The nut that could help save the Amazon

Posted: 19 November 2002

Author: Stephanie Boyd

The Brazil nut tree is part of the delicate web of life in the Amazon - and its harvesters are seen as the 'guardians' of the forest. However, falling prices and high transport costs are threatening this industry run mainly by small family businesses. Stephanie Boyd reports from Peru on the plight now facing the Brazil nut harvesters.

brazil nutsAlthough many of the nuts are exported with their shells (center), they fetch a higher price when they are peeled. Unshelled nuts are also in demand by companies that use the oil in their products such as soap, shampoo, and body lotions.© Enrique Ortiz/Amazon Conservation AssociationNilton Martinez's neighbours think his family is odd. The Martinez family have a 300-hectare plot of forest next to Tambopata National Reserve in Peru's south-eastern Amazon rainforest. But instead of cutting down the forest for farmland like other homesteaders in the area, the Martinez family harvest Brazil nuts.

The Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) is found in the forests of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. It is one of the Amazon's longest-living trees, often reaching an age of 1,000 years, and has a very complex and specialized biology. Its flowers depend on orchid bees for pollination. Once pollinated, a coconut-sized seed pod containing some 20 seeds, or nuts, develops for over 15 months before falling to the forest floor. The only way for the nuts to get out of the seed pod is if a three-kilogram rodent, the agouti, releases them. Squirrel-like in appearance and habits, the industrious agouti - the only forest creature capable of gnawing through the fallen seed pods - eats some nuts and buries others for the future, inadvertently planting new trees.

Forest guardians

Brazil nuts don't just make good food for agoutis - people like them too. Attempts to cultivate the tree on plantations have failed, making Brazil nuts the only commercial nut found exclusively in Amazon forests. "This important distinction has converted Brazil nut harvesters into guardians of the forest," explains Martinez.

There are about 1,000 Brazil nut concessions in and around the Tambopata National Reserve. When side activities such as transportation and processing are considered, the Brazil nut industry generates employment for some 20,000 people - or 25 per cent of the Amazonian state of Madre de Dios. Concessions are granted by the Peruvian government and harvesters must pay a tax based on production. Most operations are small family businesses, struggling to meet basic needs during the short January-March harvesting season.

The work is exhausting, even for the hardy. Harvesters use machetes to split open the hard seed pod and empty the tiny nuts inside, still in their dark-brown shells, into large sacks. A full sack weighs 75-85 kilograms, and must be carried out of the forest on the harvester's back, attached by a strap around the forehead. Some of these sturdy adventurers walk for several hours before reaching a road or river to transport their cargo to processing plants, where the nuts are shelled and packaged for sale.

Martinez decided there must be a better way. He and a brother teamed up with other harvesters and the Amazon Conservation Association (ACCA) to devise simple methods to improve their labour. One of Martinez's favourites is a small, human-powered cart that enables harvesters to wheel numerous sacks out of the forest at a time. The team has also mapped over 40,000 hectares of Brazil nut forest concessions to help harvesters' activities. In addition, they produced a short, local television series. The show's star attraction is the legendary Don Pancho, an elderly Brazil nut harvester who teaches the trade to his young nephew and a visiting student, accompanied by his sense of wit and trusty guitar.

Nut campaign

But falling prices threaten the struggling industry: just two years ago Brazil nuts were fetching more than double their current rate. Peruvians outside the Amazon have not yet acquired a taste for the homebred nut, leaving Brazil nuts at the mercy of the international market which favours cashews, almonds, and peanuts. frog found in brazil nut podRecently, scientists discovered a species of frog specialized only for breeding inside empty Brazil nut pods.© Enrique Ortiz/Amazon Conservation Association"Marketing is a major problem," says Vanessa Sequeira, field director of ACCA's Brazil nut project, explaining that most people outside the Amazon are not aware of the nut's important conservation role. In response, the group mounted a consumer education campaign under the banner "Save the Amazon, eat a Brazil nut". The ACCA, together with WWF, also promoted certification of Brazil nut forests. In March 2001, Peru's standard for Brazil nut harvesting was recognized by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) - the first FSC standard for a non-timber forest product.

Despite these advances, Sequeira worries that time is running out for the majority of Peru's harvesters. This past year she says many could not afford to harvest their concessions because of low prices and high transportation. In addition, the Peruvian government has not yet established a regulatory framework that would facilitate Brazil-nut harvesting. If the trend continues, many harvesters could be forced to turn to damaging extractive industries for economic survival, like panning for gold or slash-and-burn agriculture, converting these long-time friends of the forest into foes.

Apart from orchid bees, agoutis, and the Brazil nut harvesters, the life of many other plants and animals is intertwined with this tree. The empty seed pods, fill with rainwater and provide breeding grounds for damselflies, a poison frog, and a toad, all of whom depend on these small ponds on the forest floor. The major threat to the trees - and the myriad of life that relies on them - is forest clearing. Sustainable harvesting of Brazil nuts is therefore a vital way to provide protection of Peru's forests. So do what the slogan says - eat a Brazil nut and save the Amazon!

Stephanie Boyd is a freelance journalist based in Peru.Related links:Brazil Nut ProjectAmazon Conservation Association WWF Forests for Life Programme