Espacios. Vol. 37 (Nº 08) Año 2016. Pág. 18

Traditional knowledge, use, and management of Copernicia prunifera H. E. Moore (carnaúba) in Northeastern Brazil

Conhecimento tradicional, uso e manejo de Copernicia prunifera H. E. Moore (carnaúba) no Nordeste do Brasil

Irlaine Rodrigues VIEIRA 1; Jefferson Soares De OLIVEIRA 2; Christiano Franco VEROLA 3; Maria Iracema Bezerra LOIOLA 3

Recibido: 11/11/15 • Aprobado: 12/12/2015


1. Introduction

2. Materials and methods

3. Results

4. Discussion

5. Conclusion




The objective of our study was to collect information on the knowledge, use, and management of Copernicia prunifera among the extractivist communities in the Environmental Protection Area of the Parnaiba Delta, Piauí State, northeastern Brazil. Interviews, using semi-structured forms, were conducted with 46 artisans and extractivists. Leaves, fruits, seeds, trunks, and roots were used. Manufactured crafts and construction material were the most relevant categories. Extractivist activities take place throughout the year. Given the importance of the carnauba palm for populations and for environmental, a joint effort among extractivists, artisans, and environmental agencies is required in promoting its preservation.
Key Words: extractivists; environmental protection areas; ethnobotany.


Objetivou-se obter informações sobre o conhecimento, uso e manejo de Copernicia prunifera em comunidades extrativistas situadas na Área de Proteção Ambiental do Delta do rio Parnaíba, Piauí, nordeste do Brasil. Entrevistas foram realizadas com 46 artesãs e extrativistas de estruturas de carnaúba utilizando-se formulários semiesruturados. Folhas, sementes, frutos, troncos e raízes são utilizados. As categorias artesanato e construção foram as mais relevantes. O extrativismo ocorre ao longo dos meses do ano. Diante da importância que representa os carnaubais para esta população e para o meio ambiente é necessário a união dos extrativistas, artesãs e órgão ambientais a fim de conserva-los.
Palavras Chave: extrativistas; áreas de preservação ambiental; etnobotânica.

1. Introduction

Traditional populations extract plant resources from their natural environment for their survival, establishing with it in the process a close relationship (Diegues, 2008). Understanding their use of these resources is important if we are to develop effective policies to direct their management (Hanazaki, 2003; Souza, Kubo, 2006). Ethnobotanical research, seeking to elucidate relationships between traditional knowledge of plant species and their management, is one of the approaches  to understanding interaction between traditional communities and the use of natural resources available to them(Alcorn, 1995).

For generations populations of northeastern Brazil had been making use of Copernicia prunifera H.E. Moore, a palm species commonly known as carnauba. Products made from its parts go back to the 18th century, with the local Indian tribes considering it a sacred tree, provider of fruits, palm hearts, construction material, household objects, and curative potions (Pompeu Sobrinho, 1995). Its utilitarian use had diversified over time, accompanied by intensified extraction of some of its specific parts in accordance with market preferences of the moment, such as commercialization of wax extracted from its leaf surfaces, which became one of major Brazilian exports in the 19th century (D'Alva, 2007). Carnauba extractivism is a significant traditional activity in the Brazilian Northeast even today, providing livelihood to many local households (BNB, 2002). In addition to the social importance, the palm has an important role in soil protection, by limiting its erosion (Crepani et al., 2001).

Extensive carnauba palm forests of the Environmental Protection Area of the Parnaíba Delta, Northeastern Brazil, in providing a significant part of livelihood to local populations, represent an important component of their culture (Vieira et al., 2011). Governmental support and artisan training have contributed to commercial expansion of products manufactured from carnauba, diversification of its uses, and improvements in its traditional management (Crespo, Gomes, 2007; Sebrae, 2015).

The objective of our study was to identify and characterize its traditional knowledge, use, and management of C. prunifera in the Parnaiba Delta, Piauí State.

2. Materials and methods

The study was conducted at Ilha Grande de Santa Isabel, part of the Environmental Protection Area of the Parnaíba Delta (EPA Delta of the Parnaíba) in the municipality of Parnaíba (2°54'14.17"S, 41°46'35.57"W), on the littoral of Piauí State, Northeastern Brazil.

The history, economy, and culture of the city of Parnaíba have been linked to the carnauba palm extractivism (Domingos Neto, 2010). The regional climate is semi-arid, with precipitation and mean annual temperatures of 965 mm and 27.9° C, respectively (Bastos et al., 2000). The area is characterized by the fluvial-marine plains, with mangroves forests, and by the flooded and non-flooded sandy deposit formations (restinga), populated by tree species, with extensive carnauba palm forests (Santos Filho,  2009; ICMbio, 2010).

The EPA Delta of the Parnaíba was established by the Federal Decree 1.922, of August 29, 1996, in order to protect deltas of the rivers Ubatuba, Timonha, and Parnaíba; to improve quality of life of local populations by providing orientation and guidance in their economic activities; to promote eco-tourism and environmental education, while preserving local cultures and traditions (Brasil, 1996).

The EPA covers an area of 313,809 ha and includes municipalities of Araióres, Água Doce, Paulino Neves, and Tutóia in Maranhão State; Chaval and Barroquinha in Ceará; Luiz Correia, Ilha Grande, Cajueiro da Praia, and Parnaíba in Piauí, as well as jurisdictional waters of rivers Parnaíba, Timonha, and Ubatuba, and 5 km of the contiguous territorial waters (ICMbio, 2010).

The design of the study was submitted to the Research Ethics Committee (CEP) and approved by the Presentation Certificate of Ethics Assessment (CAAE): 42019815.6.0000.5214 of the Ethics Committee of the Federal University of Piauí.

In order to explain research objectives and obtain prior consent of informants, meetings with members of three carnauba crafts associations in the municipality of Parnaíba were held. The communities selected for the study were Fazendinha, Vazantinha, and Labino. Subsequently, interviews with artisans and extractivists of eighteen years of age and over, residents in the EPA, were conducted. Semi-structured forms were used to collect information on the socioeconomic characteristics of respondents and their knowledge, collection practices, and management of Copernicia prunifera (Albuquerque et al., 2010). Consent for the participation in the study, protecting informant anonymity, was obtained by their signing of the Informed Consent forms (IC).

All members of the associations, working with the palm tree, were interviewed. Additionally, the "snowball" technique (Bailey, 1994), where each respondent was asked to indicate another person with knowledge of C. prunifera, was used. Forty-six interviews with 23 women and 23 men have been conducted.

In order to identify knowledge distribution among the informants, a comparative analysis between gender and age of participants (adults < 40 years and ≥ 40) was performed (Byg, Baslev, 2001; Monteiro et al., 2006, Lins Neto et al., 2010). Informant diversity value (IDV) was used to measure the relationship between respondents' use of the species and distribution of uses among them. This index corresponds to the number of uses of an interviewee (Ux), divided by the total number of uses mentioned (Ut) (Byg,  Baslev, 2001).

The knowledge homogeneity among respondents was assessed by the Informant Equitability Value (IEV), which is a measure of the Informant Diversity Value (IDV) divided by the maximum Informant Diversity Value (IDVmax) (Byg and Baslev 2001). 

Diversity Use Value (DUV) was used to measure relevance of the use categories and their contribution to the local use value (Byg, Baslev 2001). The DUV is a number of nominations for each use category (UCx) divided by the total number of nominations for all categories (UCt).

For management evaluation, we used the Consensus Value for the Collection Location (VCLC) index which evaluates the degree of agreement among respondents by measuring the number of times a particular area is cited (Ax) divided by the number of total citations for all areas (At) (Monteiro et al., 2006).  In addition, participant observations were conducted in order to check the management performed (Albuquerque et al., 2010).

The Shapiro-Wilk test was performed to assess normality of data; the Kruskal-Wallis test (5% probability) for the analysis of variance for nonparametric data, and ANOVA for parametric data; the Shannon qualitative test to assess differences in informants' knowledge of use categories. All tests were performed using the BioEstat 5.0 program (Ayres et al., 2007). 

3. Results

The comparative analysis of use knowledge showed no gender differences among subjects younger or aged forty years (p > 0.05). On the other hand, significant differences (p <0.05), irrespective of age, were found between men and women.

The informant diversity values show that women (0.292 ± 0.095) have more diverse knowledge of use of palm parts than men (0.214 ± 0.153) (P < 0.05; Table 1). The knowledge proved non-homogeneous among men younger, older, or aged forty years (P > 0.05), whereas among women, regardless of age (P > 0.05), it was homogeneous. In addition, no significant differences were observed in the IDV values between men and women aged 40, or older (P > 0.05).

Similar results were found for the Informant Equitability Value (Table 1). Women's IEV was higher than that of men (P < 0.05); it was significantly different among men younger (0592 ± 0356) and aged 40 or older (0.958 ± 0.077) and was homogeneous among women, regardless of age (P > 0.05). On the other hand, equitability values were significantly different for men and women aged forty and younger or older (P < 0.05).

Table 1- Traditional knowledge of Copernicia prunifera
in the Parnaiba Delta, Piauí State, Northeastern Brazil.

Total number of respondents


Number of use citations


Informant's diversity value (IDV)

Mean ± SD

IDV total

0.269 ± 0.120

IDV total for women

0.292 ± 0.095ª

IDV total for women ≥ 40 years

0.293 ± 0.094b.f

IDV total for women < 40 years

0.291 ± 0.100b

IDV total for men

0.214 ± 0.153c

IDV total for men ≥ 40 years

0.262 ± 0.158d.f

IDV total for men < 40 years

0.094 ± 0.070e

Informant's equitability value (IEV)

Mean ± SD

IEV total

0.546 ± 0.243

IEV total for women

0.549 ± 0.194g

IEV total for women ≥ 40 years

0.639 ± 0.205i

IEV total for women < 40 years

0.591 ± 0.204i

IEV total for men

0.484 ± 0.345h

IEV total for men ≥ 40 years

0.592 ± 0.356j

IEV total for men < 40 years

0.958 ± 0.077l

Letters indicate statistical differences (P < 0.05) by Kruskal-Wallis-test.

Different parts of C. prunifera, such as leaves, roots, stems, and fruits, are used by respondents. Differences in their use allowed for a grouping into 11 categories, presented in a descending order of the Diversity Use Value (DUV) (Table 2). Artisan work (0.190), use in dwelling construction (0,182), wax extraction (0.166), and use as fodder (0.127), stood out among the use categories.

Table 2- Diversity use value (DUV) of Copernicia prunifera
in the Parnaiba Delta, Piauí State, Northeastern Brazil.

Use Categories


















Other (Candle e glue)






According to respondents, immature leaves are used in basket making and fiber and wax extraction for the commerce. Mature leaves are used as roofing material; filling gaps in mud house walls; as fuel for wood-burning stoves; extraction of inferior quality wax used in candle and glue making. Old dry leaves are crushed and used as fertilizer or soil mulching material. Leaf petioles are used in furniture making. Trunks are used as wall supporting columns and rafters in dwelling construction. Fruits are used as fodder for domestic animals and are consumed raw by humans. Seeds are used in the manufacture of earrings and necklaces, or are roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute. Roots have been reported to have anti-inflammatory action and as regulators of the menstrual cycle.

Removal of immature leaves (Figure 1A) was one management practice reported by 100% of respondents. Immature leaves of adult reproductive plants, on the average three leaves per palm (Figure 1B), are removed throughout the year with the aid of a scythe (Figure 1C). According to respondents, the youngest immature leaf (known as mangará, Figure 1D) should not be removed, since its removal may result in the death of the plant. Removal of immature leaves from the same plant is repeated after 15 to 60 days (with the mean = 23.56 ± 15.75 days). All respondents report that the tallest plants are preferred for extraction, having larger and more resistant leaves appropriate for basket making and with higher commercial value.

Figure 1- Extraction of Copernicia prunifera leaves at the Environmental Protection Area of the Delta of the Parnaíba, Piauí. A: Extractivist with a scythe, carrying immature leaves,. B: Immature leaves. C: Extrativist removing mature leaves with the use of a scythe. D: The arrow points to the youngest immature leaf, popularly known as mangará.

Mature leaves are extracted during the dry season (August to December). All of them are removed, with no special selection criteria. The same practice is reported for senile leaves remaining on the tree; these are removed throughout the year.

According to the respondents, extraction activities cease in the years of high rainfall when the harvesting areas are flooded and inaccessible. It is worth mentioning that during leaf extraction, vines growing in tree tops, for example, Cryptostegia madagascariensis Bojer ex Decne (Apocynaceae), are also removed, since, according to the respondents, they hinder leaf extraction, as well as new leaf production by the palm tree.

Respondents also reported the practice of land clearing by burning of the areas of the carnauba palm forests directly after the end of the rainy season (March to June). This management technique facilitates access to palm trees by clearing vegetation around them and accelerating the soil drying process. No specific management practices were observed for the trunk and roots removal. They are periodically removed with the use of a machete. Mature fruits are collected from the ground in December.

All respondents reported selling leaves or products made from them. Approximately 48% of respondents cite this activity as the main source of family income. Only 13.3% of respondents extract and market palm trunks and 3% of them collect and market seeds.

Analysis of the consensus value for the collecting sites, calculated from the number of times a particular area was cited as a favored extractivist area, revealed that, in order of preference, they are communities of Fazendinha (CVCL: 0.485), Vazantinha (CVCL: 0.303), and Labino (CVCL: 0.201).

4. Discussion

Interviews with artisans and extractivists of the communities of Fazendinha, Vazantinha, and Labino revealed that the use knowledge is not distributed equitably between men and women, unlike results of other ethnobotanical studies carried out in northeastern Brazil, showing an even distribution between genders and ages (Lins Neto et al., 2010; Sousa Júnior et al., 2013.). We suggest that the differences are due to the greater variety of crafts produced exclusively by female artisans in the studied communities of the Parnaíba Delta (Vieira, Loiola, 2014).

Carnauba palm leaves represent the plant part with the greatest diversity of use. Our data show that they are used mainly in the production of handicrafts, roofing, and wax extraction. According to Vieira and Loiola (2014), production and commercialization of handicrafts represent main means of family income because of lack of other employment opportunities. It also contributes to the preservation of popular culture. Another factor of the leaf extraction appeal is related to its commercial value. Artisans pay up to two dollars (at $1 = $R3) per 100 units, thus encouraging this activity. Use of carnauba leaves for roofing also continues to be a common practice with some families in northeastern Brazil (D'Alva, 2007; Vieira, Loiola, 2014). Wax extraction is a major extractivist activity in Brazil, representing a source of income for several northeastern communities, mainly in the states of Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte, and Ceará (D'Alva, 2007; IBGE, 2013).

Palm trunk is another plant part with an important use value. An easily obtainable material, of good strength and durability, use of carnauba trunks in civil construction continues from the colonial period (Braga, 1960). Its use in dwelling construction has been reported by Rodrigues et al. (2013). Use of carnauba fruits had been prominently featured in Braga (1960). On the other hand, and although observed in our study, use of seeds in artisan jewelry making has not been reported in the reviewed literature. It should, therefore, be considered a new type of plant part use for the carnauba.

As it was also found in our study, use of roots of C. prunifera in popular medicine had been reported for other communities of the Brazilian Northeast in Carvalho (1982), Agra et al., (2007), and Rodrigues et al., (2013). According to these authors, roots are used to treat skin disorders, syphilis, rheumatism, and back pain.

Extractivist methods described by respondents in our study are similar to those of rural populations in the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará (D'Alva, 2007). Leaf removal in the Ceará communities studied by D'Alva is always carried out with the aid of a scythe. However, some differences in the extraction intensity have been observed. Immature leaf extraction occurs in Ceará during the dry season, whereas in the studied municipality of Parnaíba it occurs throughout the year.

In accordance with the data from the Conab (2007), carnauba is of fundamental importance in maintaining the ecological balance in areas of its occurrence, particularly for soil conservation and riverine sedimentation and erosion control. Therefore, high-intensity extraction, in combination with the practice of burning, may negatively affect their optimal development.

Traditional knowledge that cutting of the youngest of the immature leaves (mangará) promotes death of the palm is well-known throughout the Brazilian Northeast (Csc, 2009). Even though there are no reports of studies that experimentally demonstrate such effects for the carnauba palm, they are quite plausible. The youngest leaf in palm species originates directly in its only trunk meristem, which, if damaged, will lead to an increased susceptibility to plant death (Purves et al., 2005). Such knowledge has also been reported by our respondents.

According to some authors, there is a relationship between the location of extractivism areas and their proximity to extractivists' dwellings (Santos et al.,2009; Sousa Júnior et al., 2013), with preference for obtaining supplies from plants located near extractivists' dwellings likely due to the ease of access to collection sites. These authors also state that a high density in the source of raw plant material has an impact on the choice of the extractivism area. Our study found that the carnauba palm extractivists prefer collection sites near Fazendinha, since the majority of them reside in that community. Our data corroborate those of Vieira et al., (2011), who describe the carnauba forest of the Fazendinha community as that with a high palm density and with no physical barriers to easy access.

5. Conclusion

Our study demonstrates that Copernicia prunifera is a very important plant resource to populations. Different plant parts are used in the production of personal use products as well as those for commercialization, representing the main source of income for some of the interviewees. Monthly leaf extraction, along with the burning practice, may put life of palm trees at risk, necessitating adoption of management plans that reconcile extractivism, culture maintenance, and environmental conservation.


The authors gratefully thank-you to all the residents of the communities of Vazantinha, Fazendinha and Labino for the hospitality, cordiality, and availability during the interviews. To the Fundação Cearense de Apoio ao Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (FUNCAP) for fellowship granted to IRV.


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1. Programa de pós graduação em Desenvolvimento e Meio ambiente (PRODEMA), Universidade Federal do Piauí, (UFPI), Teresina, Piauí, Brazil; Corresponding author:
2. Departamento de biomedicina, Universidade Federal do Piauí (UFPI), Campus Ministro Reis Velloso, Parnaíba, Piauí, Brazil;
3. Departamento de Biologia, Universidade Federal do Ceará (UFC), Campus do Pici, Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil.

Vol. 37 (Nº 08) Año 2016


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