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Karen Ladenheim

October 6, 2010
Amazon Sophomore College

Conservation of the Amazon via Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa):

a nutty proposition?


Bertholletia excelsa or Brazil nut trees stand out from other popular Amazonian

commodities because they only reproduce in natural, healthy rainforests. For this reason,

they are in a very unique position when it

comes to conserving the Amazon

Rainforest. The Brazil nut industry

constitutes a significant portion of the

economy in Madre de Dios, Peru and raises

the question of whether or not Brazil nuts

actually contribute to the protection of the

Figure 1: A cracked Brazil nut pod
(Ladenheim: 2010)
region’s rainforest. Analysis of research

shows that the industry is demographically sustainable in Madre de Dios because it

promotes adequate recruitment of Brazil nut trees for future generations. In turn, the

international market for Brazil nuts promotes the conservation of natural healthy

rainforest. Despite this positive influence, Brazil nuts are not “saving the rainforest.”

The industry is not economically sustainable because harvesters, called castañeros,

cannot solely rely on Brazil nut sales to escape poverty. As a consequence, the Brazil nut

industry is not environmentally sustainable; it encourages destructive human behavior

and does not promote the intact forest habitat with the ecosystems that the Brazil nut trees

Ecosystem of the Brazil Nut Tree

The Brazil nut tree species almost exclusively grows in the Amazon, can sustain

its population even when intensely harvested by humans, and requires a healthy, intact

rainforest to reproduce. The combination of these three characteristics makes Brazil nut

harvesting a demographically sustainable industry and puts Brazil nuts in a position to

help promote conservation of the Amazon rainforest.

Brazil nut trees grow in stands of 50 to 100 members located around well-drained

soils in lowland rainforests up to 800 meters above sea level (Shanley 2002: 62). In

addition, Brazil nut trees only grow where the average annual temperature is between 24

and 27 degrees Celsius and rainfall is between 1,400 and 2,800 mm rainfall (Shanley

2002: 65). These conditions naturally occur throughout the Amazon rainforest, and

Brazil nut trees are most common in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador

(Taylor 2005).

Brazil nut trees also stand out for their long lifespan, reaching up to 1,400 years of

age. Considering that trees produce an average of 100 (and up to 2,000) pods in a given

year, each of which contains 10-12 seeds, only a small fraction must mature in order to

sustain the population (Shanley 2002: 66). Indeed, the species appears to be quite

resilient. According to a study conducted in Bolivia, even when 93% of seeds were

harvested, scientists found no significant impact on the health or demographic structure

of the species (Zuidema 2002). Although a handful of studies suggest that Brazil nuts

trees are being over-harvested (Bhatta 2003), the majority agree that populations are not

affected by the current intensity of human extraction. One such study examined
Cachoeira, Pindamonhangaba, and Filipinas in Acre River Valley of the western

Brazilian Amazon and found that “seed removal and seedling abundance alone were not

reliable indicators of overall Brazil nut population stability” and that the species was not

threatened by extraction in these areas (Wadt 2008). (see Figure 2)

Figure 2: The percentage of Brazil nut fruits harvested does not correspond with the
number of seedlings per fruit left in the forest (Wadt 2008).

As a result, when viewed in isolation, Brazil nut harvesting by humans appears to

be demographically sustainable; it does not interfere with the growth and development of

future generations. As Where the Andes meet the Amazon puts it, “Unlike cattle

ranching or timber extraction, Brazil nut harvesting is one of the few rainforest industries

capable of extracting wealth from intact rainforests year after year without damaging

them” (MacQuarrie 2001: 313). In fact, Brazil nut harvesting exclusively occurs in intact


Two other species must also be present in order for Brazil nut trees to reproduce:

the Euglossine bee and the Dasyprocta variegata or Agouti rodent. Euglossine bees

pollinate Brazil nut trees when drinking nectar from their flowers, which have a hooded

stamen cover that is particularly difficult for most other species to lift (MacQuarrie 2001:

312). Once pollinated, it takes about 15 months for Brazil nut flowers to develop into
fruits, frequently referred to as pods (Mori 1992). At this point, the 1-2 kilogram pods

fall to the rainforest floor. If left untouched, the Brazil nuts enclosed fail to grow because

the sprouts inside are not strong enough to break through the pod (see Figure 3). While

several animals, including Macaws, are capable of break this pod, Brazil nuts rarely

escape uneaten or undamaged. Only the Agouti rodent, which weighs around 7 pounds

and has notably sharp teeth and large jaw muscles, is an effective seed disperser.

Although Agoutis initially open Brazil nut pods to feed, they are cannot consume all of

the nuts inside at once. Consequently, they bury any extras for a later date. Brazil nuts

can successfully sprout if an Agouti forgets about a seed or is killed by a predator

(MacQuarrie 2001: 313). Since Euglossine

bees and Agoutis, rarely visit fragmented

or modified forests, people have been

unable to grow Brazil nut trees out of their

natural habitat (Shanley 2002: 67). This

trait sets Brazil nuts apart from other

destructive uses of the Amazonian land, Figure 3: Since Brazil nut pods are
very thick, people often have to use a
such as cattle ranching and logging. In machete to crack them open
(Ladenheim: 2010).
turn, the market for Brazil nuts has the

potential to promote the conservation of generally healthy and intact rainforest, providing

Peruvians with a less destructive, profitable, and renewable export.

Human Groups Involved with the Brazil Nut Industry in Madre de Dios

A closer look at Brazil nut harvesting in the southeastern region of Peru called

Madre de Dios (see Figure 4) sheds light on Brazil nut harvesting and its ability to
promote conservation in a more

holistic manner. Although Brazil

nuts are demographically sustainable

and constitute a significant Peruvian

export, analysis of the people Figure 4: Madre de

Dios, Peru
involved with the industry shows that (Spiritual: 2010 [left]
Tourismo: 2010 [right])
it is economically unsustainable.

Brazil nuts were first discovered by Europeans in 1567 when Juan Álvarez

Maldonado explored the Amazon (MacQuarrie 2001: 312). Since then, Brazil nuts have

developed into a widespread international export. Bringing in 44 million US dollars to

South America annually, it is a significant non-timber forest product (NTFP) of the

Amazon, second only to rubber (Taylor 2005). In addition, 27,000, or 38%, of the

Peruvians in Madre de Dios are involved with the industry (Collinson 2000: 9).

Just as indigenous groups have done for centuries,

harvesters collect Brazil nuts by hand or with baskets (see

Figure 5). However,

modern technology is

increasingly being

incorporated into the

processing steps. Once

nuts are harvested,

Figure 5: A tour guide models how castañeros would use a
three-pronged stick and basket when harvesting Brazil nuts. they are transported to
(Ladenheim: 2010)
shelling factories,
processed, sold to wholesalers, and shipped overseas, primarily to the UK, Netherlands,

US, and Canada (Our Work 2008). Peruvians take on a wide variety of jobs to carry out

each step, including castañeros (harvesters), barriqueros (processors), hauliers

(transporters), workers, businessmen, and traders (Collinson 2000: 10). The vast majority

of castañeros take out loans from Brazil nut wholesalers at the start of the harvest because

they do not posses enough capital to harvest independently (Freese 1997: 277). This

subjects them to the conditions set by creditors, which often forces castañeros into debt

(Shanley 2002: 74).

To regulate the Brazil nut trade, the Peruvian government grants castañeros

concessions, or permission to harvest from a particular area for 2 to 10 years (Collinson

2000: 11). Once they have received a concession, castañeros may apply to have them

renewed in future years. Castañeros are also allowed to use other resources in the

vicinity of their concession to maintain their homes (MacQuarrie 2001: 313). In total,

these concessions cover 1.2 million hectares of land in Madre de Dios, and Brazil nut

harvesting accounts for 67% of the gross annual income of those involved there (Shanley

2002: 63).

Peruvians who participate in the Brazil nut industry are generally extremely poor.

The money they earn via Brazil nuts translates to a monthly per capita income of US $89,

which is far below the Peru’s average minimum living income, US $200 a month

(Collinson 2000: 10). While this comparison is slightly skewed because the cost of living

may be higher in Peru’s cities, the fact remains that castañeros live in poverty. In turn,

these Peruvians must bring in more money in order to make ends meet or support their

Historically, a number of efforts have been made to increase the sales of Brazil

nuts. Price wise, Brazil nuts struggle to compete with other nuts that can be farmed more

efficiently on plantations. They are consequently viewed as an easily substituted luxury

item. For example, Brazil nuts are tossed in with Planter’s “Deluxe Mixed Nuts”

products, but are not exclusively sold in containers like other nuts (Planters 2010). As a

result, Brazil nuts only make up about 1.62% of the total volume of the global nut market

and have a fairly elastic price (Collinson 2000: 4). (see figures 6 and 7)

Figure 6: Brazil nuts constitute 1.67% of the international nut market

(Collinson 2000: 4).

Figure 7: World Brazil nut production- The price of

Brazil nuts is elastic and fluctuates from year to year
(Freese 1997: 266).
In addition, issues of reliability have been detrimental to Peru’s Brazil nut

industry. As put by the National Resources Institute, “the international edible nut trade

considers Peru as a brazil nut origin of last resort due

to the inconsistency of supply and poor quality”

(Collinson 2000: 37). To address this issue,

sophisticated processing factories have been

introduced and are replacing the traditional manual

Brazil nut crackers (see Figure 8). While such

technology has reduced prices and improved quality,

Figure 8: In recent years, manual
it has had an overall negative effect, doing little to Brazil nut crackers like the one
pictured have been increasingly
encourage additional sales and putting increasingly replaced with more mechanized
processing technologies
more Peruvian laborers out of work (Shanley 2002: (Ladenheim 2010).


Attempts at improving Brazil nut sales through fair trade and marketing appeals

to a socially conscious market have not succeeded either. In reality, demand for Brazil

nuts remains elastic because they are still more expensive and easily replaced with other

nuts (Collinson 2000: 37). Despite all of these efforts to increase Brazil nut sales, sales

dropped from 4% of the global nut market in the 1970’s to 2% by 1997. This detracts

from its influence and power to help conservation efforts (Shanley 2002: 64).

In summary, Peruvians cannot rely on the Brazil nut industry alone for

sustenance: doing so is economically unsustainable. In addition, an increase in this

industry’s profitability is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. An article in World

Development expands on this point, stating “Although the extraction and processing of
Brazil nuts is profitable, it is not profitable enough to lift households out of poverty; 95%

of these households would remain below the poverty level if they depended only on

income from Brazil nuts” (Escobal 2003). Therefore, one must turn to outer sources of

income in order to survive.

Analysis of Environmental Conservation and Human Development Potential in

Madre de Dios

Both demographic and economic sustainability are vital to the success of

Peruvians’ ability to use the Brazil nut industry to conserve the Amazon rainforest in

Madre de Dios. The fact that Brazil nut sales cannot adequately meet the economic needs

of castañeros ultimately leads to destruction of the rainforest.

Desperation drives poverty-stricken castañeros to resort to more immediate and

unsustainable sources of income when not participating in the three-month Brazil nut

harvest. For one, they over-hunt monkeys and other game for food (MacQuarrie 2001:

313). Cattle ranching, logging, mining, and slash-and-burn agriculture are other tempting

options (Freese 1997: 273). In addition, it is common for castañeros to turn to these

ephemeral sources of income to alleviate debts they have accumulated from loans they

must take out during the Brazil nut harvest. Although all of the aforementioned practices

are illegal on Brazil nut concessions, they prevail because the Peruvian government has

difficulty enforcing these laws (Shanley 2002: 74). While rubber tapping is another

sustainable source of income that complements Brazil nut harvesting, this industry alone

is not enough to sufficiently alleviate poverty. At the end of the day, rainforest lands end

up shrinking, people remain in poverty, and much of the Amazon’s biodiversity is lost

from the unsustainable land uses that accompany Brazil nut harvesting (Mori 1992).
Recommendations and Conclusion

Overall, since Brazil nut harvesting is demographically sustainable and must

occur in healthy, intact rainforest, this industry holds great potential to promote

conservation of the rainforest. Until changes are made, however, economic pressures

force poverty-stricken castañeros to take part in destructive practices that ultimately do

not conserve the rainforest.

In order for Brazil nut harvesting to promote conservation of the environment,

castañeros must be provided with incentives to avoid destructive behavior. Currently,

they hunt, log, mine, and farm to alleviate their hunger and debts. To discourage these

unsustainable land uses, castañeros need land security, adequate food supply, and more

economic independence. It should also be noted that the Peruvian government has done

little to enforce laws against unsustainable land use on concessions. In order to establish

more credibility with castañeros, it should begin stricter enforcement. Only then can the

following suggestions be effective.

Castañeros should be given a greater sense of land ownership through more

permanent concessions. These could be granted by the Peruvian government or by a

private conservation organization, under the condition that castañeros conserve it and use

it for Brazil nut harvesting. Ownership would encourage castañeros to respect their land

and treat it responsibly to ensure successful future harvests. To prevent hunting and

provide extra support, meat from outside sources could also be distributed to castañeros

who comply. An ecotourism lodge called Refugio Amazonas has successfully

implemented this strategy, which adds credibility to its feasibility (Miller 2007).
In terms of economic independence, castañeros should organize themselves and

negotiate better terms with buyers. The Peruvian government could facilitate these

negotiations since it is in a position of authority.

Support from conservation organizations could also

provide castañeros with enough capital to avoid taking

out debilitating loans from buyers. Finally, more serious

attempts at increasing Brazil nut profits from

international markets could gradually alleviate the

amount of outside support needed to support the Brazil

nut industry. The sources previously reviewed illustrate Figure 9: Candied Brazil
nuts are a popular
that past attempts at increasing Brazil nut exports have confection sold in the
Madre de Dios region but
not flourished (Collinson 2000: 37). Instead of trying to are not widely available in
the United States.
increase the quantity of Brazil nut sales, another option (Ladenheim: 2010)
worth exploring is the development of more expensive,

quality Brazil nut products. Examples range from cosmetics to specialty confections like

candied Brazil nuts (see Figure 9) and fine chocolates. Such enterprises hold the

potential to be successful if carefully marketed as high-end, eco-friendly products to

wealthier consumers.

Although each aspect of this program would require outside support and

resources, it would employ local Peruvians, give them an invested interest in their land,

and consequently prevent rainforest destruction, which is priceless.

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