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Harvesting nuts, improving lives in Brazil

Press release from World Wildlife Fund | January 25, 2007

With a high protein content, Brazil nuts are often used in food dishes and pressed for oil.

Brazil - Jose Francisco Conceicao started harvesting Brazil nuts on his small family plot in the Amazon forest 32 years ago. It wasn't until a few months ago that he actually made enough of a profit from his crop to buy a house. Find out more about sustainable livelihoods in the Brazilian Amazon.
"It is a dream come true...This was only possible because nowadays we can sell nuts at a much better price than ever before."
- Jose Francisco Conceicao, Farmer

"It is a dream come true," the 53-year-old farmer said. "This was only possible because nowadays we can sell nuts at a much better price than ever before."

The dream house, and with it a much improved standard of living, became a reality thanks to the WWF-supported Projeto Castanha (Brazil Nut Project) in the north-western Brazilian state of Acre. The initiative is aimed at helping Brazil nut producers - through training and equipment - better organize themselves, get their product certified and find new markets. Most importantly, the project is aimed at increasing the income of local communities living off the harvest of this commercially valuable nut crop.

Celso Custódio da Silva, President of the Association of Brazil Nut Producers in Porongaba, remembers a time when a 10kg can of nuts was sold to buyers for 2 Brazilian Real (approximately 0.70). Nowadays, farmers earn about 10 Real per can (or 3.60), an increase of 500 per cent.

"We used to sell our production at very low prices," da Silva said. "Thanks to the project, we are now part of cooperatives and are making more money."

"As a matter a fact, I recently was able to buy a refrigerator for the first time in my life," he proudly added.

Changing old habits
The Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) is found in the forests of Brazil, as well as in Peru and Bolivia. It is one of the Amazon's longest-living trees, often reaching an age of 1,000 years. Its flowers depend on orchid bees for pollination. Once pollinated, a coconut-sized seed pod containing some 20 seeds, or nuts, develops for over 15 months before falling to the forest floor. At this point the non-timber product is collected and then sold.

Training producers about best practices of harvesting, drying, storing and transporting the nuts has significantly increased their profits.

"We are succeeding in showing the producers the importance of obtaining certification in order to be able to sell their product for a better price," said Danuza Lemos, Director of Ecoamazon, a local WWF partner organization that has coordinated most of the field training.

But success didn't come easy, especially as many old habits had to be changed. It was once common practice, for example, to leave the Brazil nuts after they fell from the tree for a long time on the soil before picking them up. Now, Lemos explains, producers know the importance of collecting them as soon as possible in order to not expose the nuts to heat and humidity, which can damage their quality.

"They also learned that it was essential to store the nuts far from products cultivated using pesticides," she added. "Otherwise, they could not obtain the organic certification, which is important for exporting."

During the first phase of the Brazil Nut Project (between 2001 and 2004) 30 families from two municipalities (Epitaciolandia and Brasileia) joined a cooperative (Capeb) and obtained both organic and fair trade certifications. This allowed them to export their nuts to Italy and the Netherlands. As a result, they saw their income from the nuts significantly increase.

With support from Sebrae, a Brazilian institution which fosters small-size enterprises, and with co-funding by WWF-Brazil, the project further encouraged 260 families from nine municipalities to be part of two other cooperatives (Caex and Cooperacre).

The goal of the project's next phase (2006 to 2008) is to have organic, fair trade and FSC certifications granted to all three cooperatives. Recently, Cooperacre signed a deal with the government of Acre to process and pack the nuts themselves. The facilities are already up and running, with 100 per cent of the production now being exported.

Fair price, bright future
Improving trade practices have been a crucial element of Projeto Castanha.

"Before the project, producers had to sell the nuts to a powerful trader in the region who always paid very low prices," said João de Almeida Melo, Vice-President of the Porongaba Community Extractive Producers' Association.

"We had no other option but to sell it because we needed the money and did not have the ability to search for different markets. After improving the quality of the production and creating cooperatives and associations, the situation changed. Now we are the ones who determine to whom we sell our products."

Looking for new markets and higher incomes, the Extractive Workers' Association of nearby Vai-se-Ver joined the Brazil Nut Project in November 2006. Jorgenilson da Costa, president of the association, is very optimistic about the outcomes for the community.

"It is not only about obtaining certification and exporting," da Costa said. "We are developing the ability to organize ourselves in order to demand from the government improvements in the fields of healthcare, transport and education."

At Vai-se-Ver, a small community eight hours by boat from Acre's capital of Rio Branco, public services are well below satisfactory. Here, schooling only goes to 4th grade, a doctor visits the area only once a month and the only way to reach the community during the rainy season is through a small brook since the roads are not paved. These are big challenges that, according to da Costa, Projeto Castanha can help the community overcome.

The Brazil nut tree is part of the delicate web of life in the Amazon in which many other plants and animals species are intertwined. It is also a valuable resource that, if used sustainably, can help improve peoples' lives and better protect the environment in which they live.

*Bruno Taitson is a communications officer at WWF-Brazil.

editors note The south-western Amazon Moist Forests Global 200 Ecoregion is an area encompassing parts of Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. It contains some of the richest and largest tracts of intact tropical rainforest found in the entire Amazon Basin. These forests are the habitat of threatened species like the jaguar and harpy eagle. They are also home to dozens of indigenous groups, some of whom have not been contacted by 'civilization', as well as scattered populations of traditional Brazil nut gatherers and rubber-tappers. In spite of their relative isolation, the forests are threatened by the opening and paving of roads that provide access to a growing population of small farmers, oil and gas exploration, as well as large-scale cattle ranching and agribusiness.

Article has been adapted from a news release issued by World Wildlife Fund.

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