Earth First

The Brazil Nut | The Cost of Production

If you’ve seen the catastrophic fires blazing through the Amazon rainforest, like me, you’re probably feeling a little anxious about the state of our environmental affairs. But, it’s not all doom and gloom. Read on to find out how diversifying Brazil nut production could sustain local communities, conserve forests and mitigate climate change – in a nutshell.

Where are Brazil Nuts Produced?

Nearly every Brazil nut eaten worldwide has been exported from three South American countries: Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. Brazil nuts are rarely sourced elsewhere, largely because almost all Brazil nuts are harvested from wild Brazil nut trees found natively across the Amazon Basin.1  With the tree so well adapted to life in the wild rainforest ecosystem, it can make it near impossible to cultivate Brazil nuts in man-made plantations (more on this inThe Impact of Deforestation on Brazil Nuts). Because of this, the nuts are collected across wild reserves, then transported to urban plants where they are processed and shipped across the globe (more on this in ‘The Brazil Nut |How Its Grown).

Sustaining Communities

This Brazil nut monopoly is good news for the people that produce it. Across this tri-border region, Brazil nut harvesting has become a significant financial resource. Currently, the industry supports tens of thousands of rural and indigenous households and generates millions of dollars in annual exports.2 In 2015, Bolivia exported over 20,000 tons of the nuts, adding some 192 million dollars to the national economy.3

Same Forest, Different Uses

While the forest that spans these three nations is much the same, the ways the forest’s natural resources are being used by communities can vary dramatically – which affects the scale of Brazil nut production in each country. One surprising example of this is that the largest producer of the nut is actually Bolivia, not Brazil. Since 2013, Bolivia has accounted for 53% of the world’s supply, with Brazil just behind at 42% and the remaining 6% coming from Peru.2

A key reason for this contrast in land use is the availability of different livelihoods in each region. In areas where local livelihoods are not dominated by other economic activities, such as agriculture and timber harvesting, more people are likely to depend on Brazil nut production for their living – as is the case in Northern Bolivia. Here, Brazil nut harvesting is one of the country’s main economic activities, sustaining more than 50% of the local population and accounting for 45% of Bolivia’s forest-related exports.4 Cross the border into Brazil, however, and nut harvesting makes up just one component of a much larger spread of economic activities, with cattle ranching and agriculture taking pride of place as the nation’s mainstay.5

Environmental Impact on Forests

Brazil nut harvesting is a relatively sustainable system, WUR’s professor of forest ecology and management, Pieter Zuidema, explains to me, “direct environmental impact of Brazil nut collection on Amazonian forests is very small''. In fact, the industry has even been cited as ‘the cornerstone of Amazon conservation’, as it provides crucial economic value to the forests and prevents the conversion of forest land into cattle pastures and cropland.2

Unfortunately, this sustainable system is under threat. Remember, the Brazil nut is not the only commodity in the forest, and while it remains an important export, harvesting only takes place three months of the year between January and March. This means that outside of harvesting months, workers are forced to turn to alternative livelihoods to supplement their wages. Timber logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, mining, cattle ranching and hunting are all common activities, each contributing to deforestation. In fact, the main threat to Amazon forests is, by far, cattle ranching, accounting for nearly 80% of deforestation.6 This deforestation has been linked to the problem we’re currently witnessing, with catastrophic forest fires tearing their way through millions of acres of Amazon rainforest. These fires aren’t all natural – the large majority have been set by cattle ranchers and loggers to clear the way for more  pastures.7

With such a dominant beef industry, many are being drawn away from Brazil nut harvesting under the allure of more viable livelihoods. The answer seems to lie in broadening consumer demand for the Brazil nut. This would ensure harvesters make an equal if not better wage from harvests, lessening their temptation to turn to cattle ranching or agriculture.

Adding Value to Brazil Nuts

Increasing economic appeal towards Brazil nut harvesting and away from livelihoods which harm the forest seems a fundamental piece of the conservation puzzle – and will be key in preventing irreversible global warming. One way to encourage Brazil nut harvesting is to add value to the product by processing it in different ways – as Manuel Guariguata, CIFOR’s Principal Scientist on tropical forest ecology and management tells me, “the key is to really diversify what comes out of these forests, working with the private sector and NGO’s to add value to the product”. This could assist communities to further profit from harvests year-round, lowering their need to turn to non-forest livelihoods.

Aside from eating, Brazil nuts can be sold in a number of forms, which often creates more return for harvesters than selling the raw product. Brazil nut oils can be used in various cosmetics, mechanical lubricants and paint materials. The tough husk of the fruit has even been burnt as fuel to generate electricity in local towns, as an abrasive material for polishing metals and ceramics, or to make carvings and jewellery.8  Other low-impact activities such as eco-tourism can boost harvesters’ income while incentivising a livelihood within the Brazil nut industry. Educating consumers through eco-tourism can also help to build greater consumer appreciation of the production process and the importance of healthy forest habitats.

In A Nutshell

So, how can the industry be promoted?

  1. Broaden Brazil nut products
  2. Stabilise international prices and demand
  3. Build consumer awareness of the nuts’ ‘superfood’ qualities
  4. Increase marketing of Brazil nuts as conserving rainforests
  5. Increase marketing of the industry’s organic and sustainable certification

As long as the forest remains healthy and is managed well, there is no reason why Brazil nut harvesting can’t be both profitable and sustainable.

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  1. Mori (1992) “The Brazil Nut Industry -- Past, Present and Future”. Accessed 26th August 2019.
  2. Guariguata, Cronkleton, Duchelle & Zuidema (2017) “Revisiting The ‘Cornerstone of Amazonian Conservation’: A Socioecological Assessment of Brazil Nut Exploitation. Accessed 28th August 2019..
  1. Velez (2016) “Does the Brazil nut business work in Bolivia?”. Accessed 28th August 2019.
  2. The Brazil Nut Story: Sustaining the Amazon, “History and Industry”. Accessed 28th August 2019.
  3. Zia, Hansen, Hjort & Valdes (2019) “Brazil Once Again Becomes the World’s Largest Beef Exporter”. Accessed 29th August 2019.
  4. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (2019) “Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Region”. Accessed on 1st September.
  5. Mackintosh (2019) “The Amazon is Burning Because the World Eats so Much Meat”. Accessed August 29th 2019 .
  6. Shanley, Pierce, Laird & Guillen (2002) “Tapping the Green Market: Certification and Management of Non-timber Forest Products”. Accessed on 1st September.
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