Preserving the Brazil nut forests
Don Alfonso confidently strides down the muddy path. Taking him inside the depth of the forest. He’s short but stocky and has the smile of a loving grandfather. He has a wooden stick in his hand, known as a payana, and a hand-woven tamshi-fiber basket. The route—barely perceptible—winds its way through the vegetation and leads him along a detailed mental map joining the harvesting points of his concession of a little over 1000 hectares, located in the village of San Juan de Aposento in Mavila, Madre de Dios.
Suddenly, he stops in his tracks. A gigantic Brazil nut tree marks the end of the journey. It’s a monument of nature that has grown in this jungle for over 200 years. It would take half a dozen people holding hand to circle its dark, moss-covered tree trunk. Towering high above the other trees, its branches, as thick as oxen, open up like a gigantic umbrella at a height of 40 meters. On the floor, half hidden in the mud, there are several dozen fruits, rock hard and measuring about 15 centimeters in diameter.
After having gathered about 50 into a pile at the foot of the great tree, Alfonso sits down on the floor to open the fruits, one by one. With the jaw-dropping skill he deals potent blows on each fruit capsule, managing to break it without damaging even one of the seeds. With the skill of an Amazonian motmot, he places the nuts into a sack while he throws the empty fruit capsule to one side. It’s a rhythmical movement, one of those that has been perfected over the years.
His Majesty, the Brazil nut
Known and used by native peoples since time immemorial, and commercially exploited for over a century, this surprising Amazon tree still plays a transcendental role in the natural composition of the forests and the life of the inhabitants of the southeastern jungles of Peru.
The Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) is one of the main forest resources in the department of Madre de Dios. Over 16,000 square kilometers of natural forest associations where this species dominates have been identified in his territory, known locally as castañales, or brazil nut stands. Research carried out in the 2000s—before the explosion of mining in the region—indicated that two-thirds of the total population of Madre de Dios was dependent on this resource, to some extent.
Brazil nut forests are unique in the world and only found in the natural triangle formed around the border of Peru, Brazil and Bolivia.
Under threat of deforestation
In 2006, the construction of the Southern Interoceanic Highway between Peru and Brazil brought a great threat of deforestation to one of the richest areas in the world in terms of biodiversity: the forests assigned to small Brazil nut concessionaires in the Peruvian department of Madre de Dios. Several scientific studies carried out in some of the natural protected areas adjacent to the Brazil nut forests (like Manu and Tambopata) have demonstrated that the high terrace forests where the Brazil nut tree grows, is home to more animal and plant species than any other place in the world, including endangered species like the giant river otter, jaguar, cougar and giant anteater.
According to recent forecasts, the easy access generated by the new highway would result in the deforestation of 34% of the area’s natural forest by 2041. The mega project, apart from connecting Brazil to the Pacific and the Asian markets, would also open the door to a large number of migrants in search of land, bringing with them the consequences that come with migratory agriculture: the extermination of key species (large birds and mammals are often key dispersers for tree species of commercial importance), illegal logging and low yield crops.
From the moment the highway was concluded in 2009, the migration of inhabitants from the Andes in search of the natural forest resources (wood and alluvial gold) have quadrupled the pace of deforestation in the region. (Ministry of Environment).
BAM and the REDD+ Brazil Nut Concession Project
The destruction of the tropical of tropical forests contributes with one fifths of total greenhouse gases, impeding the compliance with the emission reduction that’s necessary to avoid a global climate catastrophe. In the face of the growing threat of deforestation in the region, BAM started one of the first REDD+ conservation programs in the world: REDD+ Brazil Nut Concessions, seeking to protect the value of the forests by generating sustainable economic activities to create tangible benefits in favor of local communities.
This is how the REDD+ Brazil Nut Concessions project first emerged in 2009, which groups 405 Brazil nut concessionaire families in the Federation of Brazil Nut Producers of Madre de Dios (FEPROCAMD, for its acronym in Spanish) with the goal of protecting over 300,000 hectares of Brazil nut forests threatened by the new highway. The first step was to consolidate the association of the concessionaires—who had been very disperse until then—and work hard toward the preservation of the Brazil nut forests through concrete efforts such as awarding revolving credits and a permanent protection program. This way, for over a decade, BAM and the 405 families united through FEPROCAMD have prevented the deforestation of over 2,300 hectares per year, protected 320 million trees and avoided the emission of approximately 16 million metric tons of CO2 so far. In this vein, the project expects to prevent the release of over 30 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere between 2020 and 2040.
REDD+ Brazil Nut Concessions was one of the first REDD+ initiatives worldwide to be validated and verified by the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS), the most prestigious international carbon standard.
Apart from economic benefits for the community through the sale of carbon credits, the project offers technical and legal advice to the concessionaire partners to protect their forests, legal support for the title clearance of concessions, a monitoring system to protect the areas, amongst others. The objectives of the short-term strategies are to incorporate 50 new families to the project every year to get to a total of 655 partners by 2025.
The area that the REDD+ Brazil Nut Concessions Project protects consists of 300,000 hectares, a surface larger than Mexico City and similar in size to the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
A dream for the guardians of the forest
Just like Don Alfonso, Florencia has also brought up her children and maintained her family by collecting Brazil nuts. “I’m very happy to have this wonderful forest” says the one who’s now the leader of the Federation of Brazil Nut Producers, as she cleans the dirt that’s stuck to her rubber boots. It’s a tough, but very comforting job which enables independence and ensures a dignified life.
Thanks to the project, hundreds of concessionaire families have been able to organize themselves to resist the attacks from illegal loggers. After years of work and strict certifications, they have started to enjoy the benefits from the carbon credit sales. Soon, they’ll have a processing plant, which will enable them to increase their harvests’ aggregate value. One by one, more concessionaires are becoming interested in becoming part of the project.
Forests that give life, not only to humans, but also to one of the most amazing and diverse ecosystems on Earth, that brings progress to local inhabitants and show that conservation is a way of life that enables the custodians of this great natural resource to create a future of well-being for their families.
Text and photos: Walter H. Wust