Copaiba: The “miracle” medicinal tree
The copaiba is known as the “miracle tree” because it is one of the medicinal trees most widely used in Bolivia’s Chiquitania region – and indeed in the Amazon in general. It treats inflammation and wounds and is considered one of the most important natural remedies in a rural region where people live far from pharmacies and hospitals and have little access to public health care.
Modern medicine uses copaiba oil to promote the healing of wounds and ulcers, as well as to treat serious and chronic skin diseases, such as dermatosis and psoriasis. One of the active ingredients in the oil is BCP (beta-caryophyllene), a potent compound with anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antibacterial and antioxidant properties.
While medicinal plants form, in large part, the basis of traditional health systems in developing countries, Indigenous Peoples have historically benefited little from the development of medicines from these plants.
In Bolivia, a group of Indigenous women who belong to the Association of Women Entrepreneurs, otherwise known as “the Pioneers”, walk single file through the forest on their way to “tap” a copaiba (Copaifera langsdorffii). The “miracle tree” is a source of income, health and empowerment for them and their community. They harvest the tree’s oleoresin, collecting it from a hole drilled carefully into the trunk. They then process it into cosmetic and medicinal products, overseeing every part of the production chain.
“We women felt that we were the same as the tree. Few people defended it,” says Ignacia. She explains that this is why they decided to form an association to not only defend the tree but also protect their livelihoods.
The association has since grown from six to ten women who now lead the copaiba identification and harvest, processing it into cosmetic and medicinal products including liquid and solid soaps, oils and ointments, lip balms, shampoo and perfume.
The Pioneers are following in their ancestors’ footsteps. For centuries, the copaiba has been a staple of natural medicine. In Bolivia, healers used the oil, distilled from the oleoresin, to cure colds and rheumatism, massaging the pain away. Taking two drops daily mixed with a tablespoon of honey still treats bronchitis, tonsillitis and coughs here. In Brazil, they place copaiba oil on tumours and hives. Tea made from the seeds of the tree also works as a purgative and treats asthma.
It hasn’t been easy for the Pioneers to gather and control the tree’s bounty. They had to negotiate with their own community, the Rio Blanco Indigenous Peoples, for rights. But as Ignacia Supepi, one of the founding members of the Pioneers, explains, she and her associates were determined:
“It has cost us a lot to take advantage of copaiba as women in our community. For two years, we had to buy the oil from the tree from our own local community. We applied to the community council to be able to access it, but three times, they denied us. The fourth time they agreed because we showed them we wanted to move forward and contribute to the community,” Ignacia says.
“Now we pay 10 per cent for every litre of oil we take out and collect. We inform the community council if we remove one litre, two litres, three litres,” concludes Ignacia.
To use the oil and generate additional income, the Pioneers must at the same time be careful to conserve the native tree, using its gifts sustainably. An individual copaiba yields 40 litres of oil per year, but production has been known to diminish after repeated tapping. To ensure a consistent supply, experts suggest extracting only one litre per tree, every three years. While the Pioneers have overseen an increase of up to 50 per cent in the volume of extraction in their region, they harvest just up to 100 millilitres of oleoresin per tree each year.
The Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), a partnership between the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the International Institute for Environment and Development and AgriCord, has provided finance to the Rio Blanco Indigenous Peoples community, supporting the purchase of tools for the Pioneers’ copaiba harvest and equipping their workshop with tools and supplies.
The women of the association also received technical advice from FAO on good practices for sustainable harvesting and processing of the copaiba, as well as training in management and marketing. Their income has since doubled and they have been able to open a bank account, so they can reinvest their profits.
The FFF is supporting this enterprise in order to change this norm and improve the livelihoods of the women and the Rio Blanco community, while also sustainably managing the forest.
The project hopes to promote their example as a model of Indigenous Peoples’ entrepreneurship for the integrated management of forests. Collectively, forest and farm smallholders and communities are essential at a global scale for food security, biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation.
The Pioneers know they will need to be fierce to protect this precious resource for the future. Between 2002 and 2019, Bolivia saw a loss of tree cover amounting to 5.68 million hectares, 77 per cent of which was driven by expansion in agriculture. Fires have exacerbated the loss of forest cover since then. In 2019, the Chiquitano Forest, in the lowlands of Bolivia, east of the Andes, suffered one of the largest blazes in the country’s history, burning approximately 3.6 million hectares. Experts attributed the ferocity to dry conditions and high temperatures related to climate change. The copaiba tree is one of the vulnerable species in the region that have difficulty recuperating after logging and fires.
But the Pioneers are prepared for the battle – fighting for a better income, a better quality of life and the conservation of this unique forest species, vital to the health of local people and the world.
– global bihari bureau