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A good time for Brazil nuts

Collecting brazil nuts in the Amazon forest (Kristen Evans)
Collecting brazil nuts in the Amazon forest
Kristen Evans

Deep in the remote northern part of the Amazon forest in Pando, Bolivia, the air is thick with anticipation, as thousands of people pour into the rainforest from their villages. For three months of the year the Brazil nut causes a stir, as harvesting the region's most important cash crop begins. Brazil nut trees can reach fifty metres in height, and grow in the rainforests of Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. The shells are the size of grapefruit, with the nut sections packed inside. Brazil nuts are one of the few Amazonian forest products that are highly lucrative with strong international demand, yet appear to have minimal negative impact on the forest when harvested. And yet, despite the boom in Brazil nut prices in 2004, continuing land disputes have hindered communities from taking advantage of the lucrative market, offering potential earnings of US$60 per day.

At the start of the 1900s, Pando was made up of rubber estates owned by the some of the wealthiest families in the world at the time - the barraqueros. Peasants lived on the estates, in return for their labour. During the 1980s, however, the rubber market collapsed and many wealthy land-owners abandoned their estates - leaving their workers to scrape a living by selling low value Brazil nuts and other forest products. Land reform began in 1996 after communities began to claim abandoned estates. But although it was possible to request up to 500 hectares of land for each family, maps of land entitlement distributed by the government were confusing or incorrect.

A lucrative industry

The international price of Brazil nuts is currently high and the people of the Pando are benefiting from a lucrative and environmentally sustainable commodity. As the world's largest producer of shelled Brazil nuts, the Bolivian industry generates up to 100,000 jobs either directly or indirectly, and roughly 28,000 families depend on it for their income. But the revival of the industry has attracted the interest of entrepreneurs and the barraqueros once again, and previously abandoned communities are having to defend their rights to land. However, with assistance from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), use of satellite Global Positioning Systems (GPS) is helping to clarify land claims.

The approach that CIFOR has used is known as Multidisciplinary Landscape Assessment (MLA), which uses GPS tools to collect coordinates of local boundaries and land-marks. These can then be drawn onto a map and used to dispute or confirm current land boundaries. Palma Real for example, a village consisting of thirty families, is waiting for legal entitlement to 8,900 hectares of land. But they are unable to read the maps they have been given, and risk losing their rights. Kristen Evans, a research consultant at CIFOR explains: "The map given to the community as part of land reform was not their traditional area. They verified the points using GPS and found that one of their traditional border posts was actually missing from the map. This has helped to level the playing field."

Bolivian family collecting Brazil Nut from the forest (Kristen Evans)
Bolivian family collecting Brazil Nut from the forest
Kristen Evans

Similar techniques have already been applied in Indonesia, Cameroon and Mozambique, with encouraging results. Using the MLA approach, the community is also able to collect other valuable information about the forest, such as vegetation biodiversity and surveys about natural resources in the area. Workshops allowed more experienced members of the community to train others in GPS technology, and researchers benefited from local knowledge of the area. Evans points out that while the entire MLA activity can be expensive, the GPS technology itself is inexpensive at US$300, and does not require a computer.

A nutty market

Although GPS mapping has enabled Brazil nut collectors in the Pando to justify their right to land, collectors remain highly vulnerable to the boom and bust price fluctuations of the international market. Over-production for example can trigger price collapses. Stringent EU regulations are another obstacle for producers. Evans believes that although smallscale collectors in Bolivia are affected by EU regulations, they are not involved heavily in complying with regulations. That responsibility is taken on by large exporting plants such as Tahuamanu in Pando, one of the few plants to have Organic Certification, and excellent technology for meeting EU standards.

There is little producers can do to cushion the effect of price boom and bust cycles. Professor Wil de Jong at the Kyoto University Center for Integrated Area Studies, a collaborator with CIFOR, comments: "The international price of Brazil nuts, and therefore the prices that small producers will receive, is related to EU regulations. Regulations should take this into consideration, and not be based on a hidden agenda of protecting other vested interests." Although local co-operatives such as COINACAPA are exploring the viability of value added nut products such as oil, producers will be hopeful that the recent price boom is not followed by a crash.

Date published: September 2006


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