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  • Rich D'Amaru

Brazil nut, the Queen of the Amazon Forest

Updated: Nov 10, 2018

Marilena Altenfelder

It is always good to know more about the Amazon Rainforest and its inhabitants. And when we think about the plant biodiversity of the forest, one of the species that comes to mind is the well-known and appreciated Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) which refers to the name of both the nut and the tree. I would like to write some words about it.

Since the arrival of the Europeans to South America, this tree is mentioned and described in reports of travelers, both religious and naturalists. It is a tree of great size and longevity, which is discontinuously distributed throughout the Amazon biome in all nine countries (Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia (its largest exporter worldwide), Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela and French Guyana), mainly in dry land woods.

Imposing, the Brazil nut tree usually stands out in the forest! They reach between 30m and 50m in height and 1m to 2m in diameter, making it one of the highest species in the Amazon. In general, the tree presents a straight, very regular trunk from the base of the tree to its crown. Its wood is very resistant, easy to process, and considered beautiful, and can be used in a variety of ways. They may present significant differences in trunk and stem length and width; size of the fruit; size, quantity and number of nuts per fruit.

The fruit takes more than a year to mature, it is about the size of a coconut and weighs around 1.5 kg. The shell is very hard and contains between 8 and 24 nuts. The Brazil nut trees takes about a month to drop all their mature fruits, there are variations depending on climatic and weather conditions. Its flowers are only pollinated by some types of insects, which are attracted by orchids that live near the Brazil nut trees. If the orchids or insects are killed, the Brazil nut trees do not bear fruit. If the nuts are not devoured by rodents, macaws, monkeys or humans, the seeds take from one year to a year and a half to germinate.

In addition to humans, many seeds are planted by agoutis, that gnaw the fruit to open the hard shell, eat some of the seeds and bury the others to eat later. The seeds forgotten by the agoutis will germinate from the earth the following year to begin the 500 years of life of a new Brazil nut tree. But the most interesting in current research is that they demonstrate the intimate relations between the indigenous peoples and the dispersion of the Brazil nut trees in the Amazon, through the management of the landscape, creating biocultural landscapes of nuts. The Brazil nut trees were cultivated by indigenous peoples who have lived in the region for many centuries, in a way that these groups have a very strong connection with this tree, both for food and for festivities and rituals, so that for ethnic groups such as Ápiaká, Kayabi , Cinta Larga, Munduruku, Sateré-Mawé, among others, the Brazil nut has a much greater value than just ecological.

The Zo'é people, for example, enjoy Brazil nuts and often build their communities near Brazil nut orchards. In addition to providing a rich source of food, the nutshells are used to make bracelets, and the fiber of the shell is used to make hammocks. The Wai Wai people who live in Roraima use Brazil nut as a base for spicy broths, crispy and tasty beijus (a kind of manioc pancakes), sweets, porridges, juice and oil[1].

The Brazil nut is also part of the daily life of quilombola communities in the region. When Afro-descendant communities formed their quilombos in the Amazon they had to learn to extract their survival from the forest. They began to hunt, fish and collect plant products in the woods and manage the landscape through agricultural practice. Since the 19th century, the Brazil nut has represented an important source of income, as is the case of Oriximiná quilombolas[2]. The practice of collecting the Brazil nut involves tools such as the machete and the paneiro (a basket used to transport the Brazil nut). In Oriximiná:

"The castanheiros (Brazil nut gatherers) gather the fruits that are scattered around the ground, usually using the machete. After gathering a certain amount, the gatherers break the fruits with the machete. This activity demands strength and ability as the shell is very hard. Some people break the shells in the Brazil nut orchard, others perform this task in the tapiri (camp). The Brazil nuts are washed to remove dirt and for the selection of the nuts - others are discarded, because they are not good enough as food”.

For the Wai Wai the Brazil nut is a source of income, they call the Brazil nut orchards "our savings"[3] because they guarantee money like the white people’s savings. With this confirmation the Wai Wai affirm that they must take good care of the forest and continue transmitting knowledge to the new generations, preserving the nuts and the forest. For this people the Brazil nut tree is, above all, a key species to their culture and food sovereignty. For us the nuts are appreciated for their flavour, being used both in cooking in general, especially in the accompaniment of sweets, as well as by the cosmetics industry, which use the oil obtained from the Brazil nut to make shampoos, conditioners and soaps . In addition to commercial uses, health research indicates that substances found in Brazil nut can slow down aging and even help prevent some types of disease.

The Brazil nut tree is considered vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and, in Brazil, it appears on the list of extinction threatened species. The main cause to the risk of extinction is deforestation. In the various countries of South America, Brazil nut trees are cut down for the construction of roads and dams and for cattle breeding. In some areas of the Amazon, Brazil nut extractivism is still an option for populations, as it is an alternative to deforestation and a way of exploring the forest, keeping it standing, because it is not necessary to cut down the tree to remove the nut. This is a possible way to live together with this amazing tree, the queen of Amazon.

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