Going nuts: how price increases and property rights insecurity may lead to Brazil nut theft

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Brazil nuts in a Belem market, Brazil. In 2006, over 19,000 tons of shelled Brazil nuts were exported around the world, worth over $US 70 million, making it a very lucrative industry. Photo courtesy of Celine Massa/flickr

BOGOR, Indonesia (9 June, 2011)_The thick brown opened fruit shells litter the forest floor. A Bolivian man wearily bends downs to pick one up, and holding it in his hand, he sighs. This is his only evidence that the thieves have struck. Casting a final eye over his crop, as if to assess the income that will never be gleaned, he tosses the shell back on the ground.

For many Brazil nut gatherers in the western Amazon near the border between Bolivia and Brazil, this sight has become increasingly common. Brazil nuts are a valuable forest-based resource. In 2006, over 19,000 tons of shelled Brazil nuts were exported around the world, worth over $US 70 million. Thousands of families depend on the gathering, drying, and selling of Brazil nuts for their livelihoods. However, price increases have led to an increase in conflicts over the one of the world’s most famous and well loved nuts.

According to Amy Duchelle, CIFOR scientist and author of Resource theft in Tropical communities: Implications for Non-timber Management, Livelihoods and Conservation, recently published in the journal Ecology and Society, perceived Brazil nut thefts were more likely to occur in communities in Pando, Bolivia when compared with those in neighbouring Acre, Brazil. In fact, in 2006, 61% of households in Pando reported being affected by Brazil nut theft, compared with just 14% in Acre.

The article highlights three factors that may have led to the higher perceived incidence of nut thefts in Pando: (1) more recent, top-down property rights formalization in Pando; (2) clustered settlement patterns of communities in Pando that did not allow for constant monitoring of Brazil nut stands; and (3) a higher economic dependence on Brazil nuts in Pando when compared to Acre.

Respecting traditional land rights

Successful forest management often relies on balancing the complex and overlapping interests of local people who use the land and the local actors/ institutions that interact with them.

“The property rights held by communities of Brazil nut gathers are a highly adapted network of competing and complimentary interests that have evolved with local livelihoods. Formalisation polices should use these customary systems as points of departure for titling to avoid undercutting management practices or generating resource conflict,” said Peter Cronkleton, CIFOR Scientist and co-author on the article.

In Acre, a community driven or ‘bottom up’ movement led by rubber tappers in the 1980s successfully secured land and property rights.  Government policy not only honoured customary property rights but also granted decision-making powers to communities. In stark contrast, in Pando, a ‘top down’ policy by the state to redistribute 500 hectares of land per family undercut the traditional tree tenure system, and land demarcations were often inconsistent with traditional forest use.

Clustered Settlement Patterns

The authors also argue that the distribution of households in forest-dwelling communities may have  affected the incidence of Brazil nut thefts. In Acre, households in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve  were dispersed throughout the forest, allowing producers to monitor their land more regularly and deal with disputes more quickly.

In Pando, in contrast, rural families were concentrated in settlements to access education, health, water, and electricity services. While these settlements had positive implications for development, they removed families from the day-to-day monitoring of forest resources, meaning that harvesters were more vulnerable to conflicts that tended to arise during the nut harvest season.

Brazil nut thefts and impacts on livelihoods, management, and conservation

For Brazil nut harvesters in Pando, who received 43% of their total cash and subsistence income from nut harvests alone, the high incidence of nut thefts was clearly detrimental to their livelihoods. Along with impacts on revenues, increased threats to security and the loss of job opportunities were also reported. In Acre, for families who were less dependent on Brazil nuts and experienced fewer thefts, the financial consequences were less important.

The threat of theft also had impacts on Brazil nut harvest and management in Pando and Acre.  “Brazil nut harvesters in Pando are forced to enter into the forests early in the season while the heavy fruits are still falling from the trees, because they worry, that if they don’t get out there quickly enough, somebody else will take their Brazil nuts, “ said Amy Duchelle.

Harvesters in Pando are also forced to gather, break open, and carry nuts out of the forest in the same day.  This is a less efficient practice than in Acre where collectors are able wait until all fruits have fallen, and then gather them all at once, before break them open, and finally transport them out of the forest.

These differences in Brazil nut harvest systems in Pando and Acre have ecological and economic implications. The study found that late season harvests allowed Bolivian producers to glean higher nut prices due to the higher demand from Brazil nut companies and exporters. On the other hand, a short harvest season in Brazil provided a greater opportunity for seed dispersers to both consume and disperse nuts, potentially promoting Brazil nut regeneration.

The future for Brazil nut production

The impact of the threat of Brazil nut thefts highlights the caution needed when formalising complex customary rights, especially where there is potential for forest-based conflict. For communities like those in Pando, support and recognition of customary boundaries, as well as community consultation would be an important step to help strengthen community forest management.

However, securing of property rights does not also always lead to better forest conservation; in Acre, where property rights were more secure, there was also more deforestation as communities looked to other sources of income such as cattle, to supplement their income.

Different settlement patterns and market forces also affected Brazil nut thefts due to the changing relationship between the people and their landholdings. In Pando, while concentrated settlements had improved access to government services, harvesters were less connected to their land. The Bolivian producer’s high dependence on this one product alone made them more likely to adopt dangerous and inefficient collection practices.

As many countries in Latin America prepare REDD+ strategies to protect land from further deforestation, understanding the complex and interlinking issues of land tenure, settlement patterns, and market forces, and their implications for community forestry management will be vital to promote rural livelihoods and long-term management and conservation of the world’s tropical forests.

Without government support to address forest-based conflicts and frustrated by uncertainty, communities may turn to other forms of livelihoods such as agriculture and pasture which could destroy Brazil nut rich forests.

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