By: Liz Baessler
Brazil nuts are an interesting crop. Native to the Amazon rainforest, Brazil nut trees can grow to 150 feet (45 m.) tall and produce nuts for centuries. They’re almost impossible to cultivate, however, because their pollination requirements are so specific. Only certain native bees can get into the flowers and cross pollinate in order to produce the nuts, and these bees are virtually impossible to domesticate. Because of this, pretty much all the world’s Brazil nuts are harvested in the wild. Keep reading to learn about harvesting Brazil nuts and Brazil nut tree facts.
Brazil Nut Tree Facts
Brazil nut trees are a key element of rainforest preservation. Because their worth comes from harvesting Brazil nuts, which can be done when they fall naturally to the forest floor, Brazil nut trees discourage the slash and burn farming that’s ravaging the rainforest.
Together with rubber, which can be harvested without harming the trees, Brazil nuts form a year-long source of low impact livelihood called “extractivism.” Unfortunately, Brazil nut harvest depends upon a large undisturbed habitat for the trees as well as the pollinating bees and the seed-spreading rodents. This habitat is in serious danger.
How and When to Harvest Brazil Nuts
A lot goes into the development of a Brazil nut. Brazil nut trees flower during the dry season (basically autumn). After the flowers are pollinated, the tree sets fruit and takes a full 15 months to develop it.
The actual fruit of the Brazil nut tree is a big seed pond that looks like a coconut and can weigh up to five pounds (2 kg.). Since the pods are so heavy and the trees are so tall, you don’t want to be around in the rainy season (usually beginning in January) when they start to fall. In fact, the first step of Brazil nut harvest is to let the pods drop naturally from the trees.
Next, gather all the nuts off the forest floor and break open the very hard outer shell. Inside each pod are 10 to 25 seeds, what we call Brazil nuts, arranged in a sphere like segments of an orange. Each nut is inside its own hard shell that has to be smashed before eating.
You can break into the shells more easily by first freezing them for 6 hours, baking them for 15 minutes, or bringing them to a boil for 2 minutes.
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The Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) is a South American tree in the family Lecythidaceae, and it is also the name of the tree's commercially harvested edible seeds. It is one of the largest and longest-lived trees in the Amazon rainforest. The fruit and its nutshell – containing the edible Brazil nut – are relatively large, possibly weighing as much as 2 kg (4 lb 7 oz) in total weight. As food, Brazil nuts are notable for diverse content of micronutrients, especially a high amount of selenium. The wood of the Brazil nut tree is prized for its quality in carpentry, flooring, and heavy construction. 
Where Do Brazil Nuts Come From?
To make things confusing, the Brazil nut is actually a seed, not a nut. These seeds come from the fruits of one of the largest and longest-living organisms in the Amazon rainforest: the Brazil nut tree or Bertholletia Excelsa. Coined ‘excelsa’ in 1808 by naturalists Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland for its impressive size, these Amazonian giants tower above the canopy, reaching heights of up to 50 metres and establishing trunks as wide as men. Using radiocarbon dating, some trees have been aged between 800 and 1000 years old. 3 The tree can be found widely distributed throughout the Amazon, in areas of non-flooded ground across the Guianas, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. 4
Growth and Harvest
The fruits of Amazon nut trees are round-shaped, coconut-like shells typically 10 to 15 centimeters in diameter, which grow nuts (seeds) wrapped in a hard, woody, shell that’s not as thick as the outer shell. There are typically 18 to 20 nuts inside each coconut.
Between December and March, the fruits start to fall from the trees. Amazon nut gatherers (known as castañeros) move to the middle of the Amazon forest, where they build their camps and roam vast areas of jungle in search of Amazon nuts. Subsequently, they open them with a machete, and place the seeds in sacks and take them to the processing plants in nearby cities such as Puerto Maldonado, Peru, where the nuts are screened for quality, then peeled and dried.
Our Amazon nut gatherers are trained to promote sustainable and responsible use of forest resources. Thanks to this program, nearly 500 thousand acres of forest have been organic certified and are managed under Organic Standards.
NOW Real Food is proud to support the conservation of Amazon nut forests and their environmental and social value.
Think dessert always has to be an indulgence? Think again. Many plant-based desserts can actually be extremely beneficial towards your health. Whether you go for cheesecakes, dessert crusts, or pies and cakes, Brazil nuts can help take your dishes to a whole new level. Because of their smooth texture, they blend beautifully and also act as a binding agent that even gives off a little crunch. This Double Chocolate Cake uses blended Brazil nuts for its crust and can easily be used as a base for any dessert. On the other hand, this Lemon, Coconut and Vanilla Tart uses Brazil Nuts in the filling, making it extremely rich and decadent. Yum!
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In the Brazil nut forests of the Peruvian Amazon, scientists from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) are trying to resolve a controversial question: can selective timber harvesting coexist with Brazil nut production?
Brazil nuts are giant Amazonian trees that produce huge fruits – called “cocos” in Peru for their resemblance to coconuts. Every year between November and March, as the rain falls on the western Amazon, they tumble to the forest floor, where they’re cracked open by rodents – or humans with machetes.
“The Brazil nut is special because it’s the only internationally traded nut that comes from tropical primary forest,” says Manuel Guariguata, a senior CIFOR scientist who is leading the study.
Due to their unique reproductive system, which requires the presence of large bees to transport pollen from one tree to another, Brazil nuts only thrive in natural forests. Cultivating the species in plantations hasn’t been very successful, and when forests are cut down around Brazil nut trees, they no longer produce.
“In a way it’s a product that promotes forest conservation, because to keep harvesting nuts on a commercial scale, you need to protect the forest,” Guariguata says.
But views differ as to what “protecting the forest” entails. Some say it should be left pristine for only Brazil nut harvesting others that it’s possible for these forests to be “multiple use” – that small amounts of timber can also be harvested there, supporting local livelihoods without adversely affecting Brazil nut production.
But until now, there has been no evidence either way – which is where CIFOR comes in.
In 2000, Peru’s government formalised traditional Brazil nut harvesting areas under a system of concessions, where each family has the right to collect nuts in a particular patch of forest.
In Madre de Dios, around a thousand people make a living as castañeros – the local name for Brazil nut concession owners – generating between 3 million and 4 million kilograms of shelled nuts each year.
But Brazil nuts are not the only trees that thrive in these forests. There are high-value timber species there as well, and many concession owners use selective logging to supplement their income after the nut harvest ends.
With a government-approved management plan, this is legal: concession owners are allowed to remove a certain amount of wood per year. But some extract more than their quota, or log without permission – and sometimes, they say, trees are stolen from their concessions.
The volumes of timber extracted are not enormous – official records show these to be on average 5 cubic metres of wood, not more than one tree per hectare of forest.
But it’s still unknown what effect, if any, logging has on the quantity of Brazil nuts each tree produces.
This question of whether logging and Brazil nut harvesting can coexist has proved controversial in Madre de Dios.
Conservation NGOs are concerned that logging could have unforeseen impacts on the Brazil nut ecosystem.
“These are mature forests that have a well-established dynamic, where every tree, every animal has its role,” says Juan Loja, the director of ACCA (Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica) in Madre in Dios.
“It’s a very interesting, structured, and sensitive ecosystem, and to destroy this dynamic could be catastrophic.”
But many of the organisations representing the castañeros argue that the extra income generated through logging is necessary to support the families throughout the whole year, once the Brazil nut season ends around April.
If we want to Brazil nut forests to produce not only today, but for the next 10, 20 or 50 years, we need to take a little time to evaluate what is actually happening in reality in these forests so that we can improve the best practice guidelines
60-year-old Felicitas Ramirez Surco owns a concession near Alegría, a village not far from Madre de Dios’s major town, Puerto Maldonado.
“We are going to harvest some trees this year, because we need something more in order to survive,” she says.
“We only cut trees that are far away from the Brazil nut trees. If we obey the law, I don’t think there’s a problem.”
Previous CIFOR research suggests that timber and Brazil nut harvesting are not necessarily incompatible, but that there are certain political and financial barriers to the implementation of a “multiple-use” model of forestry management.
And while CIFOR has examined the damage logging causes to Brazil nut trees, the relationship between selective logging and Brazil nut production has never been studied before – and this means that the law determining how much timber can be legally extracted in the Peruvian Brazil nut concessions is not based on any scientifically verified data.
This is what the new CIFOR investigation, led by Guariguata, aims to address.
“The aim of this research is to inform the debate in a scientifically sound manner,” Guariguata says. “Currently there’s no data to really inform policy or best practices.”
“So our aim is to try to harmonize both extractive uses, both the timber and the Brazil nut, in a way that doesn’t compromise either one. But there’s always a trade-off, and we think that there could be an effect on Brazil nut production when you harvest timber.”
The CIFOR team is working with 13 forestry students from the local Universidad Nacional Amazónica de Madre de Dios (UNAMAD) who are carrying out various measurements in the field.
They are working in five Brazil nut concessions near the villages of Alerta and Alegría, including the concession of Felicitas Ramirez Surco.
By measuring the production of individual Brazil nut trees – counting each fruit that falls and weighing the nuts inside – the scientists aim to measure whether logging gaps near Brazil nut trees affect how much they produce.
“We want to quantify whether the effect is very intense, whether there’s no effect at all, or whether the effect might be even positive. It is possible that we have a positive effect – because when you remove competing trees, there’s more light reaching the other trees, and Brazil nut trees may benefit from that,” Guariguata said.
“On the other hand, when you alter the structure of the forest, the pollinator bees may be disrupted, which could reduce fruit production” he said.
Research for policy – and the grassroots
Whatever the results, says Guariguata, they will have implications for both policy and local practices.
Madre de Dios:
Conflicting land-use rights threaten Brazil nut harvesters
“If there’s no effect, we can safely assume that you can keep harvesting timber at the applied intensities – which is about one tree per hectare – and not compromise Brazil nut production.
“If there is a negative effect, then that’s going to inform the local producers, and they then can decide whether they keep harvesting the timber in their forest or not, that’s their decision.”
“And if there’s a positive effect then we have a win-win situation.”
Luisa Rios, the local coordinator of CIFOR’s key local partner, the NGO SPDA (Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental) says this kind of serious analytical research is needed to help improve the regulations governing Brazil nut practices.
“If we want to Brazil nut forests to produce not only today, but for the next 10, 20 or 50 years, we need to take a little time to evaluate what is actually happening in reality in these forests so that we can improve the best practice guidelines – and this can only be done through field research on the ground,” she said.
And the research is also important for the producers themselves, says Guariguata. The concessions the scientists are working in are those of Brazil nut concession owners who volunteered the use of their forests after a local consultation session, because they were interested in the results.
“There’s also a lot of local ownership in the process,” he said.
Miguel Zamalloa, the president of one of the local Brazil nut harvesters’ organisations, RONAP (Recolectores Orgánicos de la Nuez Amazónica de Perú), says he’s very interested to learn the results of the CIFOR study.
“Selective logging has co-existed with Brazil nut production for a long time. But it is becoming more intense,” he said.
“We need information about what is happening now – and what we can do for the future. Once we see the results of this investigation, we’ll know a little more about how the Brazil nuts are being affected, and can decide what to do.”
For more information on issues discussed in this article, please contact Manuel Guariguata.
This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and was supported by USAID.
Tasty Brazil Nuts Stun Harvesters and Scientists
A single pod of brazil nuts can just about fit in a man's hand. But whenever a good-sized pod, like the ones in the National Museum of Natural History's South American exhibition, tumbles from its perch some eight stories above the forest floor, people take notice. "You sometimes see animals staggering around with large welts" where they've been struck, says Enrique Ortiz, a biologist at NMNH who has been studying Brazil nuts in Peru for more than eight years. The four- to six-pound pods hit the ground with a force that can — and does — kill a man. At times they literally plant themselves on impact.
A falling harvest is just one of the mortal dangers braved by castañeros, as people who live by collecting the nuts are known in Spanish-speaking South America. The nuts themselves are known as castañas (or castanhas in Brazil). Trying to gather Brazil nuts on a regular basis puts the castañeros in contact with vipers and jaguars, diseases like malaria and leishmaniasis, tyrannical bosses and traders, not to mention death from drowning and armed skirmishes over the possession of trees.
Brazil nuts add some $44 million annually to South American economies. Americans gobble up nearly $17 million of the nuts a year. Alone among the foods in the world economy, these nuts come almost exclusively from remote natural forests rather than more convenient plantations.
Ortiz and his colleague Adrian Forsyth describe their research goal as "getting Brazil nut forests protected based on the ecologic, economic and social viability" of collecting Brazil nuts from natural forests. They think they may be able to show that, danger of serious or fatal injury aside, castañeros can make a better living gathering nuts from a living forest year after year than from any one-shot timber harvest.
Ortiz and his team have gone to elaborate lengths with these goals in mind. Their research site is the Madre de Dios region of Peru in the Amazon's lush, upland rain forests where Peru, Brazil and Bolivia meet. This is one of the most productive areas of Brazil nut country. From Lima, it's a one-hour plane ride plus seven hours by boat. In Madre de Dios, Ortiz and a team of eight researchers keep 1,000 or so trees under surveillance, counting every pod that falls and locating the most productive areas so that castañeros can gather the nuts more efficiently. Each pod holds 10 to 25 Brazil nuts, which are technically seeds, arranged inside a pod like sections inside an orange.
Brazil nut trees flower at the start of the rainy season each flower lasts just one day. Blossoms that open before dawn one morning fall by late afternoon. Gradually the forest floor becomes strewn with the cream-colored, marble-to-golf-ball-size flowers, which attract brocket deer and large nocturnal rodents called pacas. The mature pods fall in the rainy season.
Castañeros have to time things just right. If they come too early they waste valuable time waiting for the pods to fall. Too late and they'll lose the harvest to agoutis, cat-size brown rodents that gather up all the Brazil nut pods they can find and then bury the nuts individually, just as squirrels bury acorns for future food.
The agouti turns out to be a major player in the history of the Brazil nut. By burying the Brazil nuts, agoutis hold the key to the tree's survival in remote areas. The agouti is virtually the only animal that has teeth strong enough to open the thick husk and liberate the seeds so they can sprout. Ortiz was the first to fully understand the agouti's crucial role. To learn how many pods each agouti collected and how far it carried them, Ortiz and his team carefully opened pods that fell from 12 trees in Madre de Dios, painstakingly glued a tiny magnetic strip and a number to each seed, then glued all 120 pods back together like Russian egg puzzles.
The agoutis were completely taken in and busily began eating, or burying the doctored nuts. Ortiz's team later spent more than six months searching the forest with a magnetic locator and waiting for the seeds to sprout, a cycle that takes up to a year. Their patience is yielding a precise picture of how the Brazil nut population replenishes itself and what conditions are most favorable to its regeneration. Further research may reveal other ways in which the castañeros' harvesting could be more efficient and profitable. At present, more than 30 percent of harvested nuts spoil before they get to market.
For centuries the trees have been acquiring more and more human travel agents, those local people who found the nuts and pods useful. Many tribes, like the Yanomami, ate the nuts raw, grated and mixed into a manioc porridge. (The nuts also contain varying levels of selenium — perhaps 250 times more than most foods — depending on the soil where they're grown. Selenium may deter ovarian cancer by helping activate a powerful antioxidant, but too much can be toxic and cause balding.) Today the nuts are dried and graded, and some are shelled, before being packed in vacuum-sealed bags for shipment. They are eaten raw as well as roasted and salted. Brazil nuts contain about 14 percent protein, 11 percent carbohydrates, and 67 percent fat or oil, as well as potassium, phosphorus, calcium and Vitamin B.
People consume the Brazil nut not just as a protein-rich food, but in a special tea for stomachaches and ultimately as an ingredient in Ben & Jerry's Wavy Gravy ice cream. Its oil has been used for cooking, and in lamps and soaps and, more recently, hair conditioners. The husk can be burned for fuel, set smoking to repel mosquitoes and blackflies, or carved into ashtrays and trinket cases.
At the end of the 15th century, unbeknownst to the Amazonians, Spain and Portugal divided up South America. The Portuguese got Brazil and started sending back tantalizing samples of the New World in ships laden with gold and jaguars. Meanwhile, the Spanish infiltrated from the west coast. On a reconnaissance mission in 1569, Spanish officer Juan Alvarez Maldonado and his exhausted troops flopped down to rest in the middle of some Brazil nut groves near the Madre de Dios River. The Cayanpuxes Indians told Maldonado about the nuts, and he ordered that thousands be collected for rations. The Spanish called them "almendras de los Andes" — "almonds of the Andes."
But it wasn't until 1633, when the trade-savvy Dutch sent some of the nuts home, that Brazil nuts gained a truly world market. The German botanist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt and French colleague Aimé Bonpland ventured to South America in 1799. During a five-year expedition, they collected 60,000 plants, as well as other specimens, and data on wildlife, climate and geology. Humboldt was the first European to observe how the poison curare was made. He scrambled most of the way up the Andean volcano Chimborazo, more than 20,000 feet tall, setting a world altitude record that stood for 30 years. On their return to Paris, they were treated like homecoming astronauts. It was they who named the Brazil nut tree Bertholletia excelsa, after Humboldt's friend the chemist and salon host Claude Louis Berthollet.
By the second half of the 19th century, the celebration of Christmas in England had snowballed into a lavish affair, and the holiday brought bowlfuls of the raw, bitter-tasting nuts to households throughout the country. "I'm Charley's aunt from Brazil — where the nuts come from," was a boffo line in various versions of the farce Charley's Aunt, which opened in London in 1892 and had many lives, including a movie with Jack Benny.
Along the way a remarkable thing happened. Brazil nuts got hooked up with that other Amazonian wonder, rubber, in a symbiotic relationship. The enormous demand for rubber that started in the mid-19th century brought waves of settlers from the coast into the forest, where they tapped the gooey white latex from May to November. Many collected raw rubber in Brazil nut husks. In the rainy winter, Brazil nut harvesting kept them working in the forest from December to March. When the rubber market soared, Brazil nut sales followed. From 1847 to 1897, rubber exports grew by more than 2,000 percent. But in the 1870s colonists in Southeast Asia found they could grow Brazilian rubber trees free from the parasites prevalent in South America. From 1910 on, Brazilians watched rubber's price plummet. Those stranded in the forest with no sure income turned to the Brazil nut. Today's castañeros live a lot like they did a hundred years ago. They make huts in the forest and wait for the nuts to fall. Most collecting is done in the morning, when the wind is still and there's less chance of being beaned by a falling pod. On a good day, an experienced collector can find upwards of a thousand pods, chop them open with a machete and haul the nuts, in sacks of up to 140 pounds, to the nearest river or road.
The Brazilian port of Belém still exports about half the world's Brazil nuts, but the supply pyramid is steep: many thousands of collectors feed only a few exporters several of Brazil's largest export firms are held by one family. In the backcountry the nuts remain a kind of currency, and occasionally violence erupts. In Macapa, Brazil, in 1985, six collectors were killed and 12 wounded in a fight over Brazil nuts. Dealers cruise the waterways in boats loaded with food and manufactured goods, looking to barter for nuts. Castañeros squirrel away Brazil nuts as insurance against emergencies. Ortiz tells of one family crisis when a collector had to rush his son, who was running a high fever, to a clinic. With no money on hand, the man threw several sacks of shelled nuts into the canoe. At the village, he quickly sold the nuts and bought the boy's medicine.
There have been changes. Parts of the Amazonian forests have given way to dams, cattle ranching and slash-and-burn farming. Last year fires consumed thousands of square miles of forest. Ortiz and Forsyth know it won't be biology alone that makes the Brazil nut business healthier for the castañeros and the trees. A sharp drop in the market price can transform some castañeros into chain-saw-wielding outlaws.
Though felling Brazil nut trees is illegal, a black market exists for the trees' durable wood. But understanding biology can help. "Think about the connections," says Ortiz. "Bees pollinate and affect fruit production, which determines the harvest size, and ultimately this justifies land-use policies, which determine the forest's fate." Likewise, "changes in the agouti population may affect seed losses, regeneration of the trees, forest health and collectors' incomes," says Ortiz. "This needs to be known." The agoutis aren't talking, however. One stands poised in the NMNH display, just a few feet from the Brazil nuts, forever awaiting its snack.