Babaçu is a particular kind of palm tree which grows extensively in north-east Brazil. Coconut production is concentrated in the southern part of the state of Maranhão, in the north of the state of Tocantis and in the state of Pará.

Babaçu coconuts

The babaçu tree produces a very small coconut, usually picked by women called quebradeiras de coco babaçu – “coconut smashers”. The fruit of the Babaçu was an essential dietary supplement and source of income for families in rural communities of the region, and still has great economic value today because it yields an infinite number of by-products.

The nut itself yields Babaçu oil, with its hazelnut aroma, used in traditional regional dishes especially fish-based recipes. The coconuts are picked in the babaçuais forests by the quebradeiras, who smash the nuts with a wooden stick to extract the oil.

Small nut extracted from the babaçu coconut

The coconuts fall from the tree when they are ripe and are gathered in small plots of land run collectively by the local community and the sem terra.

In order to extract the oil the nuts are roasted, crushed in a mortar and mixed with hot water, which facilitates separation of the oily part of the nut. 

Babaçu fruits from below

Most of the nuts are sold to the cooperative of small producers of Lago de Junco (in the Médio Meraim region) which produces oil and other by-products. The extracted oil is used for making soap, cosmetics, margarine, special fats and cooking oil. Coconut powder (made from the Babaçu mesocarp), which is rich in starch, is used in local recipes and to make a highly nutritious drink. The endocarp yields charcoal.

A babaçu palm tree with its fruit
A close-up of a bunch of babaçu nuts

Though it represents an important source of food for the area, babaçu is at risk. Illegal appropriation of land by large companies and the increasingly large cultivations of soya and industrial monocultures are threatening the survival of coconut production.

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Photos — DoDesign-s

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