Waranà: A Tale of Indigenous Resistance

The Sateré-Mawé people live near the sources of the Andirà and Marau rivers, in the Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

The bond that these people share with their land is so strong that the Brazilian constitution itself protects their right to live here, in this corner of the rainforest. This is where the Sateré-Mawé people grow guaranà (waranà, in their mother tongue, meaning “The beginning of all knowledge”), a 12 meter tall wild liana providing shoots that become productive once they are transplanted to a clearing. Its seeds are used to make multiple products, such as a sort of “bread stick” (so-called because its shape resembles that of a loaf of bread) and a sacred drink (the Çapó).

Slow Food has worked with Sateré-Mawé people since 2004 and launched a Presidium in collaboration with the Sateré-Mawé Consortium that, in turn, belongs to the General Council of the Sateré-Mawé tribe (CGTSM), the main representative body for this population (14,000 people living in 120 villages).

More than a decade after the launch of the Presidium, we had a chat with Sérgio Garcia, young Sateré-Mawé, current President of the Sateré-Mawé Producers’ Consortium.

What has changed since the launch of the Presidium?
The Presidium project was launched around 2004 or 2005. Up to that date, Waranà had almost gone extinct. Very few beans were harvested, the plant was no longer grown since it was not profitable and, as a result, all of the knowledge related to this product was going to be lost. What has changed then? Thanks to the Consortium and the support provided by Slow Food and others partners, local communities have started to see waraná not merely as a sacred food, but as an economic opportunity for the Sateré-Mawé people.

A number of meetings and exchanges were set up with the tuxauas – the community leaders– and producers to promote waraná. Without this product, the Sateré could not live, and vice-versa, waraná cannot live without the Sateré. When it became an international fairtrade product, waraná gained an additional social, environmental, political, and economic value.

The Presidium worked with keepers of canudo bees, a stingless bee endemic to the Amazon basin, that plays a lead role for the whole eco-system and the pollination of waranà. Without them, there would be no forest. Honey, alongside waraná, has gradually provided another source of income. The Sateré-Mawé Producers’ Consortium started buying honey from the canudo beekeepers, who in turn agreed upon and use specific production regulations.

The Sateré-Mawé Native Waraná and Sateré-Mawé Canudo bees Presidia joined the Presidia network, supported by the “Alimentos bons, limpos e justos na agricoltura familiar” project, between 2016 and 2018. Thanks to this, the producers could access several training meetings, update their production regulations, start a participatory certification process and attend public events.

A joint project with IFAD was launched in 2018. One of its main targets is the promotion of different distribution channels for waraná and its further inclusion on the national market. The project will also involve more youth in political and production matters and raise awareness on the importance of food safety and sovereignty by demonstrating alternative agroecological methods of production methods for local fresh items.

© Jacques Minelli Satoriz

How important is waranà to the indigenous community?
Waranà and its use are part of the identity of the Sateré-Mawé people, as well as the eco-system that they live in. It is a symbol of strength and power: when community leaders (tuxauas) gather, they eat waranà seeds that, according to popular belief, strengthen the positive words and energy present during meetings. Çapó is considered a sacred drink and when someone drinks it, this person is said to acquire a broader knowledge and become wiser. It must be drunk when your heart is pure and filled with positive thinking. And if you are a believer, things may happen.

How do younger generations consider waranà?
The youth remaining within their communities generally help their parents during the waraná production period. They work in the fields, by cleaning the plants and, when the time comes, join the harvest, peeling the seeds and roasting them. In the Sateré-Mawé culture, every family member works to make waraná: from harvesting to processing But more boys and girls attend school nowadays and the rainforest is more and more affected by the outside world, so the youth, even though most still live in villages, generally move to cities for study and are no longer involved in the production process. This has drawbacks: This is our culture, our cultural and immaterial heritage, something extremely relevant to us. Our current challenge is to keep the youth with us and provide them with a viable social and economic alternative. 

©José Guedes

What are the risks of waraná bread-making?
Padeiros, the bakers, are the craftsmen preparing waraná “bread sticks” and it is a dying art. If it is not well made, the “stick” will blow-up when toasted or smoked unable to stand the high temperatures. A real baker knows precisely how much water must be added and how the product is properly ground in the mortar to achieve the right results. Everything is done by eye, without measurements. Experience determines what is added and when, there are no written recipes! A real baker knows all of this. This is what the community risks nowadays: this knowledge runs the risk of being lost. These projects are of great importance to us, and Sateré-Mawé must learn this as kids: they are the waraná children. It is crucial for them to understand what has been passed down by our ancestors . This is our identity and with no traditions we are nothing. Preserving our cultural heritage is extremely important.

©José Guedes

Why is this form of resistance, through food, food and nutrition safety and sovereignty, important within the community?
Food is strictly linked to our culture. With a healthy diet you won’t need to see a doctor. No Sesai[1] or Casai[2] ambulances will drive you to the hospital. The fewer people who have to address to Casai (“Indigenous Health House”) the better, since this proves that we can take care of ourselves, and that the food we make today can protect us. It is a matter of food safety, sovereignty, and nutrition. Our resistance takes on a greater level of importance since most Sateré-Mawé now have a higher purchasing power, that is, that they have some money in their pockets and are introducing industrial food to the villages. They have industrial biscuits and drink industrial coffee, with no nutritional value! Thanks to the waraná Presidium, we can visit communities, explain to them what they should be planting, and what needs to be saved in our rivers and forests. We need to preserve nature in order to use it wisely, so that we can cultivate the same land and soil for many years to come. This is why the project is so important: food and nutritional safety is within our reach now. We will finally have good, clean and fair food. This is positive for us, for nature, and for the whole world. This is our form of resistance: through food. Planting, harvesting, and preparing healthy food for our people. This is the kind of policy that we want to implement. Thanks to the partnership with Ifad and the new collaborations that we are planning, we are trying to recover this kind of knowledge and pass it down to our communities and the children that will grow up and have to master all of this traditional knowledge responsibly to ensure the future of our land, traditions, and culture for our children and grandchildren.

[1] SESAI – Secretaria Especial de Saúde Indígena

[2] CASAI – Casas de Saúde Indígena

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