We Need the Rainforests

Recently I heard an investment analyst on CNBC recommend a company because "they sell soybeans and Brazil is going to clearcut large sections of rainforest to plant soybeans."

Today I read more bad news on Nova Spivack’s blog.

I read the an article today about how Brazil is gradually losing the fight to save the Amazon. The worlds’ rainforests are a global resource — not only are they directly important to the air we all breathe, they also harbor a huge, still untapped, reservoir of species diversity which could be of profound importance to science and future medical and pharma research. The problem is that currently there is no direct benefit to Brazil, or other rainforest nations, for the global use of their rainforest resources.

The key then is to find a way to turn rainforests into economically valuable national resources for countries that maintain them. In other words, rainforests should be to Brazil, what oil is to Saudi Arabia (or actually better, because rainforests, unlike oil, are renewable). Rainforest countries should make more money by keeping their rainforests alive and healthy,  than by chopping them down.

One way to accomplish this would be what I call a "Global Rainforest Tax" (see also) that would be paid pro-rata by all nations annually, to countries that have virgin rainforests. The more virgin rainforest a country maintains, the larger share of the global Rainforest Tax they would garner each year.

While I applaud his cause, I see politicians using the public’s hatred of taxes to get elected and re-elected here in the U.S. But I think anyone running for office who votes for taxing people for benefits that are not immediate, obvious, and local is doomed.

So I’m going to propose a small-is-beautiful, low-tech solution.

We should all eat more Brazil Nuts!

Harvesting Brazil Nuts creates a local economy in the rainforests that is sustainable and generates revenue. Here’s what the Amazon Conservation Association says:

Brazil nut trees occur in natural dense stands, which make the castañales (Brazil nut forests) economically attractive. These areas, of several hundred to a few thousand hectares, are given in concession to local families and/or to larger landholders for the extraction of nuts. Fruits are gathered and opened up in the forest, and nuts are brought up to camps by local harvesters (castañeros), typically a family that lives in the castañal or moves in during the harvesting season.

The harvesters sell the nuts to local shelling factories, which pack and export the product overseas. This extractive activity represents more than half the yearly income for thousands of families in these areas, and so far has politically justified the protection of the Brazil nut areas for extractive purposes only. As such, castañales offer a natural management unit that is remarkably cost-effective for biodiversity conservation. Each castañero typically controls access to some 1,000 hectares of primary forest, areas that will remain protected as long as they are being harvested for nuts.

The people of these cross-boundary areas share a common resource base, a forested ecosystem of global biodiversity significance. Their quest for self-improvement will ultimately determine the fate of these forests. Yet the inhabitants of the region exist in a technical information vacuum with little communication occurring between adjacent countries or between the scientific community and the occupants of the forest and governmental institutions. As a result people must utilize these forests under radically different government policies and without scientifically based management information.

Castañales and the castañeros who work them, remain as isolated frontier entities outside the political, scientific and social mainstream. There is a three-part disconnection – the science that biologists conduct in tropical forests, the national environmental and development policies that affect the fate of these forests, and local forest management regimes still co-exist as unrelated entities. Fortunately however, this situation can be rectified with modest inputs.

The chief barriers are not economic. Harvesting Brazil nuts is a potentially competitive economic alternative to deforestation. Castañales offer one of the few cases where the density of a renewable natural resource other than timber is sufficient to justify the existence of large forested areas against unsustainable uses such as cattle ranching. Rather than economic, the obstacles are informational and policy-related in nature.

Although Brazil nuts represent a cost-effective, economically viable option for protecting tropical forests, their social, economic and ecological importance is poorly appreciated in centers of government. As a result there is weak policy support for castañal-based development and land tenure. Moreover, much remains to be learned about how to best manage castañales for maximal ecological and economic benefit. The economic value of Brazil nuts to local harvesters is important but still insufficient to provide them with their most basic needs. Local harvesters (or producers herein) often have no other option than to destructively exploit other forest resources. A second result is that large areas of forest are not harvested and are therefore not defended from alternative destructive land use practices. Science-based productivity-enhancing management of Brazil nut-rich areas and increased policy support is needed to make the castañal system effective in conserving Amazonian biodiversity. Remarkably almost nothing is known, or has been implemented, regarding the basic biology and management of Brazil nuts, let alone the total renewable-resource base of this ecosystem.

At the risk on increasing the price of one of my favorite snacks, I wish more people would start munching on the healthy and tasty brazil nut. Eating brazil nuts benefits an ecosystem that impacts the whole earth. Here’s what the World Wildlife Fund says:

The Brazil nut tree is part of the delicate web of life in the Amazon. Apart from orchid bees, agoutis, and the Brazil nut harvesters, the life of many other plants and animals is intertwined with this tree. The empty seed pods, for example, fill with rainwater and provide breeding grounds for damselflies, a poison frog, and a toad, all of whom depend on these small ponds on the forest floor. The major threat to the trees — and the myriad of life that relies on them — is forest clearing. Sustainable harvesting of Brazil nuts is therefore a vital way to provide protection of Peru’s forests. So do what the slogan says — eat a Brazil nut and save the Amazon!

Some people have tried to domesticate Brazil nuts by creating farms. But it hasn’t worked as planned, according to the Brazil Nut homepage of the Amazon Conservation Association:

Several Brazil nut plantations have been established in Brazil. Although trees have grown into reproductive age, their production is low, making them economical unprofitable. Why plantations do not produce as wild trees do? This research is investigating several possibilities, including pollination, given that, as it has been suggested, increasing forest disturbance and fires, may be affecting pollinator availability.

For Brazil nuts to be an effective sustainable resource that economically justifies forest protection, nut marketing has to benefit local peoples in a greater degree. The process that follows nut collection is a complex and fascinating one. Nuts go through local dealers, then to peeling and bagging factories, and then to exporting companies. Although profitable, most of the benefits go to the last link of the chain. Communal factories would help to locals to get a better share. This project is involved in supporting grassroot initiatives, and working closely with local peoples. This is another part of the story that this research is focusing as a major goal. Basic research is probing to serve more than the ideal of increasing the biological knowledge, but also having an impact in social as well as in economic aspects. Future work is pointing towards the implementation of forest enrichment plans which will help to keep biodiversity as well as helping rainforest peoples.

Maybe the fact that Brazil nuts are not farmed and are only available from the native rainforests is a blessing. Creating a local economy that can sustain the workers and gives the local governments a reason to protect the forests is a viable plan if some of the questions raised above can be resolved. Maybe an influential investor will see an opportunity to make a difference.

What about Amazon.com? Doesn’t the corporation that uses the name Amazon to to create an image of a huge online store have some incentive to preserve the Amazon River basin? Amazon.com could at least promote Brazil nuts and tell their story.

In the meantime, I recommend that we all eat more Brazil nuts. If you don’t like the taste, buy them and give them to someone who does. Ask your grocery store to stock them. The Amazon may be clearcut for cattle and soybean farming unless a viable economic activity like exporting Brazil nuts intevenes.