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The Brazil nut is a particularly distinctive species of seed (botanically speaking).
The Brazil nut tree from which it comes is one of the most economically essential plants of the Amazon.
It is the only global commodity that is harvested from the wild rather than plantations.
It’s also the most significant non-timber product in the world, next to rubber.
Brazil nut trees are quite visible in the forests of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. They are one of the tallest and longest-living plant species in the tropical rain forest. They can grow up to 150 feet tall, with a wide umbrella of branches and leaves. It is thought their lifespan can be up to 1,000 years!
Brazil nuts are vastly different from any other nut. The edible kernel is encased in a pod with 10 to 25 other seeds, each shrouded in a dark brown shell.
The pod itself can weigh almost six pounds and consists of a thick, hard shell, similar to a coconut.
Unlike most other nuts and drupes, Brazil nuts take an immense 14 months to mature after pollination and the pod will drop to the ground with a thud when it’s time to harvest. The tree itself won’t begin to bear fruit until 12 years of age.
In order to naturally germinate the surrounding area, Brazil nuts rely exclusively upon caviomorph (agouti) rodents, and their ability to gnaw through the fibrous shell, to expose and disperse the kernels.
As for pollination, only bats and large-bodied bees are capable of lifting the heavy hood of the flower and accessing the pollen-producing stamen. Flowering usually occurs during the dry season, with the peak between October and December.
Maybe surprisingly, Bolivia is the biggest exporter of Brazil nuts, with Brazil coming in second and Peru third. Approximately 20,000 tons of Brazil nuts are harvested each year in the Amazon, and Bolivia accounts for 50% of that.
Unlike most other nut species, production has significantly decreased over the years. In 1980 Brazil harvested 40,000 tons alone and held a record of 104,500 tons of nuts in 1970. Now Brazil only harvests around 12,000 tons.
Recent studies suggest the current level of harvest and exploitation of the Brazil nut is not sustainable. Evidence points to a drastic decrease in the number of juvenile trees in areas where the Brazil nut has been persistently harvested over previous generations.
Additional research suggests that people involved in the harvest of Brazil nuts are often also involved in other activities which may negatively affect the biodiversity of the forest, such as slash-and-burn agriculture, timber extraction, hunting and mining. Deforestation is a huge threat to the Brazil nut tree, usually a result of clearing land for agriculture.
There is little information available about the historical uses of Brazil nuts, though they have long been used for their oils.
Once pressed and extracted, the oil is used as a lubricant for clocks, for making artisan’s paints and even in the cosmetics industry.
It can also be used for obvious things like cooking, though it is certainly not an inexpensive oil.
The thick and hard shell of the pod, as well as the tough exterior of the seed itself were once thought to be carved or engraved, and traded as jewellery, although examples no longer exist. The shell of the seed is often pulverized and used as an abrasive to polish metals and ceramics.
The lumber from the Brazil nut tree is of excellent quality, but since logging of the trees is illegal, tree poaching and unlawful clearing of land is a continued threat.
Brazil nuts are high in calories, fat and protein. Due to their high polyunsaturated fat content, Brazil nuts can quickly become rancid when left exposed to air.
Nutritionally speaking, Brazil nuts are an excellent source of thiamin, vitamin E, zinc, magnesium and manganese. Brazil nuts are also the richest source of selenium, and one single nut can provide an adult’s daily recommended intake. Eat an excessive amount of Brazil nuts, and selenium toxicity may become a concern.
There has been very little success or progress in establishing plantations outside of the Amazon, mostly due to the lack of specific bee species, bats and the agouti rodents that bury the seeds for later use. Conservation of the Brazil nut relies heavily on the development of a sustainable harvest.
The Amazon Conservation Association is working with local harvesters and forest services in Peru to manage concessions and to create protected areas and reserves for this magnificent tree. In all three producing countries, it is illegal to cut down a Brazil nut tree, thus you will find them in backyards and roadside ditches, their heavy pods creating potential hazards for people and cars that pass underneath them.
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