Geografia Econômica e Social do Babassu no Meio Norte


  • Orlando Valverde


Industrias;, Babassu;, Geografia Econômica;, Recursos Naturais;, Colonização.


Babassu is the fruit of a palm tree (Orbignya speciosa, Barb. Rodr.) which - apart from many other applications - yields an oil largely utilized in the manufacture of soap and edible products. In spite of its manifold uses, no substantial increase has attended its production during the past ten years. The Babassu problem is a difficult one to tackle owing to the lack of many important data, such as acreage of dense ·growth areas and of average number of palms, extension of fruit-sprouting seasons, crop periods, average number or bunches per tree, adequate spacing, etc.

            Babassu extraction is carried on in a rather primitive process: the nutshell is picked off the wild-growing trees, broken up with the aid of an axe and mace and offered for sale at the nearest market. The nuts are purchased by business firms at São Luís, Parnaíba or Teresina, by which they are either processed or resold.

            Hauling is precarious. Babassu nuts are chiefly hauled by trucks; these again depend upon the vicinal roads, which are passable for no longer a period than three months a year. A service is kept up by the Production Campaign at São Luís for cutting and maintaining such roads in the aim of spreading out the areas of growth. The São Luís-Teresina railroad is in rather bad keeping. The uncommonly good river net of the region is widely blocked up and this has consequently brought about a slowdown in navigation. Ports are in their turn under equipped. All this, again, systematically checks the supply of commodities to both Maranhão and Piauí and progressively makes for a steady raising of living costs.

            It was the French who first lay hold of the vantage setting round the Maranhão bay and settled down on that coast somewhere in the beginning of the seventeenth century.

            About the middle of the eighteenth century, the Luso-Brazilians started cotton plantations is he Itapecuru valley. Negro saves brought over for working in the plantations mixed with resident indians and whites to produce the typical "caboclos". The decline of cotton grow brought about by a shrinkage of international markets at the beginning of the nineteenth century caused the now prevalent partnership system to be introduced in the Itapecuru plantations.

            A general demand for oil seed products was raised by important markets in the temperate zone after the first World War and did much in the way of causing the Mearim valley to become settled, largely by immigrants from Ceará and Piauí.

            A rice boom followed the beginning of the second World War and Maranhão rice which bad been for long an established crop of that state - came into its own; inferior as was its quality it nevertheless flowed through highroads into Rio and São Paulo, and, being cheap, sold well among the poorer classes.

            Another factor in the progress of that pioneer front - which has already been pushed beyond the Pindaré river - is the illegal possession of land tracts by wealthy farmers, a social phenomenon called "grilagem" ( “cricketing", or claim-jumping with land property). The pioneer front cuts athwart the rivers, and this fact illustrates their lack of economical importance.

            There exist six Babassu producing regions in the Brazilian middle-north and of these the three outstanding ones have been visited by the author.

            Itapecuru valley relief mainly consists of tablelands and hills under 150 feet in height, downwards Coroatá; thence to Caxias, of mesas and sandstone buttes up to 300 feet high. Soils are rather sandy and laterite-coated. Natural vegetation is chiefly made up of Babassu-evergreen; near Caxias V6getation takes on a residual semi deciduous character.

            The region is mainly occupied by latitudinal; growths are cropped by "caboclos" under a shifting cultivation system. The ground is usually cultivated for a year and . then left in second growth for eight years. Chief crops are - in the lower course, manioc, in the middle course, rice. Crops are enclosed with fences so as to ward off the copious head of swine raised at large. Houses are rectangular in shape - walled with Babassu straw and thatched with the latter material.

            The backward state of Babassu production may be traced back to manifold causes. During his circuit the author called in at two large bankrupt factories abandoned after a short period of operation. To that condition they had been brought by a lack of planning and teamwork, as well as by a dearth in credit facilities and technical know how.

            The scantiness and ill-preparation of nuts has been often put down to idleness and ill-faith on the part of the "caboclos". And many unscrupulous contrivances are indeed known to which they resort in the purpose of keeping up the weight, and speeding the ripening of nut- shells, to the ultimate impairment of quality. This practice is nonetheless out of hold in such farms as are operated under the partnership system.

            Competition among local firms has, however, brought about a number of setbacks In their nature more serious than those aroused by the foregoing factors. It has indeed curbed with many checks the activities of road building with a consequent slump in market prices. Maranhão sets a negative example for chaos in trade and production within a framework of political chaos.

            Though an important branch of native agriculture, Babassu scarcely contributes to better the status of the rural population, and hardly keeps them off from starving out Babassu leaves and stems are employed in the construction of homes and In the manufacturing of a numberless variety of utensils.

            Widespread pauperism reigns in that zone, staple foods are yet more varied and nutritive there than in other areas of Brazil. Social status has been fall!ng off steadily. especially in the Itapecuru valley.

            Both settlement schemes recently enacted turned out a downright failure.

            To this they were doomed, uneconomical and shortsighted as they were in the circumstances.

            A rise in the production of Babassu is as feasible as ever, should the now-established forest-trimming practice be backed with technical assistance.

            The article closes with brief comments, on the general outlook of the area, to which some hints have been added on research schemes, leveling of farming system in the pioneer zone, cutting of vicinal roads, mechanical splitting of shells, medical, social and financial support and plantation planning.