Emerging Markets / February 7, 2020

Can Brazil Nuts Help Save the Amazon?

Brazil nuts are a unique product native to the Amazon basin. energy-dense, highly nutritious, and rich in the mineral selenium, Brazil nuts are a popular snack often found in muesli and healthy breakfast cereals. Brazil nuts can reduce inflammation, and may benefit those with thyroid disorders or poor cardiovascular health.  But in addition to their many health benefits, Brazil nuts may hold the key to protecting the Amazon rainforest.

Brazil nuts are are the most economically important non-timber forest product in the Amazon basin, and global production in 2019/2020 is forecast at 86,100 metric tons. Despite the name, Bolivia is the World’s number one exporter of Brazil nuts followed by Brazil itself. They are an important export product, and attract high prices in the US, the UK, and Germany, who together import an annual average of 21,000 metric tons.

Brazil nuts can be harvested from natural forests and provide income for as many as 150,000 people across the Amazon region. There are no viable commercial Brazil nut plantations; instead the nuts are harvested from wild trees in just three South American countries namely Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. As a profitable alternative to slash-and-burn farming, Brazil nuts help safeguard millions of acres of natural forest from the threat of deforestation.

However, much like the Amazon itself, future of Brazil nut production is under threat. Drought in 2016 led to total harvests falling by 2/3rds with prices doubling in some markets and cereal and muesli manufacturers reporting they were struggling for supplies. In Brazil in particular, the recent construction of new roads and infrastructure, along with attractive returns from agriculture, is increasing the temptation for locals to clear forested land for farming at the expense of Brazil nut-rich forests.

The industry faces a number of other threats. Production relies on the optimal natural regeneration of the species and this depends on intact, healthy forests to support large-bodied bee pollinators and ground-dwelling mammal seed dispersers.
High rates of Brazil nut collection can reduce the sprouting of new Brazil nut trees, and its important that localised overexploitation is avoided. Therefore, responsible forest management is fundamental for the long term future of Brazil nut production.

Brazil nuts trees rely on the agouti, a large rodent with incredibly tough jaws, to gnaw open the hard outer pod for seed dispersal. The animals bury the nuts to eat later, which later may develop into seedling trees. From there, it takes 12-15 years for a tree to grow and start producing nuts. Overhunting of the arouti is detrimental, and drought can also severely impact production – in 2017 dry conditions meant that the cocos, or the pods which contain the nuts, were expelled too early, leading to less fruit, rising prices, and hardship for the indigenous communities which rely on Brazil nuts for income.

How can the situation be improved? Firstly, efforts to restrict deforestation and improved forest resource management are key elements in safeguarding Brazil nut production and its benefits to local communities. Brazil nut production does not have to be to the detriment of other profitable activities such as low level timber production and ecotourism. Improved collection, processing, and marketing of Brazil nuts would allow local communities to not only increase the economic value of the activity but also allow them to obtain a larger share of it.

One project in Bolivia is helping to develop the commercial Brazil nut industry among the Tacana indigenous people, which both strengthens their claim to their ancestral lands and provides badly needed income to the community. By helping to map the location of Brazil nut trees within the forest and providing funding for drying facilities, the project is strengthening local communities and protect the environment. Building consumer knowledge of the health and environmental benefits of Brazil nuts can also help to stimulate demand and investment in the supply chain. 

As irresponsible use of the Amazon continues to wreak havoc on the region’s natural resources, profitability may be the key to preserving the forest for future generations. Brazil nuts are a natural sustainable forest product that could make a real contribution to maintaining the Amazon and the communities that depend on it.

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