• Interviews

Tucum – The Power, The Beauty, the Forest

Amanda Santana had no idea that one day she would launch a successful, sustainable, environmentally supportive business that would bring to light the talent and culture of indigenous artists of the Amazon Rainforest.


A makeup artist born in Rio de Janeiro, trained in Los Angeles, and working with Brazilian film and TV projects, Santana met her future business partner, anthropologist Fernando Niemeyer and, in 2010, decided to join him on a visit to one of the Amazon territories, dedicated to the Kraô nation. “Fernando had helped organize their annual event when all artisans exchange materials, especially seeds”, Santana recalls, talking via Zoom from Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro. “That was my first contact with indigenous people. Like most Brazilians, I knew very little about them– at school, we normally hear a very vague, folkloric description of these nations. I had never been in touch with the true Brazilian culture, the culture of our first inhabitants.  I was stunned by my own ignorance and dazzled by their art. All pieces were absolutely gorgeous.”


Santana was immediately drawn by the women artisans, the masters who, working with her hands and very simple tools, create necklaces, bracelets, earrings, baskets, cloth, all with natural materials from the bounty of the Amazon forest. “I bought tons of pieces for myself”, Santana recalls. “Each one was more beautiful than the other.”  When some artisans approached her at the end of the event, offering pieces to “be sold in the South” (Amazon inhabitants call the rest of the country “the South”), Santana was, at the same time, shocked and excited. “The prices they quoted “for the South” were ridiculously low”, Santana describes. “They were used to selling their pieces to Rio and São Paulo stores, mostly for tourist shops, at very, very low prices. Ridiculous low prices. Their work was not recognized, and their art wasn’t valued at all. My mind couldn’t stop thinking about a way to break this wall. These artists had no access to the market, the shops, the buyers.”



Santana wouldn’t stop thinking – in the next three years, she would visit other territories, learning more about their art, their materials. “One thing that caught my attention was that many times the artisans would create pieces with things like hearts and flowers, elements that had nothing to do with their art. These were the pieces that they tried to sell in their local cities. And at the same time, they make stunning pieces for themselves, for their community. Necklaces, bracelets for rituals, for celebrations, for daily life. I couldn’t stop thinking about it – I needed to find a way to show their high esthetic.”

Three years after her first visit to the Amazon, Santana and Niemeyer founded and launched Tucum – “a social technology initiative, a tool for these groups of artists to have direct access to the qualified market. A strategy that aims to strengthen their culture, and more – protecting their territories and the forest.”


Named after one of the most generous trees of the Amazon, Tucum started out with pieces from 20 nations, offered at market prices. “From the beginning our core was twofold”, Santana explains. “With one arm, reaching out to the communities of the Amazon, with the other, bringing their art straight to the market with no intermediates, no bargains.”


Five years later, Tucum has evolved from the combo brick-and-mortar shop (“we had a showcase store in my garage”) to a strong marketplace that now offers, digitally,  pieces from 40 Amazon nations, available to both stores and direct buyers. “Each group of artisans has its own shop online”, Santana explains. “We don’t sell Tucum merchandise. We offer pieces from the Kayapó, the Kraô, the Paracanã, the Aniwa, from Tocantins, from Xingu, from Acre, from the Warrior Women of Rondônia.”


All pieces are made 100% from materials sourced from the forest, and created by hand, following the centuries-old techniques learned from mother to daughter. When Santana visited one community and noted that their pieces were beautiful but frail, she wanted to know why. After some conversation, it became clear that the new generations of artisans had lost the technique of weaving a strong and thin thread. “Only the old ones know”, they told her. After some local research, the younger artisans learned how to do it from the women from another village, where the technique was going on strong, thanks to the elder weavers and artists, and an abundance of one determined plant named “abacaxizinho”. “It was all via WhatsApp”, Santana smiles. “I love it. It’s part of their self-esteem.”

The unique beauty of the pieces, Santana says, is, at the same time, an expression of each nation’s esthetic, and the evolution of the artist’s choices. “Culture is very dynamic. It’s alive, creative, it’s new, it’s part of daily life. Very often I see pieces that don’t look like nothing I had seen before.”


Besides their mixture of beauty, strength, and uniqueness, each piece has “something else”. “Each design has a story, it can only be made at certain times of the year, and many are made while a story is told, with a tale, a poem, a song”, Santana says. “Sometimes the artisans say – this one will be more expensive because it needs its own story, in another time. This is so beautiful. I love sitting down with them, having a coffee with them, chatting with them for hours and hours.”

More than ever the support of the indigenous people is crucial not only for Brazil but for the whole world. Under the current presidency, the Amazon rainforest has seen the worst deforestation ever, and a new gold rush has been destroying entire generations. “Mining has spread into the forest nonstop”, Santana says. “The indigenous villages have been attacked, and the fear grows. The water has been polluted by mercury. In some villages, the women have decided to not have children, for fear of their babies being born poisoned. 100% of the population in the mining areas already has mercury in their blood. The fishes are contaminated, the rivers are contaminated.”


Amanda Santana and Tucum have gone beyond the beauty of Brazilian indigenous art. “This work has become a true passion for me”, Santana says. “Craftsmanship is a tool of protection, of resistance. It’s more than a beautiful, unique piece. It’s safeguarding the Amazon Rainforest and its people. A piece, say, a bracelet, made by one person, is part of 522 years of struggle for their existence. The money obtained by the sale of a piece is sustenance, it’s buying medicine, a pair of sandals, and gasoline for the boat that takes its owner to the nearby village. It’s a way to support the families  and keep them in their territories, and while they are in their territories so is the forest.”