For the scientist, Jaborandi has taught that it is possible to combine environmental preservation with sustainable management. For the extractivist, the plant inspires an immense affection due to its characteristics and its socioeconomic importance, and not only for the community where it can be found. It is believed that Jaborandi’s relevance reaches the world.
We invited Cecílio Frois Caldeira, ITV researcher, and the extractivist Ana Paula Ferreira Nascimento, president of Carajás National Forest Extractive Cooperative (Coex/Carajás), to introduce Jaborandi to us.
In common, both have the respect for the plant and the pride of working to keep alive a natural asset essential for human health. ITV works on the sequencing of Jaborandi’s genome to map the genetic diversity of the plant and to understand how it produces pilocarpine.
What is the story of Jaborandi?
Cecílio Caldeira – There are reports regarding the plant in 16th or 17th century. Indigenous people used Jaborandi in shamanic rituals, the meaning of its name is “the plant that makes you sweat and drool”. When the plant was transplanted to Europe, scientists discovered, at the end of 19th century, that they could extract an active ingredient called imidazole alkaloid pilocarpine from its leaves. They also discovered that pilocarpine has a good effect not only on salivation, but also on the treatment of glaucoma, once it helps to dilate the pupil. As a result, in 20th century, it started to be commercially explored by Germans. Initially, it was used for the treatment of glaucoma, but as Medicine progressed, Jaborandi was used to treat other diseases, including cancer and dry mouth.
What was the direct consequence of such medical findings for the plant?
Cecílio Caldeira – The finding regarding this active ingredient has caused a disorderly consumption of Jaborandi and, as a consequence, today, Jaborandi is an endangered plant. It is included in the “Brazil Red Book of Threatened Species of Fauna”: we already lost more than 50% of its natural occurrence.
Is there other plant capable of producing pilocarpine?
Cecílio Caldeira – Jaborandi belongs to a plant genus called Pilocarpus, which is currently the only natural and economically viable source of pilocarpine known in the world. The plant grows in Piauí, Maranhão and here, in Pará. But we know that there are 16 other similar species, 11 of them endemic of Brazil (others occurring in Argentina and Mexico). All these species, however, do not have pilocarpine in an amount to attract commercial interest. In addition to this, it is not easy to collect them, once they cannot be found in large amounts. There are projects developed to chemically synthesize the pilocarpine, but such projects still cost a lot of money. One of the consequences of pilocarpine shortage is that the eye drops used in glaucoma treatment will become expensive due to the difficulty in obtaining the active ingredient.
What needs to be done?
Cecílio Caldeira – It is necessary to combine preservation with sustainable management. Fortunately, there are areas – one of them is the Carajás National Forest – where a large amount of Jaborandi still exists, and once it is a protected area, the plant cannot be harvested without a process. Besides this, our studies in ITV – with partners, including the University of Copenhagen – are on the track to perform biochemical studies and the genetic sequencing of the plant. In other words: we are seeking to understand the synthesis route of the plant that produces pilocarpine. Once we succeed – it is a complex study – we will be able to cultivate the plant, instead of just exploring it on the nature.
If that happens, will it be possible to recover Jaborandi?
Cecílio Caldeira – It is possible to preserve what we have – the diversity inside it. Fortunately, it is a plant with a huge genetic diversity. In Carajás Forest, there are four genetic groups of plants that produce pilocarpine. We are creating a germplasm bank to keep this genetic diversity alive. With this bank, we can ensure a long-term diversity, so it can be used it in the future, recreating areas with Jaborandi. But that’s not all. In addition to what we discussed about the management, in addition to this genetic layer and this bank, what we have done, along with the group of partners, was to identify these mother plants, propagate it in the nursery and plant the Jaborandi in degraded areas being recovered by Vale. Thus, it will reappear in areas where it does not exist anymore. Our intention is to take other plants also, those we believe to have a greater potential of producing pilocarpine. It is a long-term process, but it is possible.
ANA PAULA FERREIRA NASCIMENTO
What is Jaborandi’s story?
Ana Paula – I have a very special affection for Jaborandi. Not only by its characteristics, but also by the social and economic importance it has for our population, our community and world. And then you ask me: but…for the world? Why? When we talk about Jaborandi, people usually link it to cosmetics, to hair loss. Few people know that this is a special vegetable, the only one capable of producing this rich substance, the pilocarpine, used in pharmaceutical industry for several medicines. And it all begins here in the Carajás National Forest. It is painstaking work developed by forest doctors, who are extractivits. Here is the beginning of a big and beautiful story, which will break boundaries. It will leave the State of Pará, go to Piauí and, from there, to Europe. And, then, it returns to Brazil, as a medication. That is why my eyes shine for Jaborandi. That is why I say that it has a huge importance for the whole world.
It is also economically important for the people who work with it, as you say…
Ana Paula – Yes! Several families earn their living from the sustainable collection of Jaborandi here in Parauapebas, in São Felix do Xingu, in Maranhão, in Piauí.
We are talking about sustainable collection, but it was not always like this, right?
Ana Paula – Exactly. It all started in a disorderly manner. There was a huge demand for Jaborandi and people in the 60s, 70s did not have this preservation feeling as we have today. The collection occurred in an uncontrolled manner by the extractivists themselves. The concern with the preservation of species began after the aggravation of the sustainability and the existence of Jaborandi. After this, it was included on the book of species threatened with extinction. And today is a completely different scenario.
Have you participated in this change of scenario? How was it?
Ana Paula – The need caused the change. In the past, Jaborandi was very produced, and all these practices drastically affected the production and the quality of the species, then, we realized we had to stop. And we thought about how to improve our practices, so the species would not stop existing. This attention changed it all.
Was the creation of a Cooperative, then, a way to try to change this scenario?
Ana Paula – Yes. You have to agree with me: an organized group is much stronger. And the Cooperative was created to unite the group and to strengthen the cause, the players in the activity. Because when we see our income generation at risk, we feel insecure and scared. The cooperativism flag always defends that together we are stronger, and we can make a difference, and that was exactly what happened. Coex was founded in 2011, officially registered in the Federal Revenue, and we are celebrating ten years now. This is our reality today.
Do you follow a protocol?
Ana Paula – Yes, we do not perform the collection every month of the year, only between the months of June and December, which is the period considered as Amazonian summer. In rainy months, we do not enter in the forest because we understand that this is the time for the plant to recompose. Today, we are 45 cooperative members, and we work at the Preservation Unit. Cooperative members spend most of their time inside the forest, camping during twenty, thirty days, for six months. They just leave the place once in a while. Today, all members live in the city, in different neighborhoods. We collect all native seeds of the forest, as jambo da mata, buriti, chestnuts, andiroba. But this collection is made in a sustainable manner.
What lesson can you and your community learn from Jaborandi?
Ana Paula – It is necessary to take care and preserve if we want to see better days here on Earth.