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Tasty Brazil Nuts Stun Harvesters and Scientists

A Smithsonian biologist tracks the protein-rich nuts to understand their role in the Amazonian forest

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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.

By David Taylor

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