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Book on Amazon plants puts science in the hands of people

FAO marks end of International Year of Forests with new study on useful plants from the Amazon

Photo: ©FAO/Giuseppe Bizzarri
In the Brazilian Amazon, Brazil nuts are a valuable source of calories, fat and protein for much of the rural and urban population.

20 December 2011, Rome - A new FAO study released today shows how plants and fruits from Amazonian forests can be used to improve people's diets and livelihoods. The book — which is written in easy-to-grasp, accessible language — seeks to take science out of the ivory tower and put it to work on the ground, in the hands of people.

Fruit Trees and Useful Plants in Amazonian
Life was co-produced by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and People and Plants International. It was unveiled today during a ceremony at FAO marking the close of the International Year of Forests.

"During the International Year of Forests we have managed to highlight close ties between people and forests, as well as the numerous benefits that forests provide if they are managed by local communities in a sustainable way," said Eduardo Rojas-Briales, FAO's Assistant Director-General for Forestry.

"Some 80 percent of people living in the developing world rely on non-wood forest products such as fruits and medicinal plants for their nutritional and health needs. This new book provides comprehensive information on Amazon fruits and plants, and is a perfect example of how to make our knowledge accessible for poor people to help them maximize the benefits from forest products and services and improve their livelihoods. While the International Year of Forests is almost over, our efforts on promoting sustainable forest management and the importance of involving forest communities in development initiatives will continue," added Rojas-Briales.

Unique approach

The layout of FAO's new book aims at allowing readers lacking in formal education to extract knowledge using pictures and numbers. Twenty five percent of people in developing countries are functionally illiterate — in rural areas this figure can reach close to 40 percent.

"Some 90 Brazilian and international researchers who were willing to present their research to rural villagers in alternative formats — including jokes, recipes and pictures — collaborated in the production of this book," said Tina Etherington, who managed the publication project for FAO's Forestry Department. "And a number of farmers, midwives, hunters and musicians contributed valuable insights and experience as well. The book is of interest to a worldwide audience because of its truly innovative way of presenting science and how those techniques can be transferred to other areas in the world."

Patricia Shanley, Senior Research Associate at CIFOR and lead editor of the publication, said: "This is an unusual book. Written by and for semi-literate rural villagers, it weaves together a tapestry of voices about the myriad values forests contain."

"The book enables nutritional data and ecology to coexist alongside music and folklore making the forest and its inhabitants come alive," she added.

Marina Silva, former Minister of the Environment of Brazil, who wrote the preface to the book, noted: "This book is an extraordinary poem to Amazonia".

Forests and food at risk

The Amazon is the largest contiguous tropical forest remaining in the world, with 25 million people living in the Brazilian Amazon alone. However, deforestation, fire and climate change could destabilize the region and result in the forest shrinking to one third of its size in 65 years, according to today's publication.

In addition to the environmental services they provide, forests like the Amazon are also a rich nutritional storehouse. Fruits provide essential nutrients, minerals and anti-oxidants that keep the body strong and resistant to disease. Buriti palm fruit, for example, contains the highest known levels of vitamin A of any plant in the world. And açaí fruit is being hailed as a "superfood" for its high antioxidant and omega fatty acid content. Brazil nuts are rich in a complete protein similar to the protein content of cow's milk, which is why they are known as the "meat" of the plant kingdom, said the publication.