In one corner is the Brazil nut, the most economically important non-timber forest product in the Amazon Basin. It supports thousands of rural families and generates tens of millions of dollars in exports – but harvesters face long fruitless months every year.
In the other corner is timber, providing a stable source of income for smallholders but potentially jeopardizing Brazil nut production.
This ongoing question of compatibility between timber and Brazil nuts (both valuable products sourced from trees that grow side by side in the forests of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil) is at the heart of a new study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
“Often the people who have the Brazil nut trees are smallholders,” said Manuel Guariguata, a principal scientist at CIFOR and co-author of the study.
“Many of them see a financial security in timber and told us that the potential income from timber sales justified any risk to their Brazil nuts. So we wanted to know if we could strike a balance where the harvesting of timber would not compromise Brazil nut production in a given tree.”
It turns out that such a balance may indeed exist in the Brazil nut-rich forests of southwestern Peru, according to the study.
“We found that logging could be compatible with Brazil nut production, so long as no more than two trees are extracted per hectare,” said co-author Cara Rockwell of Florida International University.
“By comparison, in a case where timber was taken at slightly higher intensities – three or four trees extracted per hectare – Brazil nut production tended to decrease,” Rockwell added.
A SPECIAL KIND OF TREE
The Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) has long enjoyed special status in the Amazon – felling them is illegal in all three countries – and its seed is the only internationally traded nut harvested from the wild.
But it is also tricky to manage: this self-incompatible species requires pollen from another Brazil nut tree to set fruit and it depends on certain taxa of bees to reproduce, which thrive in the forest.
In short, you need to maintain a high level of genetic variability within Brazil nut populations in order to produce enough fruits for the harvest season.
In 2000, to protect the Brazil nut trees and support the multimillion-dollar export industry, the Peruvian government allocated about 1 million hectares of the country’s southeastern region of Madre de Dios to private individuals under a long-term concession system. These Brazil-nut-rich forests are some of the most biologically diverse and carbon-rich ecosystems in South America.
Yet the trees that grow alongside the Brazil nut across these concessions are valuable timber species in their own right.
The theory – the ideal, even – is that the forest should be able to support multiple uses, but, as a previous study shows, the practice of “multiple-use management” in Brazil nut-rich forests is often riddled with technical, knowledge-based and regulatory constraints, Rockwell said.
“Yet we found that Brazil nut concessionaires in Madre de Dios wanted to know whether felling timber interferes with, or even impairs, the yearly Brazil nut harvest,” she added.
To answer that question, the researchers conducted interviews with Brazil nut concessionaires whose forests covered a total area of about 4,000 hectares.
Harvesting of timber and Brazil nuts are regulated very differently, even though they come from the same patch of forest managed by the same concessionaire
The interviewees claimed that they kept away from Brazil nut trees during logging operations – a claim that the researchers later confirmed on the ground.
“This tells us that the concessionaires take care of their Brazil nut resources,” Rockwell said.
“But the risk of logging damage may increase when smallholders engage third parties to fell timber, because they have no stakes in the health of the ecosystem. The application of good logging practices is therefore essential for maintaining their resource base.”
The findings come at a time when demand for timber is increasing sharply across the Madre de Dios region – but technical information on how to integrate timber extraction with Brazil nut harvesting remained unexplored.
“These findings could help guide the design of integrated management approaches by forest authorities,” said Guariguata.
But first, he notes, government rules need to be simplified and integrated.
“Harvesting of timber and Brazil nuts are regulated very differently, even though they come from the same patch of forest managed by the same concessionaire,” he said. “This level of overregulation needs to change.”
Another recent study by CIFOR offers suggestions for deregulating the Brazil nut sector in Madre de Dios, in favor of smallholders.
This focus on smallholders and their non-timber forest products is part of what makes this research so important, according to Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management at ETH Zurich.
“It places some responsibility on the tropical forest management community, including players in the international timber market, to recognize and respond to the needs of forest-dependent communities across the world,” Ghazoul said.
For more information about CIFOR’s research into Brazil nuts, timber and multiple use forest management, contact Manuel Guariguata at email@example.com.
This research was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). CIFOR’s research on forests, climate change and sustainability forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
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Photo essay: From the Amazon to the world: A story of Brazil nuts