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Maya nut: a forgotten treasure

A relative of the fig, maya nut has become endangered in some parts of Central America (Erika Vohman)
A relative of the fig, maya nut has become endangered in some parts of Central America
Erika Vohman

One of the largest trees in the forests of Central America, the Maya nut used to be abundant throughout the region. Its seeds were once a staple food of the Mayan people, as well as sustaining dense populations of deer, another Mayan staple. Its leaves, pulp and seeds continue to be central to the diet of many forest birds and animals. However, as areas of forest have been felled for timber and for maize, Maya nut numbers have declined and the tree has become extinct in some areas.

Yet, this nutritious nut, which can be stored for up to five years, is an excellent drought and climate change-resistant food for rural communities. Entire villages have survived by eating Maya nut; the flour was used as a valued emergency food in Guatemala after Hurricane Stan (October 2005) and after Hurricane Felix in Nicaragua (September 2007). But in many areas, the nut is considered only as a 'famine food' and consumption has dropped to less than five per cent of local diets.

Demonstrating the value

Often regarded as a "famine food", maya nut production is on the increase again. (Erika Vohman)
Often regarded as a "famine food", maya nut production is on the increase again.
Erika Vohman

To counter this trend, over 8000 women from villages in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico have been trained since 2001 by The Equilibrium Fund to raise awareness of the potential of Maya nut. Communities are encouraged to conserve the tree, to establish community nurseries and reforest depleted areas, and are taught the nutritional value of the nut. During demonstration cooking days, the women are shown how to make new and traditional recipes, substituting Maya nut for maize.

"It is inspirational to witness the change in the health, self-esteem and status of so many women. Recognising the benefits of Maya nut has helped them change their lives," enthuses Erika Vohman, Executive Director and Founder of the NGO. Through its work, the organisation has inspired communities to plant more than 300,000 Maya nut trees, supplementing food and income, and protecting water sources, and forest biodiversity.

Maya nut (Brosimum alicastrum)
Known as Capomo, Breadnut or Ramon nut, amongst many others, the Maya Nut - a relative of the fig family, is rich in fibre, protein, vitamins A, E, C and B, and minerals, including calcium, potassium, folate, iron and zinc.
Nutritionally comparable to amaranth, quinoa and soyabean, it is not surprising that the nut was a favoured food amongst indigenous groups of Mesoamerica.
In addition, Maya nut tolerates marginal soils, salt and drought and is an excellent species for rehabilitating degraded land. Once established, the tree requires no inputs yet, once mature, can yield over 180 kg of nuts each year, and provide food as well as valued ecosystem services for over 150 years.

Scaling up the benefits

The benefits of Maya nut have not just been at household level. In 2005, Alimentos Nutri-Naturales, a women's Maya nut producer group in Guatemala, opened the first Maya nut processing plant in the world. The plant is owned and operated by the group, which won a $10,000 award in recognition of its efforts by being selected from over 100 entrants as one of the top ten businesses in Guatemala.

The same group won the prestigious Equator Prize in 2007, which included a $30,000 cash award. The women have used this money to implement a school lunch programme, which will provide Maya nut-based school lunches to rural Guatemalan schools. Their goal is to revitalize the economies of producer communities, improve children's health, reduce dependence on imported food and motivate communities to reforest and protect Maya nut trees in Guatemala.

Another Guatemalan women's organization, CODEMUR - the Committee for Rural Women's Development - is using a grant from the United Nation's Development Programme (UNDP) to promote Maya nut consumption, conservation and reforestation amongst some of the poorest communities in the southern coastal region of Guatemala. As Vohman observes, "Through their enthusiasm for Maya nut, they are now teaching other rural women about the uses and nutritional value of the nut in areas where this information is most needed."

Looking to the future

Maya nut could become central to rural livelihoods in the neotropics (Erika Vohman)
Maya nut could become central to rural livelihoods in the neotropics
Erika Vohman

But, while thousands of hectares of rainforest have been conserved as a result of the work of The Equilibrium Fund and its partners, the Maya nut remains endangered in many areas and is probably extinct in parts of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Unfortunately, in-situ conservation is the only option for the tree as the seed is 'recalcitrant', i.e. it does not survive drying or freezing. However, a variety that produces fruit in four years, half the usual time, was recently discovered in Merida, Mexico.

Vohman estimates that at least 200 Maya nut landraces are currently vulnerable to extinction and is keen to conserve landraces and identify the fastest growing and most nutritious varieties to reforest areas. She concludes, "Investing in research and genetic improvement of this species, as well as encouraging its use for food, fodder and environmental services, may well be one of the most positive things governments and organizations can do right now to improve agro-ecosystem resilience to climate change and thereby secure the future of both human and wildlife populations in the neotropics."

With contributions from: Yussuf Kajenje

Date published: May 2008


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