The Brazil nut tree: grandiose and threatened

fevereiro, 01 2010

Learn more about the Brazil nut Tree, chosen by WWF-Brazil to symbolise the richness of Brazilian Nature in the month of February.
The Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa), also known in Brazil as the castanheira-do-Pará (Pará Nut tree) is a beautiful, tall, stately tree native to the Amazon. It can be found in forests along the courses of the great rivers like the Amazon river, the Negro, the Orinoco and the Araguaia, but it is currently threatened with extinction.

Although it is present in all nine Amazonian countries (Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela and French Guyana), nowadays it is only abundant in Bolivia and Suriname.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies the Brazil nut tree as a vulnerable species and in Brazil it is on the Ministry of the Environment’s list of threatened species. The risk of extinction stems mainly from deforestation. In Brazil the big nut trees are felled to build roads and bridges, or cleared to make way for and implant farming settlements that are part of the agrarian reform process and for pastureland to raise cattle.

Roasted, raw or in sweets

In spite of the threat of extinction it faces, the Brazil nut tree continues to offer human beings a delicacy that is appreciated all over the world: the Brazil nut. It can be eaten raw from the kernel, or roasted or in the form of a kind of floury meal. It is delicious in sweets and ice-cream and goes very well with chocolate too.

Because it is a rich source of proteins carbohydrates and fats, it is widely consumed by the Amazonian population. The oil extracted from it is used in manufactured products and cosmetics and the nut is an important source of income for many Amazonian communities.

Did you know that...
In spite of being widely known as the Brazil nut tree the world’s largest exporter of nuts is actually Bolivia. That is because the population of trees has diminished considerably in Brazil and, furthermore, the system of nut production is not very organised.

What the trees look like

Brazil nut trees commonly grow to a heights of over 30 metres with trunks of 1 to 2 metres in diameter. It is one of the tallest trees in the Amazon and some individuals have been recorded with heights of 50 metres and five metres diameter.

The trunk goes straight up and the branches are all concentrated near the top. The bark is greyish and the leaves that it spreads out over and above the forest canopy are from 20 to 35 cm long.

Brazil nut trees require an untouched environment to complete their reproductive cycles. Their flowers are only pollinated by certain species of insects which are attracted by the orchids that are associated to the trees. If the orchids or the insect species die then the nut trees bear no fruit.

The fruit itself takes over a year to ripen. It is about the size of a coconut and may weigh up to 2 Kg. The shell of the fruit is extremely hard and inside it holds from 8 to 24 seeds which are the valuable nuts.

When they are not consumed by rodents, marmosets or people, the seeds take from 12 to 18 months to germinate. Many of them are actually planted by agoutis that gnaw the hard shells to get at the seeds, some of which they eat and others they bury to eat later on. Whatever seeds the agoutis forget to go back for sprout in the following year to begin the 500 year-long life cycle of a Brazil nut tree.

And what we can do to care for them

Because the single biggest threat to the Brazil nut trees is deforestation, the only way to eradicate the threat to the species is to take care of our forests. Only buying wood that has been certified, supporting the creation and management of conservation units and always preferring ecologically and socially sustainable products over others are just some of the ways we can help to preserve the Brazil nut trees and many other threatened tree species as well.

Brazil Nut Project

The Brazil Nut Project was begun in 2001 with the financial support of WWF-Brazil. It enables Brazil nut producers to organise themselves into cooperatives, obtain certification (organic certification, Forest Stewardship Council certification and Fair Trade certification) for their product and gain access to new purchasing markets.

The aim of the project is to increase the income of Brazilian communities that depend on Brazil nut production and in that way contribute towards maintaining the standing forests by means of the sustainable use of forest resources. If the communities manage to earn an adequate income from selling Brazil nuts, they will not have to turn to other economic activities that are harmful to the environment.

The Brazil Nut Project began as a pilot project under the leadership of WWF-Brazil and it has been executed by local associations in the state of Acre. The project provides training for Brazil nut producers in best harvesting practices, storage, drying and transportation of Brazil nuts.

During the first phase from 2001 to 2004, the project benefitted 30 families in the municipalities of Epitaciolândia and Brasiléia in the Brazilian state of Acre. In 2006 the Sebrae organisation expanded the initiative and with the financial support of WWF-Brazil it proved possible to include 260 families in nine municipalities.

One of the major innovations that the Brazil Nut Project has introduced is in the way in which the product is commercialised. The project has led to significant improvements in the quality of the product stemming from the training that was given and the organisation of producers in cooperatives. The producers themselves have been able to exercise greater control over the commercialisation process and obtain better prices.
Brazil nut trees commonly grow to a heights of over 30 metres with trunks of 1 to 2 metres in diameter (One of the tallest trees in the Amazon).
Brazil nut trees commonly grow to a heights of over 30 metres with trunks of 1 to 2 metres in diameter (One of the tallest trees in the Amazon).
© WWF-Brasil / Clóvis Miranda
Brazil Nut.
Brazil Nut.
© Michel Gunther / WWF