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Deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest — reached by a flight into the jungle, a two-hour boat trip, a pickup truck transporting 31 people in the bed despite a downpour, and a half-hour walk — five Notre Dame MBA students and two faculty advisers are learning how to turn mandioca root into a local starch product called farinha.

Last year, another group of Viva Bartkus’ Business on the Frontlines students recommended changes in the supply chain for even more remote fishing communities that depend on the massive pirarucu lurking in the Amazon basin’s rivers and lakes. This air-breathing dinosaur of a fish can grow to nine feet long and weigh 400 pounds.

While the two products recall the biblical story of loaves and fishes, the students don’t have Jesus’ power to multiply their numbers to feed everyone. Instead, their goal is to figure out how the indigenous tribes and riverside communities living in the Amazon can reap a larger share of the substantial profits from their labor when these goods are sold in the bigger cities in Brazil.

These “keepers of the forest” are the last line of defense for the Amazon, sometimes called the lungs of the planet because the quantity of trees and water there boggle the imagination. The Amazon basin covers nearly 40 percent of South America, and the river exceeds in volume the next seven largest rivers in the world combined. The rainforest inhabitants thwart outside incursions by loggers, miners and ranchers, and their economic stability keeps them from resorting to slash-and-burn farming, poaching endangered species or selling out.

“This project is a combination our partner’s real understanding of the environment — and the needs of the community who protect that environment — with what Mendoza does really well, which is to ask more of business,” Bartkus said. “If they can make better livelihoods from the assets they have, they will have stronger communities, and that will help protect the rainforest.”

Viva Bartkus, founder of the BOTFL program, talks with a family in an Amazonian fishing community in 2018. Photo provided by John Dunbar.

Bartkus, an associate professor of management, likes to remind her students about the importance of commerce in developing relationships and social capital. “Never underestimate the inherent dignity in a good day’s work,” she says.

Entering its second decade, the program has advanced enough to use its own alumni as advisers on many of the projects. Mendoza plans to expand the program next year from 30 to 50 students, which means attracting more corporate and foundation sponsors to pay for these trips to troubled areas. Future expansion aims to double the number of students again. Recent grants from the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and Ford Family Program will fund economic impact studies of some projects.

Two years ago, a Brazilian BOTFL student went to Bolivia and thought the program could help in the Amazon, where his father, Benjamin Sicsu, chaired the board of the Sustainable Amazon Foundation (FAS). Sicsu and its director general, Virgilio Viana, agreed that the Notre Dame team might offer a different perspective and decided to launch a collaboration.

A resident of an Amazonian riverside community cuts open a coconut to share with visitors from Notre Dame in March.

An expert in forestry and sustainable development, Viana advised Pope Francis on his environmental encyclical, Laudato si’. He helped found FAS in 2007 as a partnership between the government of the state of Amazonas and Bradesco Bank, and the nonprofit organization has since gained the support of large corporations including Coca-Cola and Samsung.

The mission of FAS is to promote sustainable development, environmental conservation and improvement in the quality of life of the river communities in the state of Amazonas. FAS is charged with implementing the Bolsa Floresta program, which provides direct financial assistance and support to communities in protected areas in exchange for their conservation measures. Many families depend on the Bolsa payment to buy goods they are not able to produce.

FAS has started about a dozen product lines to help the communities earn money. “They launch the idea, but we help them transition those ideas into sustainable businesses,” Bartkus said.

Making farinha

A key component of the BOTFL approach is hands-on learning about every step of the process: from production to supply chain to final sale.

This March, indigenous farmers showed the Notre Dame students how they squeeze out the water used to soften and detoxify the poisonous mandioca root with an ingenious woven device called a tipiti — picture a 6-foot-long Chinese finger cuff with loops on both ends.

The farmers stuff the wet root flour inside, then hook the loops through logs, which are pulled apart by a simple lever system of ladder rungs on the other end of the logs to stretch the tipiti. Yellow water squeezes out the bottom as they ratchet the logs in opposite directions.

A farmer stretches a woven tipiti to drain water from mandioca flour, one step in making a popular Brazilian food.

Then the dried flour clumps are pushed through a woven sieve and toasted on a large firepit frying pan. This creates the small yellow granules of farinha that are sprinkled onto other food or eaten as a starchy side across the region. Mandioca, or cassava, one of the oldest crops in the world, has been prepared like this for generations.

“We’re here to learn about the process, not to change it but to look at ways to increase their income,” said Nathalia Bauerfeldt (MBA ’19), a Brazilian who had never been to the region. “Think about the scope of the Amazon and generations of people needing food. They found a source that was poisonous, but they transformed it into something that is high in calories and carbs. Looking them in the eye and learning about their lives has changed my perspective completely.”

Mandioca flour is pushed through a sieve to create separate granules.

Toasting farinha includes tossing it in the air to let loose flakes drift away.

She found the experience emotional at times because people from the big Brazilian cities like her native São Paulo sometimes look on the Amazonians as isolated and behind. These kinds of profound transformations are one of the major benefits of the program.

The students questioned one group of farmers after another about making farinha. Some communities invited them to pull up manioc roots and feel the heft of a filled basket carried for long distances on their backs. The students jumped in to peel the soaking roots, roll the flour into tiny balls, or stir the product with an oar during toasting.

Farmers receive 64% of the total value of the farinha de mandioca (manioc flour) sale.

“Before we saw it for ourselves, we thought of mechanizing the peeling process,” said Taruna Thawani, one team member. “But it’s clearly a social event. We have to be very sensitive to culture when we suggest potential solutions.”

Nearly everyone in the Amazon basin makes farinha, which is the staple crop and means of survival comparable to rice in China or potatoes in Ireland of yore. Each community took great pride in their version of the product, whether it was made in a primitive “flour house” or a newer model aimed at improving sanitation.

An Amazonian farmer carries down acai berries just cut from the top of a tree.

Another farmer in the Ipapucu community harvests roots from mandioca plants.

Their hospitality, from demonstrations to answering questions to offering a juice made from acai berries just cut off the tree, was overwhelming. The students learned to limit their questions, lest the people immediately offer whatever was asked about — whether a local fruit or a Brazil nut.

Hunting pirarucu

One of the largest freshwater fish in the world, the pirarucu (or arapaima) was nearly hunted to extinction in the last century. Its boneless steaks are mild, tasting more like a pork chop than a fish, and highly prized throughout South America.

Pirarucu are also somewhat easy to find, because they surface every 10 to 20 minutes to gulp air with a primitive lung they have developed over more than five million years of living in oxygen-depleted waters. When the waters recede enough in the dry season to hunt pirarucu in shallow lakes, traditional fishermen use harpoons to catch them.

I wanted to get a feel for it because it’s so different from anything you could ever imagine.

The previous year’s BOTFL group did not get to see this process because the dry season runs from August through November. But Bartkus returned to the Amazon during a community catch to experience it for herself.

“I wanted to get a feel for it because it’s so different from anything you could ever imagine,” Bartkus said. “It’s definitely hunting, not fishing.”

She said the entire community packs up and walks a few miles to where a huge lake has dwindled to about the size of a football field during the dry season. They have a fish-cleaning house where the women and children hang their hammocks for about a week.

Fishermen in an Amazonian village carry a handmade boat to a lake for the annual catch of pirarucu. Photo provided by Viva Bartkus.