Waves of heat lift as we disembark our dugout canoe on the banks of a snaking tributary of the Madre de Dios River in the Peruvian Amazon. We are entering Vilma Zegarra’s forest concession, not far from the Bolivian border. It is February, high summer, and peak harvest season for castañeros like Zegarra, who manage large tracts of natural forests for the production of Brazil nuts.
We walk a narrow track through this patch of forest at the edge of the Tambopata National Reserve. Flinty blue butterflies circle off the forest floor, parrots fly overhead in pairs. Soon we reach a clutch of mature Brazil nut trees soaring into the canopy above. Several appear to be producing a bumper crop of fruits this year. Called cocos locally (they look like miniature coconuts), each pod that drops to the forest floor contains up to two dozen seeds – the prized nuts that are dried, shelled, and exported, mostly to the US and Europe.
In a region with one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, the conservation of biodiversity-rich natural forest through Brazil nut production stands as a compelling counterpoint. Concessionaires like Zegarra manage close to a million hectares of forest in the Madre de Dios region, a formerly remote corner of southeastern Peru. The forests here are coming under increasing pressure for conversion to agriculture and mining since the completion of the Interoceanic Highway, which links the capital city of Lima to Brazil.
A recent analysis by the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute found that during the last 10 years, Madre de Dios lost more than 400,000 hectares of forest, roughly equivalent to the land area of Rhode Island. A local conservation group, AIDER (Asociación para la Investigación y el Desarrollo Integral), has projected that if current trends continue, more than double that amount will disappear by 2030.
Forests managed for Brazil nut production boast biodiversity on par with untouched forests.
From the air, one of the chief drivers of deforestation here is starkly evident. The rivers are raked from their banks at varying turns, gnarly clusters of gold mines spreading like artificial floodplains, bound by toxic oxbows of mine tailings and makeshift camps. As gold prices skyrocketed globally during the last decade, thousands of small-scale operations – nearly all illegal and unregulated – hemorrhaged into the forest along road and river corridors. A 2011 report by Peru’s Environment Ministry, titled “Time Bomb,” found that mining alone has deforested more than 32,000 hectares and dumped more than 3,000 tons of mercury into the region’s waterways since the year 2000.
At the same time, illegal logging continues to drive forest degradation and threaten local communities. In a 2012 report called “The Laundering Machine,” the Environmental Investigation Agency chronicled widespread corruption in the Peruvian forest sector, presenting evidence that up to 90 percent of the mahogany exported from the country was illegally logged. As one of the three key timber-producing regions in the Amazon, Madre de Dios figured prominently in the startling exposé, which highlighted the case of Julio Garcia Agapito, a Brazil nut producer and local official, who was murdered in 2008 after reporting the trafficking of illegal wood. Six years later, no one has been charged with the killing, though it took place in a forestry control office and was witnessed by several people.
In the midst of this frontier country, the success of Brazil nut harvesting – a low-impact industry that relies on the maintenance of large tracts of intact forest and is largely managed by small local producers – might seem like a surprising anomaly. But, in fact, global evidence is mounting that productive, locally managed forests can be more effective than state-administered preserves in maintaining forest cover and safeguarding ecosystem services. Such managed forests have grown significantly during the past 20 years and now account for more than 30 percent of forests in the tropics. A 2012 analysis by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that community-managed forests across the tropics had lower deforestation rates than protected areas. The bulk of such forests, however, is managed for high-value products such as precious timber species – not a commodity as humble as the Brazil nut.
The first European to lay eyes on a Brazil nut in this part of the Amazon was probably Juan Álvarez Maldonado, who in the 1560s led a Spanish expedition into what is now the Madre de Dios region. After several years afield, and having lost most of his men to disease and battle, Maldonado returned to Cusco bedraggled and half insane, claiming to have found the lost Inca city of Paititi. While this turned out to be fantasy, stories of his troops surviving on Brazil nuts for weeks on end seem more plausible. The nut is rich in oils, protein, and a host of important nutrients, including selenium, which is known to help combat ovarian cancer. Locals usually eat the nuts raw, but today they’re mostly sold dried and salted. The oil extracted from Brazil nuts is used for cooking and also for making soaps. Its husk can be fashioned into ashtrays or little boxes, or be burned for fuel – the smoke is said to drive away mosquitoes and blackflies.
The species was first scientifically described in 1808, when the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt encountered it in Venezuela. He called it Bertholletia excelsa, employing the Latin word for “tall.” Indeed, it is one of the giants of the forest. Brazil nut trees can reach 60 meters in height and two meters in diameter. Humboldt is said to have paid an ounce of gold to the brave soul who was willing to scale the tree to pluck a flower for botanical description. Found only in South America – primarily in Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru – where it occurs in lowland areas on well-drained, firm soils, Brazil nut is thought to be the longest-living tree in the Amazon, capable of surviving for more than a thousand years.
Flowering occurs at the end of the dry season and the blooms last only for a day. Pollination is carried out by orchid bees, whose reluctance to visit even secondary or fragmented forests is thought to be the primary reason why efforts to establish Brazil nut plantations have failed. As a result, the nut remains one of the few non-timber forest products with wide international market demand that comes exclusively from natural forests. Once pollinated, fruit development takes slightly more than a year, and the maturing pods provide food for an array of forest species. Pods drop to the forest floor during the rainy season – from January to March – and inside there are anywhere from 10-25 seeds, arranged much like the wedges of a grapefruit.
The agouti – a cat-sized rodent with sharp teeth and tough jaws – plays a critical role in the Brazil nut life cycle. A majority of the hard-shelled cocos that are broken open are penetrated by agoutis, releasing the seeds and allowing for natural regeneration. As a scatter-hoarder, the agouti is both a seed predator and disperser: It eats only a share of the seeds at once, burying the rest for later. Luckily for the Brazil nut tree, agoutis, like squirrels with acorns, forget where they have buried a significant share of their cache.
As important as the agouti is to regeneration, humans are also central to the ecology of Brazil nuts. Amerindians in the Amazon Basin have harvested the nuts for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Research indicates that the current geographical distribution of the species is a direct result of Indigenous cultivation practices. Local groups are known to have carried and planted seeds on trips through the forest. A Peruvian ecologist, Enrique G. Ortiz, has observed a single-aged line of old Brazil nut trees marking a former forest trail in Madre de Dios.
Moreover, harvested areas appear to have a greater abundance of Brazil nut trees than areas where harvesting has historically been more limited. This is largely because harvesters collect only about half of the Brazil nuts in the managed stands. Where cocos are harvested, a considerable amount of “accidental dispersal” occurs as workers crack open the tough pods with machetes; seed also falls from sacks when they are transported out of the forest. In spite of the hunting that castañeros often undertake while harvesting, managed stands are correlated with higher concentrations of agouti than areas with no harvesting.
What is notable from a conservation perspective is how little impact the activity has on forest biodiversity – certainly far less than selective logging. Studies have demonstrated that forests managed for Brazil nut production – which involves little more than the collection of coco fruit-fall from the forest floor – boast biodiversity and ecosystem service values on par with untouched forests. In particular, the macaw – a paragon of biodiversity that is endangered in the wild – is a lover of the Brazil nut fruit as it ripens in the forest canopy.
All of this is good news for the forest, especially since there are now more than one thousand Brazil nut concessions covering close to a million hectares in Madre de Dios alone. But the effectiveness of the industry as a conservation tool ultimately turns on its profitability, and in this regard the future of Brazil nut forests is uncertain.
Although a relatively minor player in the world nut trade, Brazil nut production is extremely important to local economies, especially in Madre de Dios. Estimates vary, but most agree that up to half of the population in the region relies either directly or indirectly on the Brazil nut trade, which involves concession holders, harvesters, river transporters, shellers, traders and middlemen, and the administrative staff of local processing enterprises.
For most people involved, Brazil nut harvesting accounts for more than half of family income, although the work is usually done in a period of just three months. Significantly, nearly a third of the concession holders are women, and women also make up a disproportionate share of the labor force for the nut-processing industry. This fact alone puts Brazil nut forests starkly at odds with most forest enterprises globally – even community-run concerns – which typically are dominated by men.
The bad news is that demand for the Brazil nut is falling. Its share of the world nut market has continued to drop since the 1970s and is now less than 2 percent of the global edible nut trade. Far from the days when it enjoyed favored status as the “Christmas nut” in nineteenth-century Britain, the Brazil nut is increasingly filler material: Demand typically only increases when there are supply problems with preferred nuts such as cashews, almonds, and pistachios. (Most readers likely have pushed aside many a Brazil nut while trying to root out hidden cashews in the party mix.)
Considerable price volatility does not help matters. For producers like Zegarra, the past few years have been a rollercoaster. Between 2009 and 2011, the average market price for Brazil nuts jumped from $1.85 to $4.60 a pound. By the end of 2013, however, the price had plummeted back down to less than $2.00. Meanwhile, transport costs have grown considerably. So, in spite of the good harvest, Zegarra’s business remains on shaky ground.
In response, increasing numbers of producers are trying to position the Brazil nut in the global marketplace as a sustainably harvested product, capitalizing on its role in the conservation of important tracts of Amazon forest. (This in stark contrast to the cashew, for example, which is responsible for widespread deforestation in places like Cambodia.) Backing this approach, environmental groups are promoting Brazil nut consumption with slogans like “Eat Brazil Nuts, Save the Rainforest.” Certification regimes like the Forest Stewardship Council, Fair Trade, and organic can be helpful in cornering such niche markets, but the costs of achieving and maintaining such certifications can be high. Requirements around documenting harvesting practices, chain of custody, and worker conditions – to name a few – must be put in place and then audited periodically by third-party bodies. These expenses are difficult to bear given harvesters’ already precarious financial situation.
With the support of local and international NGOs, producers have begun banding together to form cooperative enterprises that share the costs of certification, achieve scale, cut out middlemen, invest in processing equipment, and engage in their own marketing. One group, the Asociación de Castañeros de la Reserva Nacional Tambopata (ASCART), for whom Zegarra has served as vice-president, has won support from government programs and invested in processing equipment. The association now sells its members’ product directly to buyers, instead of to middlemen, at approximately double the price.
Another group, Candela, offers zero-interest credit to producers and is working to diversify production and market new derivative products such as cookies, soap, and Brazil nut oil, made from broken or lower quality seeds that would otherwise be discarded. (Full disclosure: The author works for the Rainforest Alliance, which assists both ASCART and Candela, as well as several other groups in Madre de Dios.)
But between continuing price volatility, decreasing market demand, and the growing pressure to convert natural forest to other uses, there is no question that the Brazil nut industry faces an uncertain future. A recent paper by CIFOR found that new and overlapping land use rights are increasingly being granted on existing Brazil nut concessions in Madre de Dios, including those that permit agricultural development and mining. The study found that more than 80,000 hectares within concession areas have already been titled for other uses.
While Brazil nut concessionaires like Zegarra face mounting land-tenure insecurity, Indigenous groups (called “Native Communities” in Peru) are winning rights to ancestral forests that contain Brazil nut trees as part of a wave of Indigenous land titling and tenure devolution taking hold in many countries in the Americas, including Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Brazil. To date, 31 Native Communities representing an array of ethnic groups – including the Haramkbut, Shipibo, Ese’ Eja, Amahuaca, Matsiguenga, Yine, and Quichua Runa – have been granted title to nearly 400,000 hectares of land. Additionally, the Amarekaeri communal reserve, which is “co-managed” with state agencies, as well as areas reserved for Indigenous groups in “voluntary isolation,” cover more than 1.2 million hectares in the region.
The hand-over of ancestral forests in Madre de Dios to Native Communities has the potential to dramatically alter the face of forest conservation efforts in the region, marking a shift from strictly protected reserves toward a model that is more similar to that of the Brazil nut concessions. But Indigenous groups, too, have to contend with the same threats as the concessionaires from overlapping mining and cattle ranching use rights, while also having to negotiate internal pressures within the community as they seek to hold onto forests that are legally common property.
The recent experiences of the Tres Islas community provide a vivid illustration of the challenges Native Communities face. Some 80 kilometers upriver from Zegarra’s concession, situated between the river and the new highway, the community’s 31,000 hectares stand at the deforestation frontier. Since receiving title to the land, Tres Islas – which is comprised of Esa’ Eja and Shipibo native groups – has seen an increase in invasions of its forest area by illegal gold miners coming from outside the Indigenous territory. While community leaders have authorized six mining operations, which pay a fixed-rate tax to a communal development fund, another two dozen have established themselves without approval and pay no dividends to the community.
The ramshackle camps around these operations have added to the already significant level of soil and water pollution that the mining activities bring. In some of the bigger operations, informal bars have sprung up – some the size of nightclubs, blaring music over the calls of nocturnal wildlife. And as is common in mining boom areas, prostitution is rife. The incidence of both HIV and Hepatitis B has reportedly spiked, as has trafficking of young girls to serve in the sex trade.
Although many workers are not from the community, Indigenous leader Cesar Racua reports that “local people go to work in the mines, too, especially young people, because they pay so well.” An average household that sends men to the mines can make close to US $500 in a good week, which is a small fortune in these communities.
At the same time, illegal logging has increased. Because the community has title and, at least on paper, extracts less than 600 cubic meters of roundwood per year from the forests, Tres Islas does not need a long-term forest management plan. This “simplified” forestry regulation, which is meant to increase rural incomes by lessening the bureaucratic burden, has been exploited by a small number of families to sell off their valuable and dwindling timber to outsiders, instead of reinvesting in sustainable forestry and local development, as stipulated by the communal authority. Their profits, however, are meager in comparison to the market price for wood.
“The land-use plans agreed [on] by many of the native communities as a precondition for their titles have in many cases not been followed,” says Martin Huaypuna from the Indigenous Forest Associations of Madre de Dios. “While the communities have titles on paper, in reality their capacity to stop illegal activities on their lands is still very low.”
But the tide may be turning. With support from a Lima-based legal group, Tres Islas brought a case before Peru’s highest court to defend its “territorial integrity.” In September 2012, the court came down clearly on the side of the community, not only upholding its right to ancestral lands, but also granting it the exclusive right to determine access to local resources. The decision has major legal implications for Native Communities across the country.
For Racua and other community leaders, the next step is to build locally owned enterprises based on sustainable management principles. Work is ongoing to inventory forest resources and draw up long-range management and business plans. The experience of Brazil nut concessions indicates that planning for a diversity of incomes – from both forest and non-forest sources – will be critical.
Although much has been lost in the past few years, there is a considerable base upon which to build, including a long tradition of local harvesting practices that have sustained timber and non-timber forest products like the Brazil nut for centuries. During a recent visit to Tres Islas, Racua pointed out a section of the forest that had been closed off to mining. “That area is protected, native forest,” he said. “It is reserved for the Brazil nut.”
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