In Bolivia, the Brazil nut is the second most exported non-traditional product after soybeans, according to official figures. In 2015 more than 20,000 tons of Brazil nuts were exported, earning 192 million dollars for the country. The business of the Brazil nut can thrive without having an impact on the forest.
However, if it is the primary economic activity of the northern Bolivian Amazon, experts say it is time to think about diversifying and controlling the threats that could impact those precious forests.
Juan Fernando Reyes is the director of the NGO Herencia and has worked for over ten years with rural communities in northern Bolivia to promote the sustainable use of the Amazon forests. Reyes confirms that “most of the income of local rural people comes from Brazil nuts; that has certainly helped to preserve the forest.” Reyes response alludes to an obvious problem: families depend entirely on the Brazil nut business, and no other product or activity compares to it.
Brazil nut production process takes place between December and March, so families dependent on the harvest organize themselves so their earned income covers the remaining eight months of the year.
Also, Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa) are also very vulnerable, and there is no reforestation practice of this species. Marco Albornoz, development advisor of GIZ Bolivia, has studied the use of Brazil nut in the northern Amazon for years.
“Most Brazil nut trees are mature and very fragile because of their size, breadth, their foliage is quite large, strong winds which knock them over,” said Albornoz. “Because there is no replacement, production is becoming more limited. Families lose Brazil nuts every year. Then there is no reforestation plan; the communities are not yet aware of the importance even though they are crucial for the economy.”
The northern Bolivian Amazon covers three regions, or departments, including Pando, northern Beni and La Paz. Pando is the largest of the three. According to Reyes, these regions – particularly in Pando’s rural areas – depend on Brazil nut activity. According to the last census of 2012, approximately 55,000 people live in Pando’s rural areas and the Brazil nut production extends even within the natural reserves.
Brazil nut of Manuripi
The Manuripi National Amazon Wildlife Reserve is one of the natural paradises found in the department of Pando. Manuel Salvatierra, a 42-year-old Brazil nut extractor of the Villa Florida Community, calls the reserve his home. He explained that to take advantage of the Brazil nut within the protected area “each community […] submits an application to the reserve management to control the number of families who engage in the activity.”
Salvatierra said that cooperatives operating within the reserve work under the fair and solidarity trade system, allowing them access to a better price for their Brazil nuts.
“This makes each family have more resources to cover needs such as education, health and other services that families do not count with,” he said.
But even these families need to look for alternative jobs after the Brazil nut season is over in May. Salvatierra said that during the remaining months, his colleagues accept contracts to do chacos (work the land), participate in the construction of municipal projects, and prepare the land to grow food. Some of them, due to poor economic circumstances, are forced to work “taking out gold” outside the reserve.
The advance of deforestation in Pando
For GIZ Bolivia’s Marco Albornoz, what pushed deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon was a law passed in 1996.
“The 1996 INRA Law stated that to recognize a property right, they [the communities] had to meet the Fes (which is the social, economic function),” he said. “Unfortunately, for many of those barraqueros (concessionaires) or from private properties, the Fes meant to have livestock, some sort of improvement in the territory. This has been a perverse incentive for the forest because many families dismantled (deforested) only to meet the social, economic function.”
Most surprisingly, Albornoz says that in order to obtain recognition of their territories, some villagers deforested places where it was not feasible to have their livestock. “Sometimes they lent each other livestock whenever the commission arrived for verification,” said Albornoz. “They moved the livestock to someone’s property, then to another and so on. He then estimated that converting the land for livestock farming has devastated more than 200,000 hectares of forests in the department of Pando, with the highest incidence in Cobija’s, the department capital, nearby municipalities.
“The problem with deforestation is serious because on one hand the government signed an agreement with the CAO (Eastern Agricultural Chamber) to dismantle (deforest),” he said. “Under the logic of food sovereignty, more areas for agricultural and livestock production are required, so then they sign agreements to facilitate the clearing by private entrepreneurs,” Albornoz explained.
Juan Fernando Reyes from the NGO Herencia also believes that livestock activities are one of the leading causes of deforestation in Pando. According to the latest study by Herencia, 345,465 hectares of land have been deforested between 1985 and 2013 in the northern Amazon region.
Reyes also pointed out as a threat the change of land use promoted by the State and the departmental government. “I would say the main risk at this time is public policy, coming from the departmental or national government, which is promoting in a bigger way the change in land use. In Pando’s case, they are talking about facilitating vast areas of soy; they are talking about buying machinery; so the public policies are not in agreement with this product (Brazil nut) that is so important, nor with keeping the forest as forest” he said.
“We can say that the livestock had left a forest clearing, removing areas of forest that before had Brazil nut trees,” said Reyes. “All livestock activity is contrary to the Brazil nut. The primary deforestation comes from livestock farming and in some cases fire.”
The threat, today, takes on greater relevance with new legislation that, according to Pastor, follows the same logic as the law enacted in 1996.
The future of Brazil nut
There are new fruits that could help diversify production in the northern Bolivian Amazon region. Specialists from Herencia NGO work with six communities of Pando in the recovery of degraded soils to develop alternative crops, native to the area, such as assai, cocoa, sinini and camu camu. Some of the main communities that Herencia is working with are Porvenir, Bella Flor, Puerto Rico and El Sena.
Relating diversification with the loss of forest area should be avoided, according to Reyes.
“You do not have to cut the forest – in these recovered soils what is being promoted is precisely Amazon fruits, besides being mixed with annual crops,” he said. “We have experience in six communities with the land reclamation issues, and the subject of fruit is a new thing with saplings developed only two years ago. We are starting with products that already have a market.”
Alternative products can become an attractive economic alternative for families that depend on Brazil nuts. A way out that does not lead to deforestation, instead, recovers the land that was previously forgotten.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on September 23, 2016.