Harvesting Brazil Nuts to Save Amazonian Forests

For our second column in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, we travel to Peru’s southern Amazon with Loyola Escamilo, director of the Madidi-Tambopata Landscape in Peru for the WCS.  

The first time I was in a castaña (Brazil nut) forest was in 2002. I had been in the Amazon before, but not in a forest like this. At that time I came to Madre de Dios, in the southern Amazon region of Peru, to work in planning two protected natural areas: the Bahuaja Sonene National Park and the Tambopata National Reserve, places with high biological and cultural diversity. While different types of Amazonian ecosystems are fascinating and make it captivating to work in conservation, the Brazil nut tree has two characteristics that make it particularly special: its complex biology and minimal impact on the forest generated by its use (through the collection of its nut), allowing local people benefit economically from commercialization.

The flowers of the Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) depend on bees for pollination and once pollinated develop a fruit, containing about 20 nuts, which after 15 months falls to the forest floor. Already on the ground, if not collected, the only way that the seeds can be removed is when a rodent known as añuje, or agouti, opens the fruit. The agouti eats some nuts and buries others to eat them later, but forgets where he buried them, thus allowing new trees to grow Brazil nuts. But the agouti is not the only one who benefits, it’s also the castañeros, the men and women who collect coconuts to commercialize the nuts.

I lived and worked in the region of Madre de Dios for almost 5 years and had the luck to meet several castañeros from the Tambopata National Reserve, where the sustainable harvest is legally permitted. I remember especially fondly Benigno ‘Nino’ Herrera ​​and Vilma Herrera Zegarra. Nino and I kept in touch and we are good friends to this day. Vilma I did not see as much, though I knew of her family and the Association of Castañeros of the Tambopata National Reserve (ASCART) to which they belonged.

Ten years later, while working for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), I was able to visit a forest of Brazil nut trees in the Tambopata National Reserve. This time we brought along my good friends Nino and Kenny, the son of Vilma, who aside of being a castañero is a guide, who led us to a plot of Brazil nut trees belonging to his mother. During the trip we were fortunate enough to have excellent weather, despite still being in the rainy season. To reach our destination we traveled by boat a couple of hours along the Madre de Dios River and a half an hour up a creek called Palma Real Chico, until reaching the castañal of Kenny’s family inside the Tambopata National Reserve. There, he taught us how the fruits are harvested using the payana and a basket to place the pieces. We tasted a fresh, milky Brazil nut, which has a truly exquisite flavor. On the way back we met other castañeros carrying the barrels (sacks) in a small peke-peke (motorized canoe). The next day we visited the processing plant of ASCART, where we learned the process of the arrival of the nuts to final drying.

Accompanying us on the trip was Luis Flores, the bartender of Lima restaurant ámaZ, from renowned chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, one of the leaders of the Peruvian gastronomic boom. The goal was to learn firsthand how the use of the Brazil nut from collection and transportation to processing, as well meet the castañeras that enable this tasty nut to become an ingredient in a top kitchen. As a result of the trip, ámaZ and ASCART initiated the first shipment of Brazil nuts from a forest managed by the Tambopata National Reserve to the restaurant.

ÁmaZ is a restaurant that is characterized by its use of products from the Peruvian Amazon, including camu camu, cassava, fish like doncella and dorado, heart of palm, pijuayo, as well as the Brazil nut. ÁmaZ dishes with Brazil nuts include chonta con fariña de castañas (palm heart with Brazil nut powder) or arroz al palillo con castaña (al palillo rice with Brazil nuts), plus desserts such as chocolate brownies with Brazil nut ice cream and cocktails like the Mick and Monique.

The Brazil nut is a symbol for those who work in conservation of natural resources, because unlike other nuts, Brazil nuts cannot be grown in plantations, but only found in nature and therefore its low yield management preserves Amazonian forests. For this reason, it is important to have allies in the kitchen, especially now that Peruvian cuisine is recognized worldwide. Chefs are increasingly interested in knowing where their products come from, as well as the people and stories behind them. All of us, as responsible consumers, should know where our food comes from and make our decisions accordingly, which will help to preserve Amazonian forests and the families that depend on them.