Conflicting land-use rights threaten Brazil nut harvesters

In Madre de Dios, about 1.3 million hectares of overlap exists in areas where timber and Brazil nut extraction occurs.

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Brazil nuts drying in the sun. Kate Evans

Brazil nuts drying in the sun. Kate Evans

LIMA, Peru (25 February, 2013)_Brazil nut harvesting – a sustainable use of the forest in Peru’s southeastern Madre de Dios region – provides thousands of people with an income in the first few months of each year. But mining and agriculture concessions overlap the harvesters’ concessions, threatening both their way of life and the forest, according to a new study by the Center for International Forestry Research.

“Brazil nuts are a very important resource for rural poor people in this region,” says CIFOR senior scientist Peter Cronkleton.

“They’re a non-timber forest product that really provides the basis of a livelihood for people, while maintaining the forest.”

The softball-size fruits of the giant Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) trees, each containing some 20 nuts, fall between November and February. From January to March, harvesters gather the fruits, expertly slice them open with machetes and lay the nuts out to dry.

The trees in Peru’s Madre de Dios region produce between 3 million and 4 million kilograms of shelled nuts annually, and export revenues reached US$14 million in 2010.

But the forest is under siege as land is cleared for farming and small-scale gold mining on land where Brazil nut concessions also exist. Maps created by the authors of the CIFOR study show a bewildering tangle of agriculture, mining and timber rights overlapping some 1 million hectares of Brazil nut concessions.

The confusion stems from what the researchers say was a disorganized process of defining the original concessions, complicated by lack of coordination among agencies granting different land-use rights.

The Brazil nut tree grows up to 40 meters tall and two meters in diameter. Each flower opens for only one day, and the tree depends on large-bodied bees, which can lift the flower’s hood, for pollination.

In Madre de Dios, where there is an average of one productive Brazil nut tree per hectare, Brazil nut concessions range from 200 to 1,200 hectares, although most are in the middle of that range, according to Andrea Chávez, lead author of the study (in Spanish) published in collaboration with Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental.

And although the harvest only lasts a few months at the beginning of each year, the income is important for thousands of rural dwellers who may farm or work in the timber trade or mining during the rest of the year. Official figures indicate that between 15,000 and 20,000 people work directly or indirectly in the Brazil nut industry, Chávez said.

A forestry law that took effect in 2000 implemented a system of concessions for non-timber forest products. Although intended to reflect earlier patterns of use, the concession boundaries were not always precisely defined and, as a result, they do not always correspond with the areas where families traditionally harvested nuts.

We are working to harmonise the extraction of timber in Brazil nut concessions, focusing on how to make the system economically robust, to maximize income from timber and income from Brazil nuts.

Many Brazil nut harvesters “had customary rights before the concession system was born,” said Manuel Guariguata, leader of CIFOR’s research on production forests and one of the study’s authors.

“That created tensions with neighbors over where boundaries were.”

There was also little coordination among government agencies responsible for granting rights for Brazil nut harvesting, agriculture, timber and mining. Lacking a common information system, agencies have allocated rights without verifying pre-existing claims.

There are about 1.3 million hectares of overlap in areas where timber and Brazil nut extraction occurs in Madre de Dios. But timber and Brazil nut harvesting are not necessarily incompatible, recent CIFOR research suggests.

“We are working to harmonise the extraction of timber in Brazil nut concessions, focusing on how to make the system economically robust, to maximize income from timber and income from Brazil nuts,” Guariguata said.

A greater threat comes from mining and most agriculture, which do cause deforestation. When agriculture and mining concessions overlap Brazil nut concessions, deforestation can affect nut production even if the Brazil nut trees themselves remain standing.

In Madre de Dios, mining claims have been recognized on 47,000 hectares of land where Brazil nut concessions are present, and about 34,000 hectares of Brazil nut concessions have been granted for farming, according to the CIFOR study.

“Most of the time, Brazil nut harvesters do not know that other people have mining rights or agricultural rights,” Guariguata said.

At the same time, Guariguata said, Brazil nut collectors need technical assistance to increase the nut’s value and their income. To maximize their income from Brazil nuts, the harvesters need access to processing plants and markets and have the certainty that their concessions will not be threatened by competing claims.

The authors of the CIFOR study recommend a series of measures to help solve the problem of conflicting land-use rights, including integrating the various government agencies’ information systems to avoid the granting of overlapping concessions; strengthening the system for granting and protecting land-use rights; coordinating with the newly created National Forest Service to avoid competing claims to forests; and ensuring that concession holders do not harm the forest and that logging does not affect Brazil nut production.

Many of those issues could be addressed by regulations, currently being drafted, that will implement the new Forest and Wildlife Law passed by Peru’s Congress in 2011. The CIFOR researchers hope their study will be taken into account in the drafting of the regulations, which must be approved before the new law can take effect.

“We are not saying anything super-new,” Guariguata said, “but we show the extent of the overlap in numerical terms and we put it into maps to raise awareness as the regulations for the new forest law are being drafted.”

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by USAID. 

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