Aromas perfume memories and arouse global interest

Amazonian aromatic roots and plants reveal progressive market growth potential in Brazil, however, opportunities still come up against the lack of investments, competitiveness and high costs.

Eduardo Laviano

Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (ET-Multi/UFPA)



Perfumes are not just scents. They are also memories and feelings that linger in the imagination of those who open their hearts to feel them. Civil engineer Camilo Delduque says so. His father's backyard, in Recife, Pernambuco, was a mixture of dirt, and trees such as guava, coconut, ingá and pitanga. Even living in Belém - Pará, far from those aromas, neither the memories of children running in the backyard nor the feelings of love and happy moments experienced in that very particular and special setting have been erased. Then, one day, his daughter, Camila, walked into a cosmetics store in Belém and smelled a sample of one of the brand's products. "At the time I was taken by the memory of the best time of my life, with the very best person in my life. The smell was the same. I cried uncontrollably", she says, remembering her paternal grandfather.

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Camila and her father, Camilo, felt the same emotion brought on by a perfume - Photo: Thiago Gomes

In a single bottle, Camila reports having felt top olfactory notes inspired by children playing hula hoop. The heart notes were sweet bread with rice popcorn. And the base notes were the natural cement pool that her grandfather built for the kids to party. She wouldn’t have the courage to take the perfume home. On Christmas Eve of 2022, she took her father to the store, who experienced the fragrance and soon also burst into tears. "It was a smell that marked too much. It was impossible not to notice it. When we left the house, that smell stayed with us. And, besides the backyard, itself, father and mother always have a particular smell, right? My mother exhaled an unforgettable milk cologne smell, ", recalls Camilo, one of the many residents of the Amazon who cultivates affective relationships with aromas and perfumes.

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These are memories that are replicated on a large scale throughout Brazil and that make the inputs and products for personal hygiene, perfumery and cosmetics developed in the country, and in the Amazon, objects of desire and curiosity, moving a powerful market, under the watchful eye of the rest of the world: the sector grew by 8.6% in the international trade flow, between January and October 2022, in relation to the same period of the previous year. According to the Brazilian Association of the Personal Hygiene, Perfumery and Cosmetics Industry, this percentage represents the figure of R$6.42 billion.

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The ancestry of Amazonian herb sellers

Márcia Cardoso works as herb seller at Ver-o-Peso Market, in Belém - Photo: Carmem Helena

Many elements of the Brazilian cosmetics market are in the hands of women entrepreneurs from the Amazon. A distinguishing part of the city identity, the Ver-o-Peso Market “erveiras” (herb sellers) accumulate knowledge passed down from generation to generation and constitute a bond of trust with anyone seeking any kind of help. For Márcia Cardoso, being a herb seller is to delve into a dimension of essences and aromas and into the possible  changes each root can promote in the lives of those who use them. "People use the herb to open paths, bring luck, prosperity, love, good business", says Marcia, who believes that contact with people is the best part of the job. All the herbs that arrive at Márcia's tent are brought by “mateiros”  - name given to people who know the forests – who gather the roots in islands that surround Belém and in other cities in the interior. There are around 15 vendors who arrive at Ver-o-Peso every morning with the leaves and branches requested by the saleswomen.

The parents of these “mateiros” were suppliers and Márcia’s mother friends, Maria dos Anjos, who started working with her husband in the same place, based on the knowledge acquired with her father. "Here it is like this. Everything from father to son. They were dying and the children began to reap. The same way I pass on everything I know to my children. There is always someone willing to continue our story", she says. Working as a herb seller for  45 years, she reminds customers that baths are more than just smelling: they are medicinal. Some baths take 17 different herbs depending on the need. "All you have to do is mix everything in the right amount. Then people come here to thank me, say that they overcame their kidney or cholesterol problems due to the 'garrafadas' (herbal mixtures) that I recommend. I'm happy", she says.

In addition to the pleasant and remarkable aromas, the herb dealers also specialize in street marketing to win customers. Apart from medicinal products, the names of perfumes are suggestive, with a double meaning, and become a refuge for those looking for a little more luck in their relationships. There's everything from "Grab a man" to "Cry on my feet". According to the herb seller Nazaré dos Santos, tourists are "crazy and curious", buying several bottles for themselves and also for their friends. According to her, who is 76 years old and has been at the Ver-o-peso fair for 52 years, the most important thing is to believe in the power of aromas and understand perfumes as daily dosages of self-esteem and confidence.

Cupuaçu, açaí and even copaíba are the base for many cosmetics

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Fátima Chamma - Photo: Dafna Obadia

In the 1940s, Ver-o-Peso was already what it is today: bustling, full of merchants of all kinds and permeated by aromas that people from Pará have been intimate with since their childhood. It was in Ver-o -Peso that Oscar Chamma, a Lebanese descendant, born in the state of Acre began a journey of mixtures, formulas and inspirations that led to the creation of perfumes that today are labeled as Chamma da Amazônia, currently owned by his daughter, Fátima. Since the 90s, the family business has expanded and conquered popularity and recognition around the world, with a varied target customer base, of all ages and genders. According to Fátima, Chamma brings nature into the homes of people from Pará through smells that create memories.

"My production has always been guided by the continuity of my father's work. My inspiration is the culture of Pará, whether popular, erudite, what we inherited from colonization, the influence of blacks. Our people really like to bathe and smell good – a tradition of the people of Pará in the body and in the closets. And it's convenient, because we have a lot of humidity, heat, mold. Who, (in Pará) did not grow up seeing their mother putting that ‘cheiro do Pará’ with patchouli in the wardrobe?", she points out.

Fátima's father added various foreign inputs to the formulas he produced. Today, Chamma da Amazônia is 100% focused on the roots and fruits of the Amazon and the production of the company goes beyond perfumes – it produces açaí, cupuaçu and Brazil nut body moisturizers, as well as buriti facial masks and copaiba shampoos. In fact, it was in copaíba that Fátima found a homemade solution so that the aromas of the products last longer in the body of the customers. "It's an excellent natural odor fixative, just like breu branco. At first glance, they seem unusual elements for aromatic products, but in mixtures, it works. Copaiba is very powerful and also medicinal", she says.

In love with priprioca since childhood, Fátima states that perfumes carry the individuality of each human being in a particular and unique way. Each one of them changes when in contact with each skin type, therefore, no perfume is the same as another. Besides, she believes producing perfumes is a way of interacting and including Amazon people in the global economy. "There are local communities that plant the roots from which oils are extracted, especially in the municipality of Acará (Pará). There are many other communities that produce natural oils, such as andiroba, copaíba, pracaxi, coconut. It's collaborative effort", she says.

However, it is not always as a “bed of scenting flowers”: the businesswoman tells there are difficulties to overcome, such as logistical problems. She says 90% of inputs are imported, such as packaging, glass, raw materials, lids and alcohol. There are few daily transport options for some cities in Brazil and not all carriers are authorized to carry alcohol. None of those challenges hold Fatima back. "It's a full learning and achievement experience, but also one of many defeats, which brings you more resilience and will power. Pará has the potential to be a leader in green products without causing any damage. But competitiveness needs to be improved and the issue of high costs needs to be overcome in order to conquer the local and the foreign market”, she says.

Research is an ally in the preservation of a tree wanted by the market

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Professor Lauro Barata - Photo: Divulgação Ufopa

In faced of so much diversity, in a forest as large and dense as the Amazon, cataloging and preserving the aromatic roots from the region is even more important, in addition to researching how they can benefit the daily lives of people who use them. That experience has been lived by Lauro Barata, a visiting professor at the Federal University of Western Pará, in the municipality of Santarém.

After gathering decades of experience working in the field of natural product chemistry, in 2000 he was invited by the French brand Chanel to produce a report on the “Pau-rosa” [Aniba rosaeodora], an Amazon-native tree that is currently ranked by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment (Ibama) on the list of endangered species and, until then, was used in the formula of Chanel N°5 perfume. It was at that time that Barata began to study deeper how to use roots without harming the environment.

In 2011, Barata and a group of researchers went to Brasilia to claim for cutting Pau-rosa trees down to become illegal. Since then, he has coordinated an interdisciplinary group of approximately 25 researchers from areas, such as pharmacology, botany, biology and chemistry. Together, they have helped local companies to develop sustainable oil extraction techniques from aromatic roots, focusing on Pau-rosa.

"Almost all the Pau-rosa trees in Pará and Amapá were cut down in the 1950s. Today, there are trees in eastern Amazonas and around the cities of Oriximiná and Juruti (in Pará). Pau-rosa trees were in danger of extinction, because of that, there was international commotion during the turning of the century. But our research has proved that it is possible to extract the essential oil from the leaves and branches, without cutting the trees down. So, we kept on doing it, with responsibility and a lot of research. They say money doesn't grow on trees. But it does. One liter of Pau-rosa oil values up to US$400. Priprioca-oil liter costs US$500. This is work and income opportunity for the people of the forest, who are increasingly specializing in sustainable practices," he says.

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Pau-rosa oil can be extracted from the leaves and branches, without cutting the trees down - Photo: Susan-Gerber Barata

Today, cutting trees down is still considered illegal, however, five companies have authorization from Ibama to explore Pau-rosa, all of them in the state of Amazonas. The professor says that only two of them are active: Magaldi, which has been active for more than half a century, and Kaap, which was created one year ago and was founded by a former Barata’s student. Both companies grow the trees using agroforestry methods. The crops of Pau-rosa are grown together with other roots, such as copaiba, andiroba and pineapple, making the Pau-rosa trees more resistant and ready for oil extraction in less than five years. Production reaches 3,000 kilograms of Pau-rosa oil per year and 1,000 kilograms of Copaiba oil, which are sold to national and international companies. The companies grow the trees and extract the oil only from the leaves and branches, according to what was taught by Lauro Barata.

The ancient tradition of “sowing, taking care and harvesting” for not running out of it

More than researching the chemical composition of each plant, Barata has developed sharp ability for observing the relationship of the Amazon people with each root. According to him, all fragrances that are sold in packages in perfume shops are the result of an ancient method involving sowing, taking care and harvesting. These traditions have indigenous origin and were passed on from parents to children. The roots are considered to have medicinal and healing functions, there are also many myths and legends about them.
"Observe the tradition of the “banho de cheiro” (scent bath). It is exactly the result of this ancient knowledge that mixes priprioca root with cumaru beans in a basin with water. It is more than a bath: it is the history of a people and it is also unique folklore, which remains in the spirit of the population over the decades”, points out the researcher.

Market - In Lauro's opinion, the importance that Amazon perfumes have in the lives of those who live in the region establishes a paradox with how small the cosmetics market is in the northern states of Brazil, where most part of the Legal Amazon is located: there are only 66 companies, according to the Brazilian Association of Personal Hygiene, Perfumery and Cosmetics Industry. Nineteen of them are in Pará, according to the Union of Chemical, Petrochemical, Pharmaceutical and Perfumery and Toilet Goods Industries of the State of Pará. Lauro estimates that there are more than 350 aromatic plants cataloged in detail in the Amazon. According to the professor, it is necessary for governments to create financing policies for this commerce, hiring specialist technicians in the production chain and also in exports, since major interest in local plants comes from foreign companies.

"Now, we share with companies about proper planting, reforestation, everything is explained step by step. Using the same equipment, currently, we extract both Priprioca and Pau-rosa oil, as well as Catinga-de-mulata oil and some types of basil. There is great diversity and there are functions beyond perfumery. It is necessary to support those ones who plant and harvest, who turn it into oil and those ones who produce cosmetics. There are different functions with their own specificities. We have the potential to deal with this movement, but Pará and the Amazon are still far behind. There is no shortage of qualified people", he concludes.