- In the Calha Norte region of Brazil’s Pará state, home to the broadest mosaic of conservation units and Indigenous territories on the planet, communal Brazil nut harvesting is proving to be a winning opportunity for the future of the Amazon Rainforest.
- Communities of nut gatherers living on the banks of the Paru River have practiced their traditional nut-gathering lifestyle for generations, grounded in the understanding that without an intact forest, there are no Brazil nuts.
- Some 300,000 people throughout the Brazilian Amazon depend on the Brazil nut production chain for their living.
- The nut market, however, has not yet recovered from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and a severe drought in 2016.
The trip from the heart of Almeirim municipality, on the banks of the Amazon River, to the rural community of Cafezal takes nearly three hours on the fast boat, referred to as “the flyer” by the people living on the river.
“But to get to where the nut trees are, it’s another three hours by motorboat,” says Otacílio França Alves, co-founder of ASMACARU, an association of Brazil nut gatherers. The route crosses the Marapi stream, passing by barges laden with the fruit.
ASMACARU was founded in 2001 to organize the Brazil nut production chain so that its members, known here as agro-extractivists, could increase and even diversify their income. During the harvest season, which runs from March to July, the gatherers live in the rainforest, collecting fallen Brazil nuts, the fruit of one of the Amazon’s most emblematic trees, Bertholletia excelsa. Known for being old-growth trees, these giants can live for up to 500 years on dry ground, reaching heights of 50 meters (164 feet), with trunks up to 5 m (16 ft) in diameter.
The association’s members organize themselves by the different areas where the nut trees grow, or what they call the “placements.” Cafezal holds a permanent concession for harvesting nuts in seven of these areas, all granted to the 26 members of ASMACARU. The distribution of the Brazil nut trees is broad and disperse: The distance from one placement to another can be as much as 10 kilometers (6 miles).
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Agro-extractivism as a model for the future
Cafezal sits in the Calha Norte region of Brazil’s Pará state, home to the largest mosaic of conservation units and Indigenous territories on the planet. Here, community-based Brazil nut harvesting is proving to be a winning opportunity for the future of the Amazon: allowing the forest to flourish allows for both environmental preservation and socioeconomic development.
Residents of the Paru River that runs through this region have understood this for decades. “Our community has been living off nut gathering for five generations now,” Alves says. “You can’t separate the income that gathering provides from the meaning this work holds for our families. We wouldn’t exist without the nuts. It’s part of who we are.”
Forest management lies at the heart of these riverine communities’ way of life, says Renata Bergamo Caramez, an environmental manager with a Ph.D. in forest resource management from the University of São Paulo.
“In the Amazon, being a nut gatherer means your existence is integrated with the forest. The economic activity produces culture and identity. The knowledge is passed down from father to son,” she says.
Caramez says the counterpoint to deforestation as a paradigm for development isn’t just leaving the forest intact, but rather managing it appropriately so that the forest can be both exploited and conserved at the same time.
“What these people provide are amazing foods and medicines that we need more of all the time. These days, people are calling more and more for the preservation of heritage products that also represent culture and forest maintenance,” she says.
Building inclusive, resilient economies is crucial to combating crises like climate change and biodiversity loss, according to “The State of the World’s Forests” report, published last year by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The idea is that actions need to emerge from command policies that create subsidies to equip populations with the ability to live in harmony with nature and acquire the tools to formulate strategies for management of their own territories communally.
The Paru region is a living example of the report’s message, Caramez says.
“The people who live there are the main players in conservation. The Brazil nut defines personal and collective relationships, their ways of living. People don’t just work together because it’s economically advantageous, but also because of traditional elements at play — from living in that place, that community — that give it all meaning,” she says.
In Almeirim, 80% of the municipal territory is composed of protected areas, and 41% of the population is distributed between about 150 communities in the rural zone. In Cafezal, one of these communities, the empowerment of the nut gatherers has opened up new possibilities. Alves became Paru’s first agro-extractivist to enter public office, elected to the City Council, where he served as president until 2022.
“The more united we are on the frontline, the more we can strengthen the communities,” he says.
Fight for land and biodiversity
The groves of nut trees where sustainable extraction is practiced are located below the Panama waterfall in the region surrounding Paru State Forest. This conservation unit spans 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) and is home to a rich diversity of Amazonian fauna and flora. Studies carried out by the Emílio Goeldi Museum have recorded 300 plant, 295 bird, 95 fish and 55 mammal species in the state forest.
But destructive exploitation of the forests here also persists. In November 2022, deforestation alerts from the environmental research institute Imazon showed that Paru State Forest was the Amazon’s fifth most-deforested conservation unit in the previous month. Pressure from land grabbing, illegal mining and logging are some of the challenges facing state authorities in Pará.
Beyond the boundaries of the conservation unit, the communities’ gathering areas are at the center of a long-running conflict dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, when landowner José Júlio de Andrade seized some 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of rainforest. Over the decades, his supposed titles to the land were passed down from one company to another.
A study by the Amazônia 2030 project published in January showed how 386,000 hectares (954,000 acres) whose illegal land title was held by the company Jari S/A were taken back. Even though state authorities began proceedings in 2018, the territory has not yet been reallocated to the communities in the region. The situation remains uncertain. Of the seven nut groves in Cafezal, two are still controlled by Jari S/A. The other five are now state concessions.
“After we carried out the inventory of the placements with maps and numbered the trees, we were given possession for an undetermined period of time. The idea has always been to use the region for extracting nuts,” Alves says.
Unstable nut market
There’s no precise count of how many Brazil nut placements exist, but there are an estimated 417 million of the trees throughout the Amazon.
“The average is between 0.005 and 37 trees per hectare,” says biologist Diego Oliveira Brandão, who has a Ph.D. from the Earth system science postgraduate program at the National Space Research Institute (INPE). “Distribution varies because of natural factors like climate and sunlight as well as traditional Indigenous practices in the pre-Columbian period.”
Some 300,000 people across the Amazon make a living from the Brazil nut production chain, and nearly 190 municipalities are involved in the trade.
But close scrutiny reveals weak links in the chain. The 2021 data from the national statistics agency show that Almeirim was only the seventh-ranked municipality in Pará for Brazil nut production, with some 210 metric tons of the fruit that year. The top-ranked municipality was Óbidos, with 1,700 metric tons.
These numbers don’t match up with the actual distribution of productive trees, says Caramez, who notes that the entire region is highly productive.
“This is true because the nut groves are very condensed. Each hectare holds many trees. But because the harvest is only tallied when the nuts arrive at the processing plants, the municipalities with the most processing plans lead the production rankings, like Óbidos for example,” she says, adding that the whole system remains largely informal.
The Brazil nut is among the country’s top three agro-extractive products, but it’s subject to wild price fluctuations on the market. Nearly 99% of the nuts that leave the Lower Jari River Basin for the Lower Amazon Basin are transported without documentation. To make things worse, the climate crisis is already having significant impacts.
The repercussions of a severe drought in the Amazon in 2016 are still being felt on the market today.
“The harvest came to a halt because of the drought. A can of nuts today sells for 30 reais [$6], but in 2017, we were selling at 175 [$36],” says Cleberson Evandro Nascimento, the owner of Só Castanhas Comércio e Serviços Ltda., a nut-processing company in Monte Dourado, a district of Almeirim.
“Many people had to take out bank loans in 2018, expecting that the price would go up again. But when it was time to sell, the large European players took Brazil nuts out of their mix of imported products,” he says, adding that many people couldn’t pay back their loans.
“2023 is a crisis year. Some processing plants started the year with 15,000 boxes weighing 20 kilos [44 pounds] each in stock. Exports dropped for a number of reasons, including the war in Ukraine,” Nascimento says. “Russia was a big Brazil nut importer, and now the EU is spending more money on grain. So production really dropped.”
According to statistics agency data, Pará accounts for 18% of the national Brazil nut production, churning out 5,900 metric tons in 2021, the third-largest output in the country. That’s especially remarkable given that the state’s production originates from just one region, Nascimento says.
“If we think about the fact that it’s one single river valley, the Vale do Jari is one of Brazil’s main nut-producing regions. There are other places that sell more, but the nuts come from many different places. Here, it all comes from one specific place,” he says.
An average harvest in the valley usually yields around 80,000 bags, or 4,000 metric tons — of which 1,500 metric tons come just from the Paru River region. “It’s worth noting that at least 70% of our nut groves have never been harvested,” Nascimento says.
Another problem with the production chain is the lack of incentives that would add value to the product. Most of the nuts arrive at the consumer’s table in the same state in which they left their region of origin: unprocessed. The exception in Cafezal is the 5% of the annual harvest that’s processed into cookies for the National School Lunch Program.
But because they lack adequate infrastructure for processing the nuts, not even the most organized community on the Paru River has the autonomy to manufacture derivative products like nut flour or oil used in cosmetics. Nor do they have sufficient storage infrastructure to keep their product for long periods. If they could vacuum pack the nuts so they lasted longer, they argue, then the nuts would be available year-round, either to sell or to consume themselves.
Ruan Cabral, an environmental and renewable resources engineer at the Pará state agency responsible for assisting farmers, agrees that subsidies would strengthen the production chain.
“Minimum price policies would guarantee better financial returns for extractivist families. Even though they are protected by federal law, Brazil nut trees are still widely logged for their wood. This is a symptom of lacking incentives that focus on harvest of the fruit,” he says.
The Cafezal community spends four months a year collecting nuts, beginning every March.
“We camp in the rainforest for 10-12 days, coming back from time to time to get more supplies and see our families,” says Otacílio França Alves. In between harvests, the families fish for food and tend fruit and vegetable gardens.
All the meals they cook while they’re in the rainforest revolve around Brazil nuts.
“Cupuaçu [fruit] and cocoa juice mixed with nut milk — this is what we drink before going hunting,” Alves says. Their main source of protein is wild game roasted over charcoal made from burning the fruit husks after extracting the Brazil nuts.
This process helps clean up the nut groves and disperse the seeds. The gatherers are active players in forest ecology, according to Caramez.
“They spread seeds just by cracking open the fruit,” she says. As a result, there’s a trail of natural regeneration along the pathways used to transport the nuts than in the places where they originated. Burning the husks transforms the organic material into charcoal, which, over time, fertilizes the soil.
“This earth will become black earth. These people have much to teach us about changing landscapes by creating diversity and these fertile soils,” Caramez says.
Amazonian dark earth, also known as Indian black earth, occurs throughout the rainforest and is a legacy left behind by Indigenous Amazonians. Along the banks of the Paru, this ancient forest management is evident in some 20 dense nut groves located in the regions accessible by the communities alone. Caramez says these are an inheritance from the ancient inhabitants of the region.
“Natural tree generation can’t produce nut groves like this. The abundant resources are the result of thousands of years of Indigenous occupation of the land,” she says.
Feeling the climate crisis
“Extraction isn’t only important because it provides income to riverine families,” says Aldemir Pereira da Cunha, president of COOPABAM, an agro-extractivist cooperative founded in 2021. “Preserving ways of life and standing forests will help withstand climate changes and the loss of biodiversity.”
The 2022 FAO report shows that nearly half of the planet’s forests and land used for agriculture (4.35 billion hectares, or 10.75 billion acres) are inhabited by Indigenous peoples and local communities, or IPLCs. It’s estimated that small property owners generate gross annual income of up to $1.29 trillion. But the worsening climate crisis, lack of research funding and technological challenges are all constraints on the potential of agro-extractivism to flourish.
“In the old days, the flood would come in May, stay for a month, and in June, the waters would recede,” Alves says. “Now, we spend three months under water.”
Locals are still waiting for the date of this year’s Cafezal Brazil Nut Festival to be determined; the flooding means they still haven’t held the festival, highlighting this riverine community’s vulnerability to climate change impacts.
“There are fewer nut trees,” says Brandão, the biologist. He says changes in the hydrological cycle have led to unseasonal cycles of drought and flooding that have increased the mortality rate of Brazil nut trees. Deforestation also contributes to regional climate change, altering the physiology of the nut trees.
“The forest has been replaced by a savanna-like open canopy that isn’t typical of the Amazon, much less of the regions where the nut trees grow,” Brandão says. "You can’t have a Brazil nut production chain without standing forest.”