling, where portions (squares) are set out in the forest, to estimate the quantity of plants of the selected species that will be available for exploitation, in accordance with the established criteria. Several parameters of the plants are assessed, such as diameter and height, to find out the dynamics of growth and replacement of the biomass exploited (leaves, stem, and roots). The objective is to determine ideal cutting cycles for each species and thereby to establish the best way for exploiting the area.
There was also an accompaniment of the ecological behavior of the plants in the forest, identifying the stages of growth and how they multiply, besides their relationship with other species. One of the criteria adopted for the harvesting of pariparoba, a species of shrub with several branches per plant, was always to keep those with the largest diameter, because they have a better capacity for producing seeds. Mariot says that it is necessary to conserve reproductive plants in the area where they will be responsible for the future generations to be exploited. There also has to be a cycle defined for cutting, for it to be possible to foresee in how much time and in what quantity the forest will be able to replace what was removed. “Sustained handling is based on the cyclical nature of exploitation”, he says.
The project also created a quality standard for the medicinal plants, which includes a processing and storage unit. This is the place where the material is dried out, in compliance with the rules for processing that guarantee the quality of the product, such as the standardization of the plant material to be desiccated and the basic cares of hygiene and handling of the raw material. Before being packaged, the plants first undergo a process of dehydration, which consists of removing the water from the plant tissues. This guarantees the conservation of the product for a longer period of time, preventing their deterioration because of attacks by funguses and bacteria.
Some plants with a high level of humidity undergo a process of pre-drying in a environment that is ventilated and protected from the sun, before going into a gas dryer, developed especially for this stage of the process. After they are dried, they are stored in bags made with brown paper, lined inside with plastic bags of atoxic polyethylene. The choice of the packaging had the objective of protecting the product from the light, which is responsible for color changing, and from the attack of pests, and to guarantee the level of humidity and active principle of the raw material. With these techniques, the storage time can reach one year.
The knowledge acquired with the project, which started in 2001 and ended in February this year, is going to benefit immediately four quilombo communities (Ivaporunduva, São Pedro, Pedro Cubas and Sapatu). Together, they have over 5,000 hectares of land, 4,000 of which still with forest. Mariot was hired by the communities to make plans for handling the medicinal plants, in a project financed by the Biodiversity Fund (Funbio), a not for profit civilian association that operates using resources donated by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), under the management of the World Bank. Atlântica is also entering into partnerships with inhabitants from the region for handling plants on their land, or in rented areas, within the standards established in the project. To put them onto the market, they have turned to major resellers of bulk tea and manufacturers phytotherapics.
Biofactory of flowers
Within the same strategy of working with sustainable development, the company has also prepared, in the last three years, a project for producing bromeliads, coordinated by agronomist Lírio Luiz Dal Vesco. As a result of this project, the company set up a biofactory, and is now putting onto the market plants cultivated in the laboratory, using stock plants collected in the Atlantic Rain Forest, with authorization from the DEPRN. The large number of species of bromeliads, which comes to as much as 2,500 on the planet, guarantees an ample diversity of flowers and forms of these ornamental plants, although the pineapple has been transformed into the most famous member of the botanical family of the bromeliaceae.
In the last few decades, the increase in demand, resulting from the choice of several ornamental species for landscaping projects, also led to the illegal removal of large quantities of native species from the Atlantic Rain Forest. And it motivated the company to implant the biofactory, because there is no other project of a commercial nature in the region to produce bromeliads. Accordingly, after collecting the stock plants in the forest, they are selected and multiplied.
To carry out the process of the micropropagation of the bromeliad cuttings, the researchers use two ways: by the extraction of seeds, or by multiplication by buds, which are the shoots of the recently born plants, the method most used by Atlântica. With gloves and scalpel, the buds are extracted and taken to a totally sterilized environment in the laboratory, where they are placed in a culture medium with nutrients. When the shoots start developing, they are separated by size, and the new plants go on to an environment with controlled temperature, humidity and luminosity. After they reach about 7 centimeters in height, they are transferred to suitable environments, with controlled conditions and intermittent irrigation.
As they grow, the bromeliads are transferred to small vases and to nurseries in an outside environment. From then on, the cuttings are ready to be sold to producers, who only resell them to the end consumer when they are already in flower. One of the company’s customers is the municipal government of Ilha Comprida, which uses the bromeliads in landscaping projects. For large scale multiplication, the buds are snipped back every two months, which makes possible the proliferation of multiple shoots. “With just one cutting, it is possible to produce another 50,000 cuttings”, says Dal Vesco, who should finalize the project this August.
The importance of bromeliads as ornamental plants was not even shaken during the campaigns against dengue, in previous years, when they were associated with nurseries for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the main disseminator of the disease. It used to be said that the larvae would proliferate in rainwater accumulated between the leaves of the plant. This connection is now being refuted by specialists in the physiology of bromeliads, with the argument that enzymes are released at the base of the plants that make the water non-receptive for the development of larvae.
This liquid thus becomes a source of “dirty water” nutrients, unlike the preference of the Aedes for clean water. This does not mean that the larvae of the mosquito do not proliferate in the bromeliads, but, according to research carried out by the Executive Commission of the Municipal Plan for Eradicating the Aedes, of the city of Rio de Janeiro, this kind of deposit represents about 10% of the focuses, against 70% of the larvae found in the plates used to stand the plants on.
The exploitation of the Atlantic Rain Forest in a rational manner, both with the handling of medicinal plants and of bromeliads reproduced in the laboratory, is making it possible for the Ribeira valley to use its natural resources without devastating the environment. Mariot believes that the maintenance of what is left of the remnants of the Atlantic Rain Forest will only be possible with the sustained handling of a group of species. “The owner of the land can get an income from the forest itself and for this reason will be interested in keeping it standing.”
1. Survey of Technical Parameters for the Sustainable handling of Species of Native Plants of the Atlantic Tropical Forest with Medicinal Potential (00/07623-3); Modality: The Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator: Alexandre Mariot – Atlântica; Investment: R$ 148,185.00 (FAPESP)
2. Technical Viability Study for Setting Up a Biofactory of Bromeliads in the Ribeira Valley (00/07624-0); Modality: The Small Business Innovation Research Program (PIPE); Coordinator: Lírio Luiz Dal Vesco – Atlântica; Investment: R$ 175,880.00 (FAPESP)