A recipe for a healthy rainforest in a nutshell
A chocolate-coloured, toe-shaped nut. The Brazil nut. One of the finest. Full of protein, calcium, iron, selenium and a whole host of other riches; one creamy crunch and you’re reaching for another.
But hang on. Stop there. Your hand hovers over the bowl? It’s time to travel with that Brazil nut, to see life as it sees it. Surf over the sea, nose-dive into the Southern Hemisphere, skip a time-zone or three and push back the lianas into the steaming shadows of the largest rainforest on earth. The Amazon.
It’s October, the start of the rainy season in northern Bolivia and Rondonia province, Brazil. Cumulus clouds are towering; gathering vapour, ready to discharge. The humidity is tangible. And the sound is deafening. Far, far, above you, some 50 metres up, an army of bees are supping on the sweet nectar of hundreds of custard-coloured Brazil nut tree flowers.
But these are no ordinary bees. They belong to the orchid-bee family. Strong enough to lift the coiled hood of the Brazil nut flower, with an extraordinarily long tongue, adapted to extract the sticky-sweet delights hidden deep within the complex, coiled flower. In a silky-scented twist to the tale, the bees are believed to be attracted to the Brazil nut trees by nearby perfumed orchids. While the orchids’ nectar is thought to provide special chemicals that enhance the colour of the bees’ wings, making them even more dashing to the females!
The more orchids, the more bees; the more bees, the more Brazil nuts. As you crane your neck to catch a view of the spiralling world above, a flower flops onto your nose. It’s a day old and is already dead. It will not be wasted. A million “snipers” await. A procession of dapper leaf-cutter ants clip their floral trophies into shape and proceed back to their mushroom gardens, in the roots of the Brazil nut tree.
Now you must wait. Watch. Inhale. Over a year must go by. You press “fast-forward”: aerial roots spiral down from the canopy, seedlings burst into leaf and belt skywards for a chink in the forest’s leafy armour, a lattice-work of fungi spreads its fingers into the fine leaf-litter, jaguars pass, channel-billed toucans whoop to one another and the fading sun, macaw parties screech on high and the inky-green algae sprouts from the hanging sloth’s coat.
All the while, the Brazil nut’s “toes” are fattening. Twenty are jostling for space within a single canon-ball pod. Waiting for the trigger; the rains. More and more rain falls, for longer periods and more regularly between November and March. And the canon-balls start showering down.
This is no time to linger under that 20 metre wide Brazil nut canopy. A single knock from one of those balls (up to 2.5 kg) dropping from 50 metre can kill a man. Watching the action from afar. The next jigsaw piece to the Brazil nut tale reveals itself.
A silvery moon-shadow casts light on a Brazil nut pod, lying unsuspecting at the base of a nearby mahogany tree. Your ears detect a rustle Jaguar? No, too light. Suddenly an over-grown, guinea-pig-ratty type of creature snuffles over. An agouti. He stands on his back legs. Sniffs the air. Nothing there? Quickly he gets to work. Sharp, “tin-opening” incisors grinding away at the seemingly unconquerable pod. And he’s in. Ruthlessly efficiently he chews a few choice nuts. Acutely aware that the bounty is short-lived, he begins digging larders, ensuring caches for the future months.
So that’s that. Another generation of Brazil nut trees are secured thanks to “Super-Agouti”. Because, as we all know, we can count on the agouti, just as we can upon our red-squirrel, to forget exactly where he put all of his stores. The forgotten treasures will soon be sprouting and belting for a place in the Amazon’s canopy.
But that’s not the end of the tale. There is much debate on how prolific the agouti is in his scattering behaviour. Some suggest capuchin monkeys are also embroiled in the Brazil nut’s fate, having been reported to crack open the pods using a stone as an anvil. Then there are the “mega mammals”, ancestors to Africa’s great herbivores, that were wiped out by past South American civilizations and could well have played a role in the Brazil nut’s story.
Then there are humans. Many believe that indigenous rainforest tribes have been key to the spread of the Brazil nut from the north of Brazil and Venezuela, deep into the Amazon, to Bolivia and Peru. For generations people have created small clearings within the rainforest. Much like the natural gaps that occur when tall emergent trees fall, bringing down nearby trees in the process. Rainforest people created their “gaps” by traditional “slash-and-burn” agriculture.
Once the vegetation was cleared, they would plant crops such as manioc, which benefited from the nutrients of the ashes. But quickly the soil would degrade and in a couple of years, they would abandon the site, being sure to plant some Brazil nuts for future harvesting, which would benefit from the light of the clearing. And so the Brazil nut lived on.
What’s incredible, is that today, in 2013, really deep in the Amazon, far from the deforestation gashes of roads and the whine of out-board motors, far far from any worldly influences, a few forgotten tribes, perhaps 40 in number still exist. Living as their forefathers, in harmony with the forest, still clearing for manioc and planting their Brazil nuts.
But they are only for your dreams. You can hear voices. It’s March, most of the Brazil nut pods have dropped to the ground and local men, the “casteneros” are arriving to harvest their “plots”. They have already cut-back the vegetation that strangled last year’s paths and cleared the floor under their trees in preparation. With an ever present machete and a basket on their back, secured with a strap over their forehead, they begin collecting.
Baskets bulging they head out of the forest. A Brazil nut tumbles to the floor. In the following months a new seedling sprouts in the light of the path. So what is this nut in your hand? A perfect segment of intact rainforest.
Because unlike just about any other food you might pop into your mouth, this hasn’t been industrially produced or spat out from the tired ranks of a plantation. People have of course tried, but it just hasn’t been economically viable. And anyway, where are the orchid bees, the orchids or agoutis; the intricate fabric of a functioning tropical rainforest that it depends upon? It’s a nut with a story, a history, a local person’s life, a rainforest that can remain standing.
So lie back, reach out to the bowl, chomp on a Brazil nut and watch that rainforest burst into life.
Katharine and David Lowrie have just run through northern Bolivia and Rondonia state, Brazil, during their run across South America for its wildlands and wildlife. They have been speaking to local people about the harvesting of Brazil nuts along the way.
To find out more about their expedition check out www.5000mileproject.orgTagged in: 5000 mile project, amazon, Brazil Nuts, ecology, Rainforest, South America, Sustainable
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