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Earth First

The Brazil Nut | How It’s Grown

At first glance, the Brazil nut seems little more than an oversized, overpriced nut you pass in the supermarket. You would never imagine the extraordinary journey it has made to reach you. But what is the actual story behind this nut, and what makes it so unique?

Brazil Nuts Only Grow Wild

You might not have thought it, but Brazil nuts are a pretty big deal – adding tens of millions to South American economies each year. Brazil nuts are the most economically important non-timber forest product in the Amazon Basin.1 Mainly an export product, the UK, United States and Germany gobble up an annual average of 21,000 metric tons.2

But, despite its popularity, many of us are clueless to the fact that nearly every Brazil nut has come from Amazon rainforests, hand-picked by forest-dwelling harvesters – as Manuel Guariguata, CIFOR’s Principal Scientist on tropical forest ecology and management tells me from his office in Peru, ‘the Brazil nut is the only internationally traded nut that comes from the wild, so it’s very unique’.

Where Do Brazil Nuts Come From?

To make things confusing, the Brazil nut is a seed, not a nut. These seeds come from the fruits of one of the largest and longest-living organisms in the Amazon rainforest: the Brazil nut tree or Bertholletia Excelsa. Coined ‘excelsa’ in 1808 by naturalists Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland for their impressive size, these Amazonian giants tower above the canopy, reaching heights of up to 50 metres and establishing trunks of 1 to 2 meters in diameter. Using radiocarbon dating, some trees have been aged between 800 and 1000 years old.3 The tree can be found widely distributed throughout the Amazon, in areas of non-flooded ground across the Guianas, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.4

How Are Brazil Nuts Harvested?

Brazil nut harvesting has a long history throughout the Amazon basin, with exports to Europe dating back to the mid-1600s.5 The majority of collection takes place along the tri-border regions of Acre, Brazil, Pando, Bolivia and Madre de Dios, Peru, where it is a crucial source of income for many local communities. Each year, thousands of collectors or castaneros journey to the forest, where they will spend the next few months collecting fruit.

Collectors harvest Brazil nuts during the wet season (January-March) when most of the trees’ fruit has fallen to the forest floor. Mature fruits resemble woody cannonballs so robust that only the agouti, a rodent with the right dental equipment, can crack them open. Each fruit contains roughly 20 seeds (nuts), which are individually armoured and neatly packed like orange segments.

An established tree can produce up to 300 fruits, meaning collectors can harvest some 6000 seeds per tree. The seeds are extracted from the fruit using machetes, then carried out of the forest and transported via boat along the main river circuits, arriving – often days later – at urban processing plants where they are hand-shelled, packaged and internationally exported.6

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References
  1. Moncrieff (2015) “A Little Logging May Go a Long Way” Accessed 22 July 2019.
  2. Kiprop (2018) 'Top Brazil Nut Consuming Countries' Accessed 22 July 2019.
  1. Carmargo, Salomao, Trumbore, Martinelli (1994) “How old are large Brazil-nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa) in the Amazon?” Accessed 22 July 2019.
  2. Mori (1992) “The Brazil Nut Industry -- Past, Present and Future” Accessed 23 July 2019.
  3. Staudhammer (2007) “Explaining variation in Brazil Nut Fruit Production” Accessed 24 July 2019.
  4. Nut Collection. The Brazil Nut Story: Sustaining the Amazon. Accessed 22 July 2019.
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