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Brazil nuts: a Bolivian story

Eat Natural's Varun Gupta headed to North Eastern Bolivia to learn more about the situation on the ground. He learnt first-hand about the Brazil nut crisis, its possible solutions and how Eat Natural can help.
Where are we talking about?

VG: My travels took me to Riberalta, a town in the Northern Bolivian district Beni where around 70% of the population relies on Brazil nuts for their livelihood. Riberalta is usually a busy hub of processing, with nuts from the surrounding jungle bought by boat or on bumpy dirt-track roads. But with the last harvest as much as 80% down on previous years, everything’s changed. A state of emergency has been declared, and the local people are faced with bleak conditions while they await the next harvest.

What’s the big deal about Brazils?

VG: Here people call the Brazil nut ‘castaña’ or ‘almendra’; it grows on mighty Berthlletia Excelsa tree, a true giant that only thrives in wild, natural forests. Trees regularly grow 50 meters to the canopy, and can live for as long as 1,000 years. On the crown of the tree grows the fruit: large woody ‘cocos’ full of nuts which naturally fall to the ground once mature. This year, however, there was almost no fruit to harvest. The causes are complex – you can hear some experts’ theories in my short film below –  but the upshot for local Bolivians is devastating drop in employment which has created high levels of poverty.

What did you learn on your travels?

VG: Riberalta is a sleepy backwater of a town, despite exceptionally loud trucks that stir up the dust on the mud roads and generally shatter the peace. But my visit came at a quiet time for the town; processing plants were deserted, the machinery was frozen and our voices echoed around unlit warehouses. The people are really suffering. It’s normal to get paid at the end of each day of labour (my translator was very disgruntled at the suggestion I pay him at the end of two days work) and few workers had savings to fall back on when the employment dried up. There’s also a real lack of education. Working on the Brazil harvest is all many of the people I met have ever known, so collectors and peelers have no prospect of finding other work.

And Riberalta is just one of the links in the chain. The Brazil nuts’ journey from the tree to Eat Natural’s Makery starts when whole families of collectors enter the jungle to collect fallen cocos from the forest floor. It’s tough and remote work, with heavy tropical rains and strong winds making life hard, so most set up ‘campos’ near the Brazil nut trees. In years gone by these campsites have echoed with the sound of shells being split open with machetes to retrieve the precious Brazils inside. And it’s these nuts, carried in sacks on the backs of workers along precarious forest trails to collection points in the jungle, that would normally be flooding into Riberalta to be dried, steamed and shelled by hand. 

So what’s next?

VG: Despite everything there are good news stories. Growers are developing new models to better understand harvest fluctuations, and predict problems earlier in the future. The people I spoke to have shown amazing reliance to the situation, and everyone believes the season to come will get them back on their feet. They see healthy nuts on the trees, and that gives them confidence that things will get better. 

You can learn more about the situation from the people affected, and hear how Eat Natural’s fund to support the people affected can help, on this short film...

How are Eat Natural helping?

In support of those involved in the harvesting and shelling of our brazil nuts we’ve teamed up with a CIPCA, a Bolivian NGO that supports rural farmers and indigenous people in the Northern Amazon, to help 20 communities affected by the current crisis. Funds donated by Eat Natural will pay for tools, seedlings and training for vulnerable families keen to diversify into new edible forest crops such as wild cacao and açaí. Our support will also enable the replanting of brazil trees to guarantee the long-term future of those who build their livelihood around this important crop, and crucially will provide alternative employment for people of the Bolivian Amazon as they wait for the next brazil harvest.