Situated in southeastern Peru, on the borders with both Brazil and Bolivia, Madre de Dios is the only region in the country where the beautiful giant brazil nut tree grows. The forests of neighboring Brazil and Bolivia also shelter this valuable tropical forest sustainable cash crop.
Typically, brazil nut trees take around 15 years to reach maturity; however, optimum production of brazil nuts is not achieved for a minimum of 25 years. Left to thrive, brazil nut trees can live for more than 500 years, and they can produce an abundant crop of around 300 coconut-sized fruits each year. Every one of these extremely hard fruits contains an average of 15 brazil nuts.
During the weeks of the annual rainy season the brazil nut tree’s fruits, which take two years to develop, fall to the ground and are collected by the local people who call themselves "castañeros"; individuals who hold collecting concessions along the courses of the Tambopata and Madre de Dios rivers, in the forests that surround the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, which is Peru’s main processing and export center for brazil nuts. A 50-kilo bag of brazil nuts can fetch between $60 and $70 dollars on the local Puerto Maldonado market.
Brazil nut trees do not respond well 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, insect species also commonly known as orchid or long-tongued bees. The brazil nut tree flowers for just two or three days each year and Euglossine bees are only found in undisturbed lowland 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 the brazil nut 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 brazil nut tree relies on swamping the agouti with nuts by producing an abundant harvest and thereby taking advantage of the rodent’s hoarding instinct. Over time an agouti will forget where some nuts are buried, or it will die, leaving the brazil 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 tropical and subtropical forest. Readily exploitable eco-friendly NTFPs include fruits, dyes and medicines. Although sustainable exploitation is practiced, improved awareness among local populations 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 threats posed by those who would like to see trees replaced by cattle ranches or vast tracts of arable land.