4. The Tree

In the Northern Bolivian Amazon where the majority of Freeworld Trading’s nuts are sourced, the forest vegetation is classed as tropical lowland moist forest, with a forest canopy height of 25-35m (Brienen & Zuidema, 2005).  Here the Brazil nut tree emerges from the canopy, growing to a towering 30 to 50m in height (Mori & Prance, 1990).

The Brazil nut tree (scientific name Bertholletia excelsaHumb. and Bonpl.) is from the Family Lecythidaceae.  The tree can be found on non-flooded ground (terre firma) across the Amazon in countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela (Mori & Prance, 1990).  Brazil nut trees are widely dispersed across the rainforest, usually growing in groups of 50 to 100 or so individuals that are locally known as “manchales” in Bolivia (Zuidema, 2003).  One theory to explain the clumped distribution is that the ancient Amerindians of the forest managed the tree stands and transported the seeds with them as they journeyed through the forest as part of an early system for nut collection (Mori & Prance, 1990; Balee, 1989).

By using radio-carbon dating, some individual Brazil nut trees have been found to be over 650 years old (Vieira, et al., 2005).  The long lived nature of the trees may prove to be an advantage in terms of sustainability; it means that the trees can produce nuts over a number of centuries, so short term gaps in tree regeneration can be buffered to an extent.

This tropical forest region in northern Bolivia covers an area of approximately 100,000 km2 (Soldan, 2003).  The region is diverse and colourful recording 283 tree species, at an average of 75 species per hectare, with the Instituto Boliviano de Investigacion Forestal recording 175 mammal species from their research station in Pando (IBIF, 2009).  It is the relative inaccessibility of this region, and the relative lack of roads that has kept most of the habitat intact.

This may all change with the near completion of the new Interoceanic Highway, which is an extension of the newly paved Brazilian BR-137 that now provides an access link along the northern border of Bolivia and into Peru.  Once complete this new road provides relatively easy access to a region that was once isolated to the sea ports by at the very least a 4 day drive.  There are great concerns that this road will hasten deforestation of the pristine Amazon, as a year round link will be created between the natural riches of the forest and the consumer markets of the Asia and the Pacific.

By securing and maintaining a fair price for brazil nuts, the people who depend on the forest for their livelihoods may be more inclined to preserve the forest so that the trees continue to produce nuts, instead of converting the land to another use, such as unsustainable timber harvesting or cattle ranching.

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