Reviving the ramón nut: An ancient food offers new hope for fighting malnutrition
The ramón nut is technically the seed of a tropical fruit, which ripens and falls to the forest floor. In the Petén region of Guatemala, this food was once a staple in the ancient Mayan diet and may also be called Maya nut. The food has continued to be eaten in the region for centuries, but thanks to new processing techniques it’s poised to become a major tool in the fight against malnutrition.
Forestry expert Jorge Soza is one of the people working to promote the benefits of ramón and to educate people about harvesting it sustainably. He said that traditionally, the nut has been ground up into a thick porridge-like drink called "atol" or mixed into tortilla meal. New technology has allowed the ramón nut to be roasted and ground into flour, which can be used make all kinds of cookies, bread, cakes, soups and even a coffee-like beverage. The ramón fruit has a sweet flavor comparable to a mango, while the roasted flour has a nuttiness that’s a bit like almond and a bit like cocoa.
José Román Carrera, who works throughout Central America for Rainforest Alliance and grew up in the Petén, said that the ramón nut has been typically eaten only during the harvest season when it falls. However, when the nut is roasted it can be stored without spoiling for up to five years. “We want to promote local consumption,” he said. Over the past five years, Rainforest Alliance has been working with forest communities to realize this goal, and also building capacity for an export market.
© Margaret Badore. Ramón nuts are harvested from the rainforest floor.
The nuts are a boon to an area that faces challenges with both food shortages during droughts and childhood malnutrition. The nut is high in fiber and calcium, and is also a source of protein, potassium, iron and other vitamins. Its flour is more nutritious than corn or rice. Rainforest Alliance helped run a pilot project that provided schools with snacks fortified with ramon nut flour, because food served at school is often one of the most important sources of calories for many children. Twenty-two schools participated in the pilot, which was well received. Now, Román Carrera said they are trying to work with the Minister of Education to purchase ramón nut products for more schools in the region. According to the World Food Program, about 70 percent of the population in Guatemala's indigenous areas face chronic undernutrition.
© Margaret Badore. The ramón processing processing facility has created job opportunities for women.
© Margaret Badore. Ramón nuts drying in the sun.
Ramon nut processing is also creating employment opportunities for women. A group of forest community members have formed the “Comité de Condena de Valor de la Nuez de Ramón,” a committee that collectively operates a processing facility. Benedicta Dionisio, the committee president, said that the facility employs 50 women who work on a rotating basis, and can earn more than the local minimum wage per day. Although the jobs are not full-time, women in this area have few employment opportunities, and working at the processing facility is a welcome source of supplementary income.
About 200 ramón nut collectors are also members of the committee. Although towering ramón trees are abundant in the forests of Guatemala, the participating communities live in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, so their activities must follow a sustainable management plan. Carlos Góngora, who is the president of one community-managed forest concession within the reserve, explained how it was important to map where all the ramón nut trees are found in their concession. Once they have created this map, the nuts will only be collected from a few sections of the concession at a time, and 20 percent of the nuts will be left for animals or to seed the next generation of trees.
Forester Jorge Soza said that the ramón nut has become a source of pride for forest communities and connection to their indigenous past. As he ran his fingers over a harvest drying in the sun on mesh screens, he said that the ramón is a reminder of their culture.
Travel for this reporting sponsored by Rainforest Alliance.