Dispatches from the Field & Project Summaries
April 16, 2009
The highlight of this trip was getting a personal tour of the area from Brazil nut concession owner Patricio de Leon. Patricio began collecting Brazil nuts when he was 15. He became involved in the Brazil nut business for the first time when he saw a man “running through the forest like an agouti (a guinea pig-like creature native to the Amazon) collecting nuts.” Running haphazardly after the man, Patricio strung a sack to his back and collected what he could, trying to make some sort of profit. The rest is history.
From November to February, Brazil nuts fall from 150′ trees. Workers are not allowed into the forest during this time–the shells are the size of small coconuts, or “cocos,” and can be deadly when dropping from such heights. In late February the workers enter the forest, collect the cocos from the forest floor, and put them into piles along the street. One tree typically drops 500 to 550 cocos. The workers use machetes to crack the cocos open, and they get roughly 15-20 nuts per coco. This is enough to fill one 70-kilo sack, which they then carry back out of the forest at the end of the day.
When the workers bring the bags of Brazil nuts back to the central station, they put them into the payol, a building designed to store Brazil nuts. From here, the nuts are put onto large covered trays to dry in the sun. They have to be kept in a payol and up off the ground in order to qualify for organic certification. Once they are dried initially, they’re re-saturated for at least 12 hours. Once the nuts have dried again, the workers sit at a table equipped with four nutcrackers. After the nuts are shelled, the finished product is ready to be packaged.
Last year, Patricio was able to get 8-10 solis per kilo of Brazil nuts, sometimes making as much as 150 solis per bag. This year, the prices are way down and he can only get 4.5 – 5 solis per kilo of shelled Brazil nuts, averaging only 55 solis per bag. Prices are down partly because of the current economic crisis. Brazil nuts only make up 1-2% of the world nut market. They are big, expensive, and oily, making them difficult to sell. They’re often the first item to drop in price when product values fluctuate.
In one season, Patricio typically fills one hundred 70-kilo sacks of shelled Brazil nuts. He has three workers: his two sons and one local Brazilian. He has the rights to 200 hectares for the next 40 years, but he knows he will not live to see the end of this contract. He must find a responsible replacement who won’t be tempted to cut the forest down for profit.
One organization trying to help local concessionaries keep their land is the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA). The area is undergoing a massive influx of workers from the Andes. The challenge is two-fold: to improve conditions in the Andes so current residents don’t leave and to educate everyone about protecting the rainforest. The ACA is also working to establish carbon credits for different areas of the forest. One is currently worth $10 million USD. While there is no official world market, the money is being held in a savings account to preserve not just that piece of land, but also purchase additional areas. Harvesting Brazil nuts sustainably and putting a monetary value on the rainforest protects it. Currently, half the population in the area work as Brazil nut harvesters and roughly 2.5 million hectares are protected through this enterprise.
Organic certification costs roughly $15,000, so harvesters often go in together for certification in groups of 30. They must also agree to annual inspections. To get power to this remote location, Patricio has a solar panel on his site that the government installed a few years ago. He pays 11 solis per month to rent it. Some farmers have cattle and other resources they can sell when profits get lean in the Brazil nut market.
Patricio has noticed that trees in primary forests (where the trees have grown naturally, not by farmers) yield 500-550 cocos. In secondary forests (where the trees have been regrown after deforestation), the trees produce fewer cocos each year. This is partly because certain types of bees–equipped with the knowledge of how to pollinate the elusive Brazil nut flower–pollinate these trees and are happier (thus more abundant) in primary forests. More bees means more pollination and, thus, more Brazil nuts.
No one has been able to successfully grow Brazil nut trees on personal farms – they need healthy forests, as well as rich soil and other flora and fauna, to provide nutrients for the trees. In essence, they need a forest that’s intact and healthy – the rainforest must be protected to grow healthy Brazil nut trees, which creates jobs for the local community. When the community preserves the forest, they preserve their income.
One problem that all farmers like Patricio battle is that of raiders coming into the area to burn down trees and take the land, eventually using it for farming or cattle. Once they burn the forest down and take over, it’s hard to get them off the land. The fires sometimes get out of control and take out even more of the land that is his. Thus far the government has not done much to combat this problem.
One area park ranger, Alan Alexander Barros Torin, has the job of managing the forest. He’s the one who determines where property lines officially fall. He also teaches new farmers how to conserve their resources, and helps people on the rainforest fringes to find other areas to use for farming or cattle. He’s on the front line of defense for this area, though he admits he is limited in what he can do.
Another problem for the Amazon is the recent decline of rainfall in the last couple of years, which Patricio attributes climate change. He has passed on his knowledge of the forest and Brazil nut harvesting to some of the new people interested in harvesting Brazil nuts. In parting, he told us, “I am from this land. I love this land. I could have left before but the deer is always called by the forest, and I love to stay here.”
April 16, 2009
This city is up early and the sun came streaming in the windows early, along with the sounds of a rooster crowing so it was time for us to take our next boat ride out to the Brazil nut reserves. A quick ride by go-kart cab and boat and we were at the first concession. A very lively and hard-at-work 74-year-old concession owner named Patricio Leon met us. He easily outdid us when it came to heat, heights, and hiking. First, we went for a two hour hike through the jungle where he told us all about the brazil nut trees, posed for the camera and told us all about his life here. He was born in this concession and lived his entire life there, raising 12 children and is now the proud grandfather of 27, and even a great grandfather of 1.
What makes Brazil nuts so special and what does this have to do with saving the Amazon? Well, first, they grow best in primary forests, thus owners have an incentive to not cut the forest down with hopes that it will re-grow, because the trees won’t produce as much this way. This makes their job harder, as owners have to wait until all of the coconuts fall (the trees can be 150 feet tall and a hit with one of those can be deadly) and then they navigate through all of the trees and vines in the jungle to get to the brazil nuts. In addition, there is a certain bee species that is specifically able to get into the brazil nut flowers to pollinate them and these bees are happiest in primary forests.
Patricio told us that currently prices for Brazil nuts are down to about half what they were last year, so currently he is holding onto the nuts until the price gets a bit better. He estimates that for a 70 kilogram bag of shelled brazil nuts, he can make $700 solis when the prices are high. Currently he can only get about $350 solis. After lunch, we wanted Patricio to take a siesta so we traveled via boat to another area village to find out more about brazil nuts. We met a local female concession owner, who told us about her experience managing a concession. The cost of shipping the nuts to market and paying workers to bag/haul the nuts consumes over half of the money that they get for selling the nuts, particularly now in this slower market. Though she did admit that she is very proud to have a job that is conserving the forest. While they do need help from the government, and it would be better if the market were in her favor, she said she will get by as you never know – next year could be a favorable year.
We also talked to a local park ranger, who helps to monitor the concessions, mediate disputes and find solutions for farmers looking for more area. He is responsible for monitoring visitors to this area of roughly 250,000 hectares, and teaching area concession owners how to better manage their resources. He can also use GPS and maps to determine where property lines end to more accurately determine who has the rights to resources. Another change that has helped the area is farmers have switched from tractors to bulls, which seems counterintuitive, but the tractors tear up the dirt roads, whereas the bulls do no damage.
Then it was back to Patricio’s property to ask him more about his work and to take a few parting shots. When asked about how things have changed over the last 74 years, he said that has definitely noticed a drop in rainfall. Since the 1960s, there has been a definite decline in brazil nut production and around this time there was a very large rain. He thinks its possible that this rainfall affected nut production or possibly that it has something to do with the changing climate. You may have noticed that I am old, Patricio said, and I plan to leave my concession to someone I trust won’t cut it down and will protect it. I could have left a long time ago, but a deer is always called to the forest and I love living here.
Our fearless translator Augosto Mulanovich, from the Amazon Conservation Association, bravely faced all of our questions about both Brazil nuts and CICRA. One goal for both areas is to try and earn carbon credits for the land. If you can make the forest valuable, the owners will have an incentive to maintain it. At this time they are trying to determine a baseline carbon concentration to determine how much carbon each can hold and therefore what it is worth. In addition, there are a lot of people moving here from the Andes for work and they are not as tied to the land. So you have to improve conditions in the Andes, give them an incentive to stay so that this place is not flooded with people. Brazil nuts are one way to sustainably manage a forest because they need a strong, healthy forest to produce. Over 2.5 million hectares of forest are currently divided into roughly 1,200 brazil nut concessions, offering income and livelihood for over 200,000 people.
Next Stop: Bosque Nublado, Santa Lucia; Nanegal, Ecuador.