Madre de Dios is the only region in Peru where the beautiful giant Brazil nut tree grows. The forests of neighboring Bolivia and –of course- Brazil are also home to this highly-prized rainforest product.
A typical tree will reach maturity in about 15 years, though maximum production is not reached for at least 25 years, after which the tree, which can live for more than 500 years, is able to produce a crop of 300 coconut-sized fruit per year. Within this extremely hard fruit are nestled an average of 15 Brazil nuts.
During the first months of the rainy season the fruits, which take two years to develop, fall to the ground and are collected by local people who call themselves "castañeros"; individuals who hold collecting concessions up and down the major rivers around the town of Puerto Maldonado (the major processing and export center). A 50 kilo bag of nuts will typically fetch around $60 or $70 on the Puerto Maldonado market.
Brazil nut trees have never yielded to domestication and produce very poorly in a plantation system. Research has revealed that the tree has a highly specialized pollination system which is served by only a handful of Euglossine bee species. The tree flowers for just two or three days each year and Euglossine bees are only found in undisturbed forest, as they rely on specific orchid species for their own survival. Orchids are extremely sensitive plants and do not grow in disturbed or secondary forest.
The natural regeneration of this tree is also fascinating. It relies on the humble agouti (Dasyprocta sp.) to open the hard fruit and release the nuts. The nuts germinate more readily if buried and agoutis tend to hoard their food by burying it during times of plenty. The tree relies on swamping the agouti with nuts and taking advantage of its hoarding instinct. Over time an agouti will forget where some nuts are buried, or the rodent will die, leaving the nuts to germinate successfully.
The Brazil nut, often called the “eco-nut”, is classed as a non-timber forest product (NTFP). The future of many rainforest areas will depend on such products, increasing as they do the value to local people of undisturbed forest. Readily exploitable eco-friendly NTFPs include fruits, dyes and medicines. Although sustainable exploitation is practiced, increased awareness of the economic value of forest products is still needed, as a tool for enabling the survival of virgin forests in the face of the threat posed by those who would like to see trees replaced by cattle ranches or vast tracts of arable land.