Eating Brazil Nuts Protects the Amazon Rainforest - Literally


Image via: Author's collection

Probably the most entertaining interview we conducted during my South American tour with Green Living Project was interviewing Brazil Nut Concession Owners, and in particular, Patricio León. This 75 year old man has been harvesting brazil nuts since he was about 14 years old and is still out doing it, though he admits that now he has staff to help with the work because he's not as young as he once was. If you're not familiar with brazil nuts, but have ever eaten a can of mixed nuts, then you've probably eaten or at least seen a brazil nut. They're the really large moon-sliver shaped nuts that you usually find hanging out at the bottom of the canister. Listen up, because eating those directly helps to protect the rainforest. So who cares about brazil nuts and why does eating them protect the rainforest? Well, when it comes down to it brazil nuts (or castañas, in Spanish) only really grow under healthy, pristine conditions in the rainforest. Thus far, farmers and commercial organizations haven't really successfully been able to grow the trees in brazil nut plantations, so eating them means you are supporting healthy rainforests. Farmers can't chop down the surrounding trees to more easily get to the brazil nut trees (which are typically found 1-2 per hectare), because the trees won't produce as well as if they were in a healthy, primary forest. Patricio told us that the trees that were in "secondary forest" areas produce 2/3 or fewer "seeds" compared with trees that are grow in primary rainforest.

In addition, there are certain species of bees that are well-designed to pollinate the flowers of the brazil nut trees and they are much more prevalent in healthy primary forests. Secondary forests have bees, though fewer, and therefore less pollination, and fewer cocos produced. Purchasing brazil nuts keeps the farmers employed and also their employees employed and puts a value on the forest. Reforestation does not pay the bills so in order to put a value on the rainforest, locals have to find a way to generate income - be it good or bad. To preserve forests there must be a greater incentive to keep forests intact rather than to put the forest to other purposes like mining, logging and hunting. When farmers can make a good living keeping the forest as is, then they will have less incentive to cut it down.


Image via: Author's collection.

Currently the price of brazil nuts is very low on the world nut market, meaning that this year farmers are earning almost $50 solis for a bag of brazil nuts, compared with the $150 solis that they earned for the same sized bag last year. Brazil nuts are large, oily, heavy and thus are harder to sell. When nut prices go down on the world market, brazil nuts are typically the first to take the fall. One year does not determine whether they will stay with the business — Patricio has been at it for almost a century, plus the man is enterprising and has several other ventures to diversify income — but if prices say depressed then companies cannot continue to employ harvesters and people will have to look for other forms of work — typically hunting, logging or mining.

Brazil Nuts — Where Do They Come From?

Image via: Author's collection.

One of the most entertaining parts of the trip was our hike through the rainforest where Patricio gave us a guided tour of the brazil nut stands. Apparently the nuts grow in "cocos" think: medium sized coconut, which are just as hard, and can be found at the tops of these 150 foot trees - some of the tallest in the Amazon. Farmers can't enter the forest from November until February until all of these cocos have fallen because they are deadly and have been known to kill people. Unfortunately, just this season, a farmer was sitting at the base of one of these trees cracking cocos, only to be thumped on his noggin by one and it was lights out for him. When it's safe, farmers then go to the base of each tree and collect the cocos, making a pile. Each healthy, happy tree typically produces 500 cocos each season. Then farmers crack the cocos open and take the brazil nuts out — each coco contains 15 brazil nuts. The cocos are large, and rather heavy en masse, so the farmers remove the brazil nuts and then carry just the meat back to the main processing facility.


Image via: Alexander Yellen

Back at camp, the nuts are collected in a large room until its time to dry them out. They then lay on a special drying tray (some are just laid on the ground in a marked out grid, but these cannot be sold as organic if dried in this method — that requires a structure that is off-ground and more sanitary). Once dried, the nuts are then collected and soaked for roughly 12 hours to loosten up the shells. Then the nuts are ready to be harvested by hand with a regular nut cracker and then loaded up to be sold.

The Future of Brazil Nuts

Patricio currently owns a 40-year "lease" on his brazil nut concession but is honest in his acceptance that he won't live to see this lease through to the end. So, instead he has to find a worthy replacement who won't sell out and sell the forest to the highest bidder. Clearly the forest has meant more to him than just a job these last 75 years.

Raiders have also become increasingly more bold in taking part of the concession. While the owner technically has legal rights to the land, if raiders come in and burn the edges of the area down to create agriculture pursuits there isn't much a landowner can do. The government has been slow to react and Park Rangers are in the area to help distinguish property lines and look for available land, they also aren't always available in time. If the fires take off, they can burn uncontrolled and destroy even more land. It will either be up to concession owners to band together and come up with a solution, or find more alternative uses for the forest so that area is not cut down for farming.

Final Parting Notes from Patricio
When asked why he never left the area, why he stuck with this land through thick and thin, he wisely replied that, "I am from this land. I love this land. I could have left before but the deer is always called by the forest. I have to stay here." As we are finishing up the interview, Patricio, always the joker and being the witty old man that he is, decides to give us some parting advice. So as the sun is setting, he looks over to us and says, "You may wonder why I have so many kids [12 by the way]. Well, we didn't have electricity or tv, so what else was there to do?" :Green Living Project
This spring Green Living Project took their crew down to South America to capture sustainability in action, learn from the stories of the people on the front lines of conservation and prove that something can be done to improve the planet. Brazil, Peru and Ecuador were the target countries for this trip, and I was asked to tag along. Over the next few weeks I will be reporting from the front lines.
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Tags: Amazonia | Conservation | Deforestation | Farming | Peru