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Saving the rainforest: one tonka bean at a time

Deep within the Amazon, Brazilian indigenous communities harvest the aromatic tonka bean. They do this, not only for the additional income, but to help protect rainforest trees from being felled for lumber, or to make way for destructive cattle farms, mining and logging.

Tonka beans are the fruit of the towering cumaru tree (a member of the pea family), which can grow up to 30 metres tall. The beans have many uses in food, fragrance and in pharmaceuticals. What’s more, tonka beans are a non-destructive crop that  grows alongside a wide range of plants and vegetation. By collecting and drying the fragrant bean, indigenous communities are able to access an additional income, while also helping to regenerate and protect the Amazon rainforest.

Protected lands

The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world, spanning over eight countries in South America, with almost 80% rooted in Brazil. Millions of people, especially indigenous groups, depend on it for subsistence, such as food, resources and medicine. To help protect it, government legislation has been put in place. For example, in Brazil, indigenous lands constitute a legal form of protected area, which means that indigenous inhabitants have permanent and exclusive rights to their traditional lands. Legally, no outsiders are allowed into an indigenous territory without federal government authorisation, and no industry is permitted as this could destroy the forest ecosystem on which indigenous culture and livelihood is based.

However, the regulation does not completely protect the forest. Law enforcement can be weak throughout the vast region, and the threats to indigenous territories and other protected areas continue to intensify: illegal logging and gold mining, as well as hydro-dam building and even political in-fighting all pose a risk to the territories.  

Future-proofing the rainforest

To counter these risks, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working with some indigenous tribes to empower them to protect their land against these threats.

Adriano Jerozolimski from the Protected Forest Association explains: “Indigenous groups are Brazil's, and the world’s, future guarantee. In Brazil, there are 252 indigenous peoples with an incredible diversity of knowledge about forests, rivers, and forms of organisation that can, and are, inspiring the next step of organising local and global societies.

“Analysing the portions of forests and rivers preserved today, it is very easy to see that where there are indigenous and other traditional peoples, there are forests! The role of traditional populations in conserving and even increasing biodiversity is the key!”

One important strategy is to help indigenous communities gain access to markets for their sustainably harvested non-timber products, so that they can generate income to purchase the manufactured goods they've come to depend on after contact with outside society. The NGOs play an important role in explaining the foreign capitalist culture of outside society to indigenous groups and the nature of the threats they face.

How the tonka bean fits in

Sustainable income from wild forest products, such as the tonka bean, in combination with information and support for territorial monitoring and surveillance is proving to be the key for persistence of intact indigenous territories and cultures within the vast areas of the Brazilian Amazon.

Lush sources tonka beans from different communities in the Xingu river basin, situated in the southeastern region - an important area for biodiversity in Brazil. Lush Buyer Lívia Fróes explains that by helping to encourage regenerative trade in the area, both indigenous communities and the rainforest are preserved. She says “The Xingu territory is a strong indicator of the environmental diversity of the Brazilian Amazon, as it constitutes one of the most extensive sets of interconnected protected areas in the world. It has a very high environmental diversity, encompassing two biomes (the Amazon and Cerrado) with hundreds of forest landscapes and housing several communities with different cultures and languages.”

Tonka is collected by Kayapo communities who are represented by three local NGOs, AFP, Kabu Institute, and Raoni Institute. The Kayapo NGOs, together with other traditional people of the Xingu river basin and its partners, participate in an innovative integrated Certification Of Origin, lead by the NGO Imaflora, called Origens Brasil. The sale of the tonka bean, which is collected from the ground in the dry season (between June and September), has proved an important alternative income for the communities.

Tonka is collected from the forest floor where they fall from high in the tree canopy and brought back to the village where the beans are manually extracted from their shells. They are then laid out in the sun to dry - turning a rich brown during the process. The sweet beans, which smell like spicy vanilla, are then gathered together and taken to storage facilities in local towns from where they are packed and shipped to Lush UK.  

Cutting out the middle man

Lush only buys Brazilian Tonka Absolute directly from the communities that gather it - avoiding intermediary companies which would take a cut of the profits. What’s more, Lush endeavours to pay communities an upfront amount for their tonka, instead of delaying until the goods are shipped to the mainland. This means communities get the money they expect as quickly as possible - encouraging them to continue with the yearly venture and continue to cultivate the forest. So, while you’re enjoying your favourite sweet tonka treat, like our Vanillary Perfume, you can rest assured it’s helping to establish this regenerative and sustainable trade within the Amazon too. Sweet!

Tonka Beans | Lush Buying Story

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