Picture the Bertholletia excelsa, a tree that can live over 1,000 years, growing over 150 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. When ripe, its round fruits containing the seeds known as Amazon nuts weigh upwards of four pounds and drop like cannon balls to the forest floor. Were it not for this highly nutritious food product, the long, straight trunks may have been logged long ago for shipbuilding. Instead, Amazon nuts have become a conservation commodity–one that helps keep tropical forests standing and healthy.
Amazon nuts as a global commodity
Growing in natural forests across Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, Amazon nuts (formerly Brazil nuts) were among the first products that Portuguese explorers of Amazonia brought back to Europe. Imported by seventeenth-century Dutch traders as a luxury item, they grew in trade value to become as important as rubber in the mid-twentieth century.
And when livelihood prospects in the increasingly exploitative rubber trade diminished, nut harvest presented better options. Communities of harvesters started to exert customary control of forest areas. As they built huts in the forest, from which to wait for the nuts to fall, new models of government-held, community-managed forest concessions emerged. Across exporting countries, it became illegal to log Bertholletia excelsa.
Amazon nut harvester from Amapá, Brazil emptying his sack on the forest floor. Image by Maurício de Paiva.
Amazon nuts’ forest footprint
As with coffee and cocoa, Europeans tried to raise plantations of Amazon nuts in Southeast Asia, but they never became economically viable. Fortunately this means the niche for Bertholletia excelsa in conservation endures. The tree needs the complex, biodiverse conditions of the rainforest. The pollinating orchid bee flies long distances to pollinate each stand of Bertholletia excelsa with enough genetic diversity to produce viable seeds. And for a seed to become a new tree requires the agouti—the only animal adapted to crack the hard nutshells open.
Consequently, threats to the integrity of the forest also compromise opportunities for Amazon nuts. Forests across the Amazon are being cleared for beef cattle pasture and to grow other agricultural commodities that cities consume.
Mario Montes demonstrating how harvesters in Madre de Dios, Peru, use a handmade wooden tool called a pallana to pick up the Amazon nut pods. Image by Barbara Fraser.
The forest-positive opportunity
A successful tree can produce up to 250 pounds of nuts in a single year and provide not only nuts to city-based consumers, but also useful byproducts. Nut oil is turned into cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Nutshells are ground up and turned into polishes and more.
Where forests are intact and well-managed, harvest of Amazon nuts can continue almost indefinitely. Amazon nuts support tens of thousands of rural livelihoods–sometimes fifty percent of a family’s annual income or more–and could support more. In addition, research shows that Bertholletia excelsa can successfully establish on degraded forest areas, making it useful for landscape restoration.
Stable markets for Amazon nuts will help harness the opportunities. Currently, prices fluctuate according to the fortunes of almonds, hazelnuts, and other historically ‘preferred’ nuts. However, steady and fair prices for Amazon nuts have the potential to forestall forest loss to mining, logging, and other activities. In this way, purchasing Amazon nuts through a Partner Forest has a direct impact on forest outcomes.
Here one can visibly see the border between the lush rainforest of the Zoró Indigenous Territory and the unprotected land beside it. Image by Fred Rahal Mauro.
Communities supplying forest-positive Amazon nut products
Learn more about Amazon nuts
Learn more about the Amazon nut the vital role it plays in the environment, economy, and society by reading this WWF article
Learn more about the people harvesting Amazon nuts in Amapá, Brazil by reading this National Geographic article