Acotanc: Processing Brazil Nuts

Processing Brazil Nuts

Author: Honorlea Massarella
E-mail: [email protected]
Organization: The Key Centre for Wildlife Management
88 Freshwater Rd
Jingili, Darwin NT 0810
Phone: +61 8-89994516

A description of the ecology, harvesting and processing of brazil nuts from the forest.

Brazil nut trees can reach a height of 60 metres and a diameter of over 2 metres, and reach over 1000 years of age. Dendrological records show trees of 1400 years of age.

The brazil nut is a seed. They are contained in hard pods similar in appearance to a coconut. Each pod contains 10 to 25 seeds arranged like the segments of an orange. In Peru, all land is owned by the government, and is rented to individuals and families for periods of two to ten years. In Bolivia and Brazil, land is often owned privately.

Recent studies in Peru show that even with an activity that takes place seasonally, peeling and processing can extend through several months. The brazil nut accounts for over 60% of the income for a large portion of the people involved.

Brazil nuts are harvested by people known as castaneros. They make huts in the forest. Harvesting is very physical and demanding. It is also very dangerous as fruit can weigh from one to two kilos. Falling from 50 metres it can seriously damage somebody. Harvestors in Peru mainly collect the pods, the coconuts, by hand, while in Brazil and Bolivia they are often collected by using grabbing sticks.

Once a sufficient amount of pods have been collected, they are opened with a machete, in the forest. The seeds are put into big sacks. Normally, a nylon sack holds 70 to 75 kilos of nuts. It can take about 400 pods to fill a sack. These are still shelled, by the way. They are then carried to a loading point next to a river for pre-transportation treatment of drying and cleaning. The nuts normally have a moisture content of about 35% while they are in the tree. Once they are on the ground in the pods, the percentage drops to about 27%.

At the end of the harvest season, the cargo is transported to the nearest town to be sold to a peeling factory. It is unshelled either in households or in communal factories. Although there are variations depending on the site, the harvesting processes mainly take place in the forest. It is a wild forest with widely scattered trees connected by narrow, muddy trails.

Often there is a lack of access to efficient machinery. Shelling often takes place in people's homes using stones, which can take up to four to five months to shell 100 sacks. Storage in people's homes can often be very limited, which means that there can be a high percentage of wastage due to high humidity levels. Some factories and companies have started offering a shelling service to the castaneros, so they can do the shelling in the factory and sell them as unshelled nuts.

In Peru, the nuts are soaked for 24 hours to expand the shell, and the individual nuts are then cracked in small vices. Then they are roughly graded by hand. The nuts are further dried on slatted floors, and they are often sun dried. Most of the nuts in the market today come from sophisticated processing factories using machinery, a reality that responds to the costs and quality standards imposed by the northern hemisphere.

Brazil nuts can be sold either shelled or unshelled, or as partly processed and derivative. They are most popular in the UK and the USA where they are associated with Christmas time. In-shell nuts are either eaten raw, roasted or salted. They can be used as additional ingredients in ice cream, desserts or nut mixes. Brazil nut oil is used in the personal care industry. The Body Shop uses it in shampoos, conditioners, soaps or skin lotions. Pods have been exported and used as containers for candles. Medicinally, brazil nuts have been recommended for cancer treatment, especially ovarian cancer, due to the high selenium content.

A cake can be produced from the low quality brazil nuts which is used for animal feeds. The traditional uses include mashing, consumed as a vegetable milk or a flour, for making bread. It can also be a fuel for lamps.

Its wood is used for house and fence construction, boat building. Processed bark is used by indigenous people for fabrications. The gum from the trunk is used for boat repairs. Empty brazil nut capsules are used traditionally for rubber tapping. They collect the rubber in the pods. The pods can be used for handicrafts and firewood. Medicinally they can be used for diarrhoea and other ailments.

The trees are found in stands of 50 to 100 trees, known as 'mansions.' Each clump is separated by distances of up to several kilometres. Tree densities tend to fluctuate between two to three adult trees per hectare. Flowering occurs in the peak of the rainy season in November or December, depending on the weather patterns. Flowers only last a few hours. They open before sunrise and fold early in the afternoon. Insect visitation and pollination takes place early in the morning when the flowers are receptive. Pollination is carried out by large-bodied bees, in particular of the Iglacinea group. It is only recently that research has been carried out looking into this particular area. There appears to be a reluctance of some bees to a fragmented or modified habitat, which explains the problems of growing brazil nuts in plantation areas. Vegetative growth and flowering has always been good, but the fruit yield has always been very poor when tried in plantations. The reason for this is a seasonal specialisation of a flower species that have been found on Bertholettia excelsa. The bees depend on orchids for their reproduction ritual. The orchids are only found on the Bertholettia and the canopy.

Brazil nut trees often require other species within their ecosystem for their ecological life cycle, and to function adequately, which makes them quite special. Three species of rodents gnaw open the fruits and liberate the seeds: the agouti, the acoushi and the squirrel. The agouti is responsible for over 80%. It eats a share of the nuts and buries some and often forgets about them, so it assists in regeneration. Sometimes the agouti will take seeds or whole fruits and wander distances of up to a kilometre, which may explain how the stands form.

Brazil nuts provide the main source of income for close to half the population. This is an empowering mechanism for women, apart from those directly involved in the harvesting. Thirty percent of the concessions in Peru are owned by women. Eighty percent of women are employed in factories for the shelling process. Harvesting and processing is a major part of family dynamics in rural areas. Due to long storage capacity, it also acts as instant cash for emergencies for family.

Brazil nuts are one of the few resources that remain under the control of poor people in Peru. And brazil nuts have become a principle factor that prevents the poorest members of the population becoming even more impoverished. Approximately 50% of Peru's population live in poverty.

Research has shown that harvesting brazil nuts in the wild does not affect the viability of the forest. It can protect the continuity of brazil nut tree population and also other species because of the biological processes associated with it. A productive brazil nut forest must be a healthy forest. Other rare species have been found associated with Bertholettia excelsa. The poison arrow frog and a toad apparently only breed in the agouti-opened, rain-filled empty coconut fruits. The low disturbance of brazil nut forests harbour several endangered species rarely seen in other areas, such as the short-eared bush dog and big cats. So, brazil nut forest management should keep species richness high.

I don't know if anybody is familiar with certification. Certification is a form of eco-labeling which assesses sustainable management practices and social attributes. It is currently quite popular with timber products in Europe. Non-timber forest products are only just starting to creep into the certification area. As a non-timber forest product such as brazil nut, which is recognised for market value, and harvest and production levels continue to rise, it is increasingly important to be able to assess the impact that harvesting may have on the environment and the community. It is critical to support the harvestors and producers in their application of practices that are less harmful to the environment and benefit the local community. Independent certification of good practices is one mechanism that can be used to achieve this objective.

Much research is currently being carried out by various non-government organisations, due to the fact that very little is known about the ecological dynamics of many species that are being harvested in forests. Preacto Conservado Castanales is a project component of a Peruvian non-government organisation called ACCR, which is Association for the Conservation of the Amazon. It has been working for the last three and a half years in validating good forest management practices in brazil nut forests, and supporting policy initiatives to promote these good forest management practices. Brazil nut activity itself is a good conservation tool. Another research element which is just culminating three and a half years of field data which will available in scientific form later this year, and there is a forest certification work in developing standards, a sub project which carried out the marketing of 44 brazil nut concessions and other sub projects. Currently an operation which is installing tree demonstration plots to improve production, extraction and training programs relating to this. ACCR is involved in creating brazil nut management plans which will be administered as new requirements of Peruvian law. This particular project is supported by the Forest Stewardship Council, the ---? Forest Line and many of the non-government organisations, which form part of the non-timber forest products working group. This is a diverse combination of various non-government organisations globally, and support on-going research to assess sustainable harvest rates of non-timber forest products. This particular group was formed due to lack of information available about ecological and social dynamics of species that were being harvested in forests.

Why brazil nuts are a component to be certified is because of the reasons I mentioned earlier: environmentally, the traditional harvest is from primary tropical forest and not from plantations, that can only be harvested from the wild. That brazil nut trees probably live in the most biological-rich area in the world with a number of other endangered species, and are restricted to only small areas. As far as we are sure that traditional harvesting methods don't affect regeneration or degrade natural habitats, and that the ecological processes that take place around them. Harvestors intentionally protect millions of hectares of forest just through a process that they have always done. Brazil nuts are organic, don't need fertiliser, there is no genetic manipulation. Just gathering the seeds from the forest floors has always been done in a traditional manner.

Next time you see a packet of brazil nuts, it would be nice to take a moment to consider how they are harvested.