IN the heart of the Amazon jungle, Alexandre Amaral da Silva stoops and picks handfuls of light brown seeds about an inch long from the tropical undergrowth.
From one of the remotest parts of Brazil, these murumuru seeds will journey hundreds of miles to bathrooms and beauty parlors where their oil will shine and soften consumers’ hair and lips.
The seeds will put precious cash in the pockets of people like Alexandre, while providing a prized ingredient for cosmetics companies.
Murumuru seeds, which are gathered at various spots in Brazil, are used in shampoo and lipsticks by beauty companies such as Garnier in the United States as well as L’Oreal and the Brazilian beauty giant Natura.
Alexandre founded the seed-gathering outpost of Providencia with his family 20 years ago.
A few wooden huts in the middle of the jungle, it lies a three-hour boat ride up the Jurua river from the town of Carauari, some 700 kilometers (435 miles) from the nearest city, Manaus.
Crowds of children flock to the sandy shore to meet arriving boats.
“When I came here, there was nothing,” says Alexandre, a lean, tanned man in his fifties. Nevertheless he came in search of the seeds, knowing that people wanted to buy them.
“In the beginning, we didn’t even know what they were used for. I just knew that my feet hurt” if they stepped on the seeds in their spiky shells, he said.
Precious hair oil
The murumuru seeds grow on palm trees up to 15 meters (50 feet) high. Alexandre waits until the seeds ripen and fall to the ground to harvest them.
Then his wife Maria Terezinha gets to work, crushing them one by one with a hammer, removing the shells and keeping the hearts in a sack.
A family like theirs can make the equivalent of up to US$460 a year to boost the income they gain from gathering other products. Official statistics show average per capita income is about US$660 a year in Carauari.
Without big businesses, “there are many production chains in the Amazon that would disappear”, says Carlos Koury, director of the Amazon Conservation and Sustainable Development Institute, a non-government organization.
The murumuru gatherers are part of “a traditional production chain that would struggle to survive without a powerful ally such as Natura.”
The gatherers sell the seeds to a local cooperative. At a factory in the jungle, the cooperative processes them into the palm oil prized by beauty companies, which say it melts into damaged hair to repair it and make it silky.
Brazil’s growing beauty industry
Brazil’s beauty industry is expanding despite the recession in the country. The cosmetics market grew by 11 percent last year and was the third biggest in the world after the United States and China.
Natura, one of the main users of murumuru seeds, reported sales worth nearly US$2.0 billion in 2014.
It currently works with some 400 families in the Medio Jurua reserve, the area where Alexandre gathers seeds, where little more than half the people know how to read and write, according to research by Natura.
The company provides training and investment for processing murumuru and other seed oil products such as andiroba and ucuuba.
The region was once a major rubber producer but that industry declined and locals turned mostly to gathering cassava and fishing.
In 1991, communities around the Jurua river united to form a rural producers’ association to resist powerful traders who they say paid them an unfair price for their goods.
The association established a system that allows locals to trade their produce in return for necessities brought from the city. That too boosted their income and changed their lives.
“Today they can call themselves a freed people,” said Rosi Batista, leader of a governmental extractors’ association.