Jeremy Wade has written on natural history and travel for publications including: BBC Wildlife, the Guardian, the Sunday Telegraph, Kew magazine, Fortean Times and The Field. He has also contributed to The Natural History Programme on BBC Radio 4.
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The following feature appeared in Kew magazine, Winter 2002.

Kew is published by the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Subscription enquiries may be directed to the Friends of Kew membership office. Tel: +44 (0)20 8332 5922, email friends@rbgkew.org.uk, web www.kew.org

How much of the profit from your festive Brazil nuts goes to those with the arduous and dangerous task of collecting them from the flooded rainforest?

Unfair trade
By Jeremy Wade

‘It’s a dangerous time,’ says Zé Luis Olímpio of the Brazil nut harvest. ‘All the snakes get together in the terra firme’ – the scattered humps of high ground that remain above water during the half-year-long flood. These part-time islands are also the places where the distinctively tall Bertholletia excelsa trees drop their annual crop.

To make his point, he shows me a scar on his heel where a surucucu (bushmaster) bit him five years ago. As he swiped it away, his dog came running and was bitten, dying immediately afterwards. ‘I passed two days without knowing anybody, and I still feel it when there’s a new moon.’

But every year he goes back, spending the whole of March, April and May in a forest shack with two of his sons and three other helpers. Each team tends to return to the same grove every year, with any changes to traditional allocations being agreed collectively. Meanwhile the rest of his large family wait for the return of dry land under their stilt house in the village of São Sebastião – one day away by canoe down a narrow, winding creek. Each year between November and July the family watches the river rise and fall between ten and fifteen metres.

Some of the 200-odd trees in his castanhal may produce as many as 1300 ouriços (seed cases). Grapefruit-sized and rock-hard, these are collected from the undergrowth around the tree and thrown into a pile just outside the drop zone. ‘People have been killed by falling ouriços,’ says Olímpio. ‘And you have to be careful how you throw them – not to accidentally bounce one off something and hit one of your companions.’

Each case then has to be cut open. Using a small block with a shallow depression for support, he delivers six or seven powerful chops with a hooked cleaver, the blade falling little more than a centimetre away from bare fingers. At the base of his left thumb there is a jagged scar where his concentration once slipped. After seeing this, my attempt lacks both force and accuracy, and I lose count of the blows needed before I shake the nuts out into my hand.

Up to 20 nuts are packed into each ouriço, arranged like the segments of an orange. These – each still inside its own individual woody shell – are lugged to the water side in woven back-panniers, for transport, while the outer cases are left or used for firewood. The fibrous, button-like umbigo (navel) at the centre of each cluster is traditionally thrown near the trunk to fertilise the thin soil.

The particular nuts collected by Olímpio, from the middle reaches of the Rio Purus, one of the Amazon’s southern tributaries, are renowned for being some of the biggest in Brazil: three laid end-to-end can equal a hand’s span. The flesh is deliciously creamy and oily, a quality that is largely lost in most packeted nuts.

But although high water is a hard time for fishing, the collectors don’t eat Brazil nuts during the harvest or at other times – despite their being an excellent dry ration. ‘You quickly get sick of them,’ says Olímpio – although a local recipe recommends grating them with the bony tongue of the air-breathing pirarucu fish, Arapaima gigas, and mixing with sugar to make a nutritious drink.

As opportunistic hunters, however, the collectors sometimes eat Brazil nuts indirectly, when they cook up an agouti that they have cornered in its burrow in a dead tree trunk. This large rodent is one of the few animals that can chisel into the ouriço to get at the nuts. Its squirrel-like habit of burying the nuts, then forgetting where, is responsible for planting the next generation of trees.

For his three months’ toil, Olímpio can earn up to 1500 reais, about £300. This is after a percentage has been paid to the absentee landowner but before deducting the cost of essential supplies such as salt, coffee, sugar and matches. The farinha (manioc flour) that is his family’s staple carbohydrate is made during the dry season from tubers they grow in their plot.

At first sight, such a sum appears to compare favourably with Brazil’s minimum salary of 200 reais a month. ‘But this is the only guaranteed income we get all year – it only lasts for six months at the most,’ says Raimundo Rebelo de Oliveira. De Oliveira organises shipment to Manaus, the hub of Amazon boat traffic 800 kilometres down river, where market forces reward a good harvest – 250 tonnes this year – with low prices, even though the buyers’ profit margins appear to be very wide. ‘Once I had just sold part of our crop for 15 reais per hectolitre [hundred litres] and I saw some fancy packets of shelled nuts in the same building priced at six reais for 200 grams,’ he says – a staggering 60 times the buy-in price.

Then de Oliveira asks me to consider that most collectors receive less than Olímpio, whose work-rate is exceptional. Some even finish the harvest without enough cash to cover their costs. In such cases the trees can become worth more dead than alive. ‘If a person has debts and somebody comes along offering money for the wood, he’ll chop it down,’ says de Oliveira. ‘But if he knows that tree is going to make money every year, he won’t let anyone even go near it.’

Historically, most of the families now collecting Brazil nuts came to the Amazon to tap wild latex, and some, surprisingly, remember those feudal days with a hint of nostalgia. But the death of the Amazon rubber monopoly is well documented. Against all expectations, Hevea brasiliensis taken to the Far East (via Kew) and grown in plantations took over the trade. Then synthetic elastomers took over many applications.

Until a few years ago, some villagers could find occasional work on a project for replanting samaúma trees, Ceiba pentandra, the fast-growing and majestic kapok or silk-cotton tree. But when the American company that operated the scheme was taken over by a Malaysian concern, the project folded.

Nowadays, the only other ways to make money are from fishing and agriculture, neither of which is without consequences to the environment. ‘To grow things on a larger scale you need to make bigger clearings,’ says de Oliveira. And when fishing goes beyond subsistence level, the temptation is to get into the more lucrative species, such as pirarucu, turtles, and manatees. But these species are now endangered and trade in them is illegal, carrying heavy penalties.

Enforcement, however, is sporadic. The overstretched Government environment institute, IBAMA – Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente – sends armed patrols into the rivers and backwaters, but the same market forces that dictate a low price for Brazil nuts also ensure that illegal fishing continues.

From his position at the sharp end of the man-versus-nature conflict, de Oliveira recognises that a partial solution might lie in better prices for the Brazil nut crop. But he doesn’t hold out much hope for this insight being widely shared. In the Brazil nut groves it’s business as usual. ‘It’s not really worth the work,’ he says. ‘But it’s the only guaranteed income we have.’

* * *

Fair trade Brazil nut products such as chocolate Brazils, Brazil nut cookies and muesli are available in the UK from Traidcraft, Oxfam and, increasingly, mainstream retailers such as Sainsburys and the Co-op. Internet shoppers can buy from www.fairtradeonline.com.



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