Postcards from the field: Nuts about Brazil nuts

Mites, ticks and the human impacts on forests are some of the challenges researchers face when investigating Brazil nut production in Peru.
Every day the castañeros walk into the forest and collect the Brazil nut fruits, covering them with palm leaves.

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Olivia Revilla is a forestry student at the Universidad Nacional Amazónica de Madre de Dios (UNAMAD) in Peru. She is one of 13 local students working with CIFOR to investigate the impact of timber harvesting on Brazil nut production in the region. This is her story.

My name is Olivia Revilla. I’m from Lima but my family comes from Puerto Maldonado in Madre de Dios, Peru.

The Brazil nut industry is one of the major economic activities in Puerto Maldonado – it’s a part of the culture here. My grandparents were castañeros (Brazil nut harvesters) and they spent a lot of time in the forest. But they sent their sons – my parents, my uncles and aunts – to study in Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa. So they haven’t continued the family tradition.

Growing up, I spent half my time in Lima and half my time in Puerto Maldonado. I loved coming for holidays in the forest. So I decided that I’d like to have a career that had something to do with the forest, because it was very special to me. It is almost a spiritual thing for me, I feel like I have a beautiful energy when I’m in the forest. And that’s what brought me to Puerto Maldonado full-time six years ago to study forestry.

I’m now in the last year of my degree – and I’m very excited to be finishing.

We need to do two practical internships – they are pre-requisites for the degree. We’re now doing the second one with the Centre for International Forestry Research – it’s the last thing I need to do before I’ll get my bachelor’s degree.

The experience has been excellent. We went in with the castañero Señor Pablo, who lives in Alegría. The family manages their forest well – they do extract timber, but it’s done legally, and they have a lot of respect for the forest.

Every day the castañeros walk into the forest and collect the Brazil nut fruits, covering them with palm leaves. While they work, we begin our investigation.

We measure the diameter of the Brazil nut tree, the circumference, and the height. We note the condition of the crown, whether there is any damage, if there are any lianas (vines) – anything particular about this tree that might be different from normal.

Once the castañeros have collected all the fruits, they begin to hack them open to extract the nuts. Our job is to count the number of fruits produced by each tree, and the weight of the extracted nuts.

The whole time you have to be very alert, you can’t relax for one minute because you have to concentrate – you could be bitten by a snake

Kate Evans

What are the challenges? Well, every time you go to the forest you’re going to encounter bugs, like mites and ticks. Also, it affects me to see the damage to the forest caused by human activities. You think you are going into a wild forest – but it’s not, it’s a castañal (Brazil nut concession). And you realise that human activity always affects the forest, and this make me a little sad. For me, to realise that I too am a part of this effect is a challenge.

And then there are the wild animals. The whole time you have to be very alert, you can’t relax for one minute because you have to concentrate – you could be bitten by a snake. So this effort you make all day to stay alert is stressful.

But it is lovely to be in the field, it fills you with an energy that you don’t get in the city. It’s cleaner, richer – and you are closer to nature than to other people.

More than half of the students in the group are women. When we go out into the field with the men they always try to protect us, but eventually they realise that we are quite independent, and they accept that they can take us to the forest. Once you grab your machete and start to use it, you realise you have muscles, too!

I would like to see Brazil nut harvesting improved, so that damage is avoided, and production improved, so that people keep on harvesting them. Because of the mining boom here in Puerto Maldonado, many people have abandoned traditional activities like Brazil nut harvesting in order to make more money in the mining and other sectors.

I think this study can help with this problem, so that the castañeros can see that there are people interested in improving Brazil nut production for the future, so that their children and grandchildren can continue to have a good income from Brazil nuts.

After I graduate I’d like to do research. I like spending time in the forest. And the truth is we need a lot more research to enable us to improve these forest activities in order to reduce deforestation. Every time I go into the forest I notice that it’s being treated badly. I think it’s our responsibility as foresters to help to minimise this. That’s what I’d like to do when I graduate, research to help improve forest-based economic activities to ensure they have less impact on the environment.

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