Are Brazil nuts the saviors of the Amazon basin?

September 12, 2017

A worker processes Brazil nuts in Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo by M. Simola/CIFOR

Study reexamines the Amazon region’s ‘cornerstone of conservation’.

Want to invest directly in the preservation of the Amazon? Buying Brazil nuts might well be your simplest strategy, says Peter Cronkleton, coauthor of a new study that assesses Brazil nut exploitation from a socioecological perspective.

The weighty, nutritious nuts seem something of a poster child for the concept of ‘conservation through use’. The trees they grow on are Amazonian forest giants that can reach over 50 meters in height and live up to 400 years.

The softball-sized fruit – each containing around 20 nuts – are collected from the forest floor in rainy months by forest-based harvesters, who maintain customary rights to the resource in many areas.

As coauthor Amy Duchelle confirms, “it’s something that’s sustaining thousands of families in that region, while essentially giving value to standing forest.” It’s a relatively sustainable system, she says – but one that’s under threat.

SAME FOREST, DIFFERENT FRAMEWORKS

The southwestern Amazon region in which most Brazil nuts grow spans three countries: Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. Prior to the 20th century, the area was not clearly defined by national boundaries, but was held by rubber barons and populated by their laborers, Cronkleton explains.

When boundaries were established, different political frameworks affected how people defined access, what types of rights they had in the forest, and how well they were linked to national markets, he says. “So to a certain extent it’s a natural experiment showing how people adapt under different forest governance contexts in each country.”

Freshly harvested Brazil nuts await processing in Peru. Photo by M. Simola/CIFOR

As Duchelle adds, “it’s really interesting: you’ve got a similar forest ecosystem, but the way it’s being used is totally different just by crossing the border. We’re talking about 30 kilometers [between some study sites] and it’s a completely different world.”

On the Brazilian side of the border, in the state of Acre, Brazil nuts are “just one component of a much more diverse livelihood portfolio,” says Duchelle. The recent construction of new roads and infrastructure, coupled with a strong cattle culture, is increasing the temptation for locals to clear forested land for cattle ranching at the expense of Brazil nut-rich forest.

In neighboring Pando, Bolivia, communities are much more reliant on the Brazil nut harvest, as it’s “really one of the main livelihood activities they’ve got going on,” she says. There, a more pressing issue is contested and incomplete titles to Brazil nut tree stands, which make it difficult for residents to claim and defend their resources, adds Cronkleton.

Read more: What’s in a land title?

Similarly, he explains, in the adjacent Madre de Dios region of Peru, the complex concession system poses challenges, because concession areas for Brazil nut harvesting are not always well-defined, and often overlap with those for agriculture and mining, all of which can drive deforestation. On top of this, regulations for Brazil nut extraction and other forest products such as timber often generate conflict of use within the same concession forest.

Lead author Manuel Guariguata, a Principal Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), adds that “our study is so far the only one drawing together a comprehensive set of literature representing the three countries which produce all of the Brazil nut consumed globally. Although there have been many studies that examined different aspects of Brazil nuts across the Amazon basin, these usually have taken a more narrow focus.”

Brazil nut fruits are piled up, ready to be hacked open to extract the nuts. Photo by M. Simola/CIFOR

THREATS AND OPPORTUNITIES

While Brazil nut trees are protected from logging by law in all three countries, intensive deforestation in surrounding areas can affect the productivity of the trees, explains ecologist Pieter Zuidema, another coauthor of the study. It can also affects harvesters’ ability to cope with the high natural variation in Brazil nut tree productivity from year to year.

Usually, in low-yield years, “what Brazil nut harvesters do is go deeper into the forest [to look for nuts]. With increasing deforestation, that potential is not there anymore. So it reduces the resilience of the whole system,” says Zuidema.

However, he adds, defending Brazil nut-rich forest does not necessarily mean preventing people from doing anything else there. If done well, integrated management of multiple forest uses, such as low-intensity timber harvest and ecotourism, combined with Brazil nut harvesting, could prove both profitable and sustainable.

Read more: Moving past tree planting, expanding our definition of forests and restoration

The UN-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) scheme also offers an opportunity to make Brazil nut-rich forest preservation more financially viable, through initiatives that compensate locals for keeping forests standing. This will likely require more clarity about people’s rights to land and trees, as well as how benefits are distributed, agree Duchelle and Cronkleton.

Stabilizing international prices for the nuts may also help the system remain viable. Often seen as the ‘poor cousin’ of high-end products such as hazelnuts, Brazil nut prices rise and fall erratically around the fortunes of other nut types, says Cronkleton. Enhancing state and private-sector support for the resource system, and broadening Brazil nut consumption through building consumer awareness of their health benefits, seem important pieces of the puzzle.

AN ETHICAL, EDIBLE INVESTMENT

So back to those heavy, dense nuts in the mixed-nuts packs and the health-food shops. It’s true, they’re inconveniently bigger than bite-size, admits Cronkleton, and they may not have the sweetness of almonds, or the creaminess of cashews.

But they’re high in selenium (a trace element with antioxidant properties that is deficient in many soils) and the fatty acids that help reduce heart disease. And what other Amazonian forest product could you buy with such confidence in the social and environmental ethics of your purchase?

Duchelle confesses that she doesn’t really like the taste of them any more, after eating far too many, fresh off the forest floor, during her fieldwork in the region. “But I eat them anyway!” she proclaims with laughter and conviction, “Because it’s a way to support Amazonian livelihoods.”

By Monica Evans, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

For more information on this topic, please contact Manuel Guariguata at m.guariguata@cgiar.org.


This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

This research was supported by the KNOWFOR program from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID)

Copyright 2017 @ CGIAR Research Program - Forests, Trees and Agroforestry