In the Brazil nut forests of the Peruvian Amazon, scientists from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) are trying to resolve a controversial question: can selective timber harvesting coexist with Brazil nut production?
Brazil nuts are giant Amazonian trees that produce huge fruits – called “cocos” in Peru for their resemblance to coconuts. Every year between November and March, as the rain falls on the western Amazon, they tumble to the forest floor, where they’re cracked open by rodents – or humans with machetes.
“The Brazil nut is special because it’s the only internationally traded nut that comes from tropical primary forest,” says Manuel Guariguata, a senior CIFOR scientist who is leading the study.
Due to their unique reproductive system, which requires the presence of large bees to transport pollen from one tree to another, Brazil nuts only thrive in natural forests. Cultivating the species in plantations hasn’t been very successful, and when forests are cut down around Brazil nut trees, they no longer produce.
“In a way it’s a product that promotes forest conservation, because to keep harvesting nuts on a commercial scale, you need to protect the forest,” Guariguata says.
But views differ as to what “protecting the forest” entails. Some say it should be left pristine for only Brazil nut harvesting; others that it’s possible for these forests to be “multiple use” – that small amounts of timber can also be harvested there, supporting local livelihoods without adversely affecting Brazil nut production.
But until now, there has been no evidence either way – which is where CIFOR comes in.
In 2000, Peru’s government formalised traditional Brazil nut harvesting areas under a system of concessions, where each family has the right to collect nuts in a particular patch of forest.
In Madre de Dios, around a thousand people make a living as castañeros – the local name for Brazil nut concession owners – generating between 3 million and 4 million kilograms of shelled nuts each year.
But Brazil nuts are not the only trees that thrive in these forests. There are high-value timber species there as well, and many concession owners use selective logging to supplement their income after the nut harvest ends.
With a government-approved management plan, this is legal: concession owners are allowed to remove a certain amount of wood per year. But some extract more than their quota, or log without permission – and sometimes, they say, trees are stolen from their concessions.
Incredibly, recent CIFOR research has found that frequently, more timber is harvested inside Brazil nut concessions than in concessions set aside for logging (link in Spanish).
The volumes of timber extracted are not enormous – official records show these to be on average 5 cubic metres of wood, not more than one tree per hectare of forest.
But it’s still unknown what effect, if any, logging has on the quantity of Brazil nuts each tree produces.
This question of whether logging and Brazil nut harvesting can coexist has proved controversial in Madre de Dios.
Conservation NGOs are concerned that logging could have unforeseen impacts on the Brazil nut ecosystem.
“These are mature forests that have a well-established dynamic, where every tree, every animal has its role,” says Juan Loja, the director of ACCA (Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica) in Madre in Dios.
“It’s a very interesting, structured, and sensitive ecosystem, and to destroy this dynamic could be catastrophic.”
But many of the organisations representing the castañeros argue that the extra income generated through logging is necessary to support the families throughout the whole year, once the Brazil nut season ends around April.
If we want to Brazil nut forests to produce not only today, but for the next 10, 20 or 50 years, we need to take a little time to evaluate what is actually happening in reality in these forests so that we can improve the best practice guidelines
60-year-old Felicitas Ramirez Surco owns a concession near Alegría, a village not far from Madre de Dios’s major town, Puerto Maldonado.
“We are going to harvest some trees this year, because we need something more in order to survive,” she says.
“We only cut trees that are far away from the Brazil nut trees. If we obey the law, I don’t think there’s a problem.”
Previous CIFOR research suggests that timber and Brazil nut harvesting are not necessarily incompatible, but that there are certain political and financial barriers to the implementation of a “multiple-use” model of forestry management.
And while CIFOR has examined the damage logging causes to Brazil nut trees, the relationship between selective logging and Brazil nut production has never been studied before – and this means that the law determining how much timber can be legally extracted in the Peruvian Brazil nut concessions is not based on any scientifically verified data.
This is what the new CIFOR investigation, led by Guariguata, aims to address.
“The aim of this research is to inform the debate in a scientifically sound manner,” Guariguata says. “Currently there’s no data to really inform policy or best practices.”
“So our aim is to try to harmonize both extractive uses, both the timber and the Brazil nut, in a way that doesn’t compromise either one. But there’s always a trade-off, and we think that there could be an effect on Brazil nut production when you harvest timber.”
The CIFOR team is working with 13 forestry students from the local Universidad Nacional Amazónica de Madre de Dios (UNAMAD) who are carrying out various measurements in the field.
They are working in five Brazil nut concessions near the villages of Alerta and Alegría, including the concession of Felicitas Ramirez Surco.
By measuring the production of individual Brazil nut trees – counting each fruit that falls and weighing the nuts inside – the scientists aim to measure whether logging gaps near Brazil nut trees affect how much they produce.
“We want to quantify whether the effect is very intense, whether there’s no effect at all, or whether the effect might be even positive. It is possible that we have a positive effect – because when you remove competing trees, there’s more light reaching the other trees, and Brazil nut trees may benefit from that,” Guariguata said.
“On the other hand, when you alter the structure of the forest, the pollinator bees may be disrupted, which could reduce fruit production” he said.
“But we just don’t know.”
Research for policy – and the grassroots
Whatever the results, says Guariguata, they will have implications for both policy and local practices.
“If there’s no effect, we can safely assume that you can keep harvesting timber at the applied intensities – which is about one tree per hectare – and not compromise Brazil nut production.
“If there is a negative effect, then that’s going to inform the local producers, and they then can decide whether they keep harvesting the timber in their forest or not, that’s their decision.”
“And if there’s a positive effect then we have a win-win situation.”
Luisa Rios, the local coordinator of CIFOR’s key local partner, the NGO SPDA (Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental) says this kind of serious analytical research is needed to help improve the regulations governing Brazil nut practices.
“If we want to Brazil nut forests to produce not only today, but for the next 10, 20 or 50 years, we need to take a little time to evaluate what is actually happening in reality in these forests so that we can improve the best practice guidelines – and this can only be done through field research on the ground,” she said.
And the research is also important for the producers themselves, says Guariguata. The concessions the scientists are working in are those of Brazil nut concession owners who volunteered the use of their forests after a local consultation session, because they were interested in the results.
“There’s also a lot of local ownership in the process,” he said.
Miguel Zamalloa, the president of one of the local Brazil nut harvesters’ organisations, RONAP (Recolectores Orgánicos de la Nuez Amazónica de Perú), says he’s very interested to learn the results of the CIFOR study.
“Selective logging has co-existed with Brazil nut production for a long time. But it is becoming more intense,” he said.
“We need information about what is happening now – and what we can do for the future. Once we see the results of this investigation, we’ll know a little more about how the Brazil nuts are being affected, and can decide what to do.”
For more information on issues discussed in this article, please contact Manuel Guariguata.
This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by USAID.
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