Tomé Açu is sometimes called terra da pimenta—land of pepper. That is because the municipality in Brazil's northern state of Pará has a long tradition growing black peppercorn. But when Julie Droux, a French biotech engineer working for Clariant, recently visited the region, she was interested in a different crop. Cupuaçu is an indigenous fruit found throughout the Amazon basin. The plant is closely related to cacao and is particularly popular in Brazil, where it is mainly cultivated for its silky pulp to use in drinks, sweets, and even ice cream. "Cupuaçu is one of the many natural riches found particularly in this region, "explains Droux. "More importantly, its production here in Tomé Açu is a prime example of sustainable sourcing practices."
Rich in oleic and stearic acids
Droux works out of Toulouse, France, as a senior technical marketing specialist for Clariant's Personal Care Ingredients business–specifically for its Actives & Natural Origins portfolio. Cupuaçu butter, extracted from the fruit's seed, is especially rich in oleic and stearic acids. That is why Clariant uses it as a moisturizer and emollient for skin and hair care products. The company has been sourcing cupuaçu butter from Brazil for years, ever since it partnered with Beraca, a Brazilian cosmetics firm specializing in natural ingredients from this biodiverse region. When Clariant fully acquired Beraca in 2021, it took on Beraca's business and carried on the company's commitment to ethical sourcing. "I came here to learn about the cupuaçu plant itself, and especially about the communities that cultivate it," Droux explains.
Julie Droux met with two of her Brazilian colleagues, Juliane Khenaifes and Adriana André, at Clariant's Brazilian head office in São Paulo and then traveled to Tomé Açu—roughly 1,600 miles due north. There, the trio met up with Clariant’s team in charge of community outreach and local collaboration. "They spend about half of their time out in the field talking to farmers, "says Adriana André, a sustainability analyst for Clariant in Brazil. "This involvement is essential. It is how we maintain good field practices in our raw material supply chain."
A much more natural and sustainable ecosystem
There are currently around 50 smallholders involved in growing cupuaçu for Clariant. They are organized as a local cooperative and practice what is called agroforestry. This type of land management involves growing a diverse range of crops, including cupuaçu, cocoa, and açaí. Raising such a mix of small plants, shrubs, and even trees forms a much more natural and sustainable ecosystem than monocultures. Plus, as Julie Droux learned, these holdings yield different crops throughout the year, which improves financial stability for the farmers. Native cupuaçu trees lend themselves exceptionally well to this method of farming. They cope well with the notoriously poor soil in the region and provide the perfect amount of shade for some of the other crops.
However, harvesting cupuaçu requires a lot of manual labor. Because it is hard to determine whether the large brown fruits are ripe, they are usually gathered from the ground once they have fallen off their branches. The fruits are then washed and cracked open by hand to scoop out the pulp and seeds. The pulp is separated from the seeds and sold as a puree or a dried powder all over Brazil. "Cupuaçu is especially popular as a refreshing drink. Some describe the taste as a mix between cocoa and pineapple. It is a local staple in school cafeterias," says Juliane Khenaifes, responsible for Regulatory Affairs & Sustainability at Beraca.
An additional source of income
The cupuaçu seeds, however, tended to have little value. So up until the mid-2000s, most farmers in Tomé Açu discarded them. That all changed when Beraca started buying cupuaçu seeds to extract their butter as an active ingredient in cosmetics. "By buying up the seeds, we now provide an additional source of income to these communities," explains Adriana André. This was especially important during the pandemic when demand for cupuaçu pulp plummeted as restaurants, cafés, and school cafeterias stayed closed. Selling seeds to Clariant helped many to bridge that gap.
Clariant uses a metric called biocorrelation to assess the positive impact every kilogram of cupuaçu butter has on family income. "By processing the fruit pulp on machines owned by the cooperative, our local farming communities can retain even more of the economic value," says Adriana André. "But our impact goes beyond cash." As part of Clariant's close collaboration, its local teams constantly share knowledge on sustainable farming and provide training to farmers on good management practices and finance.
»Locals have all seen what monocultures and industrial agriculture can do to their homeland. Being able not just to live off the land but to actually prosper in harmony with their natural environment means a lot.«
Julie Droux, Global Technical Marketing Manager for Actives and Natural Origins
Passionate about their sustainable way of farming
While touring farms and processing plants in Tomé Açu, Julie Droux got to visit the cooperative and meet some of the families. "Naturally, I also had to taste fresh cupuaçu juice," she says. "Sweet and tangy—unlike anything I've ever tasted. What struck her most, however, was the passion the locals have for their sustainable way of farming. "They've all seen what monocultures and industrial agriculture can do to their homeland," Droux says. "Being able not just to live off the land but to actually prosper in harmony with their natural environment means a lot."
Back in the lab in Toulouse, working with formulations based on cupuaçu, Droux still thinks about the effect Clariant has half a world away. "As scientists, we tend to focus on the immediate effects and benefits of our actives," she says. Clinical studies have shown that cupuaçu butter helps strengthen the natural skin barrier. It helps to improve elasticity, to provide long-lasting moisturization, and to reduce trans-epidermal water loss." This is something we can show in the lab, and customers can feel on their skin," Droux says. "But I'm proud that we at Clariant also contribute to the social and ecologic effect this product has at its source."
What makes this chemistry greater?
- Cupuaçu butter helps strengthen the natural skin barrier, helps to improve elasticity, to provide long-lasting moisturization, and to reduce trans-epidermal water loss.
- By buying up cupuaçu seeds, which used to be discarded, Clariant provides an additional source of income to around 50 smallholders.
- The local Clariant teams share knowledge on sustainable farming and provide training to farmers on good management practices and finance.