University of Wisconsin Center for Wisconsin
Rural Cooperatives, September/October 1996, pp. 25-28.
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

Eco-Marketing: Brazilians Farming the Amazon Rain Forest, Cooperatively

Jerry Namken
USDA Senior Resource Economist

Editor's Note: Namken recently returned from a 30-day assignment for the Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA) in Brazil, where he provided technical assistance to a nut growers' cooperative.

When the Brazilian government opened large tracts of land in the southwestern part of the country for settlement in the 1970s and 1980s, people from all walks of life moved inland from coastal areas to stake a piece of land and a chance to improve their lives. In the state of Rondonia, the town of Porto Velho swelled from 40,000 people to over 400,000 in just a few years as people came to hunt for gold, log the tropical timber or put the land into agricultural production.

Many of those lucky enough to strike it rich in the gold fields or who had their own money bought up the virgin rain forest and began clearing the land. First, the large trees were contracted to timber companies, which paid landowners $50 to $200 per tree, depending on the variety. The rest of the trees were either felled by hand or bulldozed into windrows, left for a year and then burned.

Left behind were the mighty Brazil nut trees—known locally as castanya trees —the felling of which is prohibited by the Brazilian government. Unfortunately, leaving Brazil nut trees—one of the largest, tallest trees in the rain forest—did not ensure their continued production.

Production of Brazil nuts brings into play the complex and often fragile ecology of plant and animal interactions in the Amazonian rain forest. Hundreds of feet up in the canopy of the rain forest, only a single species of solitary bee is strong enough to open the Brazil nut blossom and pollinate it.

Once smaller trees are cleared from around the Brazil nut trees, the bees tend to stay closer to the ground and no longer fly to the great heights necessary to pollinate the nut blossoms. Nut production is further reduced because the Brazil nut trees are susceptible to fire and are often killed or badly damaged when the windrows are burned during the clearing procedure.

Co-op Working with Nature

In one of these impacted areas, a group of farmers and ranchers are trying to find a way to increase the productivity of the nut trees by working with, rather than against, nature. In the frontier town of Extrema, close to Bolivia and straddling the border between the Brazilian states of Rondonia and Acre, the Agricultural Cooperative of Extrema (COAPEX) has embarked on an effort to resurrect part of the rain forest. Co-op members feel that since this part of the world was rain vest to begin with, it makes sense to replant it to trees and to protect what is left rather than farm crops or grassland.

Originally, 72 members migrated from the south of Brazil and started the cooperative. Each member began to plant several different kinds of trees through a program financed by the Italian government to help save the rainforest. However, once funding ran out, so did interest in the project. The group split up in 1993, dividing along family lines, with 12 families forming a new cooperative, which became COAPEX.

Thirty-three members from these 12 families invested land, labor and capital in the construction of a Brazil nut processing and marketing facility. To finance their cooperative, each member is paying a $1,700 membership fee.

Members who can't afford this fee are hired as laborers by the cooperative for $300 per month. These workers receive $200 monthly, with the other $100 going toward the membership fee. Each member is also contributing wood, construction materials and labor to build the processing facility.

Members of the cooperative are working in several different ways to encourage the restoration of the forest. First, COAPEX provides a marketplace for the purchase of nuts in the southwestern region of Brazil and northeastern Bolivia. By creating local demand for these nuts, which only produce in their natural setting, the trees become more valuable and thus farmers and foresters look for new and innovative ways to protect this fragile ecosystem.

Nuts for this market come from different sources. Both members and non-members bring nuts from their land to sell to the cooperative. Many nuts arrive by boat, traveling down the Madeira River. During the nut producing season, COAPEX goes to the river and buys nuts offered for sale. This year the co-op purchased over 200,000 kilos of nuts.

Co-op members are "reclaiming" trees abandoned during the Italian project. Most members have about 60 trees planted at least six years ago. These trees are not expected to yield for many more years. However, they will be in place when, hopefully, researchers discover new pollination techniques to set larger nut crops. Additionally, they are propagating new trees to supply their members and for sale to other farmers.

The co-op is also completing work on a processing facility which will be used to shell, sort and package the nuts. This facility will employ more than 100 local people during the two-month peak season of nut harvesting. The presence of such a facility gives landowners and foresters confidence that they will always have a place to market the nuts. Confidence in the long-term viability of the marketplace leads producers to invest more heavily in protecting the trees.

Labor-Intensive Processing

The processing needed to turn out finished Brazil nut products is lengthy and labor-intensive—which is possible here because labor is very cheap. When the nuts are brought to the co-op, they are stored on the warehouse floor in long windrows and turned every three days for 40 days. During this time, the nuts dry and mature.

Five tons of nuts are shoveled into a heated, revolving drum for 24 hours, then drenched in water tanks for 6 hours. This "shock treatment" makes the nuts easier to shell. Eighty women sit at tables and shell the nuts one at a time, taking care not to break the meat of the nut.

After shelling, the nuts go into heated drying trays for 8 to 18 hours, depending on the moisture content. They are then spread out in large classification trays where they are individually sorted into nine different quality categories.

Each class is then weighed and vacuum-packed according to customer specifications.

Land III-Suited to Commercial Farming

Attempts to produce Brazil nut orchards capable of commercial production have not been successful. Although a high blooming nut variety was found and grafted to a large number of trees in northeastern and southwestern Brazil about eight years ago, no significant commercial production has resulted. One reason is that the bee that pollinates the trees lives a solitary life rather than in a hive and can't be handled like ordinary honey bees.

Planting other crops—such as vegetables, beans, potatoes and pineapples— can result in good crops for the first three years after the land is cleared, but results typically fall off quickly after that. The soil is a laterite—the red soil found in the equatorial regions around the world. Residue from logging and clearing does not get turned under into the soil, thus depriving it of needed nutrients and organic matter.

There are several reasons for this. First, extensive root systems from the rain forest are left in place during the land clearing. This makes cultivation with light tractors and plows difficult. Second, many of the farms are deep in the forest. The clearings are often difficult to get equipment to during the rainy season, when mud is knee-deep. Third, many landowners simply don't have the money to purchase farm machinery.

Given the moisture loss from the heat of the sun, the large microbial action in the soil left over from the rain forest and the fineness of the soil structure, the unplanted soil soon turns rock hard. Indeed, it is often used for surfacing roads. And where there is vegetative cover, the land slowly begins to erode. Once landowners experience a downturn in production, they usually plant grass and raise cattle.

Co-op Plays Major Role for Members

The cooperative also plays a large role in the lives of its members by transporting foodstuffs, labor, lumber, etc., to and from members' farms. Since many members live many kilometers from any services, the cooperative uses a flatbed truck to haul the cash crops grown by the members to the cooperative for sale in the coop's mercantile store.

Like many new cooperatives in their early years, COAPEX foresees cash-flow problems in the near future. In preparation, many of the members have turned to planting pineapples, which offer several incentives. First, they grow rapidly in this equatorial climate and are very easy to establish. Most important, they store well, are easy to ship and the entire fruit can be used. Prime fruit is exported, other large fruit are sold to the Brazilian fresh market while small fruit is shipped for canning.

The problem faced by all growers in this area—regardless of crop—is that by disrupting the ecological environment of the forest, some fungus and insect pests no longer have enemies to keep them in check. Hence their numbers can grow at an exponential rate. Once this occurs, the entire crop is often lost. A second major challenge facing the co-op is the disadvantage of being located so far in the interior of South America, which adds to the costs of transporting fresh produce to the heavily populated coastal areas.

What lies in the future for COAPEX members? Recently, through the help of Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA) and its volunteers, cooperative members and directors have received cooperative education in cooperative principles and marketing concepts for their product. The board has been introduced to American product and packaging specialists under contract to EMBRAPA, the Brazilian research and extension institution. These specialists work to develop the Brazil nut industry.

As these specialists help develop COAPEXs marketing sophistication, the co-op's products will be exported in increasing volume. But the years ahead will represent a major challenge for the co-op as members struggle to farm in harmony with the rainforest and successfully market their products.

Anyone wishing to offer technical assistance or ideas to the co-op may contact it through its president, Roberto De Mattos, or secretary, Antonio Neto Martins, at: End. Rue Rio Grande de Sul S/N, Bairro Rodoviaria, CEP 78928, BR 364 km 180. The co-op may be telephoned or faxed at: 068-238-1203.

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