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Brazil Nuts and Agoutis in the Peruvian Amazon

BrazilNutTreeby Kim Henderson

I believe that we have a dynamic relationship to nature. And if you pay attention, you might discover that a particular plant or animal in nature will sometimes choose us. They find their way into our psyche and spirit and teach us things, if we are open.

Think about this for a moment. Let your mind drift back to your first memories. Is there a flower, animal or tree that is knit into the fabric of your childhood memories? Oftentimes the smell of a certain tree, or the droppings of its fruit, a particular wild flower, a bird or animal will come to mind.

The ones from my Southern California childhood come easily—oak, sycamore (and even poison oak!), lemon and orange trees and flowering fuschia. I had day-to-day contact with these trees and flowers growing up. I find comfort whenever I am around them. Seeing them and smelling their fragrance frequently remind me of who I really am, when I get lost. A grand oak stood just outside our home’s back door. I spent hours riding a tricycle around it. That tree housed a family of raccoons that came down to our patio nightly to drink the water and eat the bread we left for them. That oak felt like the grandfather I never met. I felt protected around it. And I delighted in the acorns that fell, like jewels from heaven, to the ground each fall.

When I set off to lead a writing workshop in the Peruvian Amazon, I got really excited thinking about the iconic exotic animals most everyone associates with the jungle—you know the ones—monkeys, macaws, giant, oversized snakes and the crowning glory of them all, the jaguar. Yet, more than all of the animals, I was most excited to see a special tree—one that I had come to know through my work in words and images only—the Brazil nut tree.

I first learned about the Brazil nut tree in 2009, when I was researching simple actions people could take to save the rainforest for a book I was writing. At the time, I did not know how deeply I would come to love and appreciate this mighty tree. Love is like that. Even love of non-human things. It finds its way into your heart and catches you by surprise.

Brazil-NutsI discovered that the Brazil nut tree grows only in the Amazon Rainforest, the largest rainforest on our planet, spanning Brazil, Peru, Bolivia Venezuela, Colombia, Guyana and French Guyana. Surprisingly, I learned that Bolivia is actually the largest exporter of Brazil nuts, not the country that bears the nut’s name. And perhaps most unique of all, Brazil nut trees have one distinction that makes them particularly beneficial to rainforest conservation: they only grow in forested areas. 

Brazil nut tree plantations have largely failed. The failure has been attributed mostly to the fact that the Brazil nut flowers are pollinated by a certain orchid bee that lives in the rainforest, and this orchid bee is difficult to control in a farm-like setting.

The bottom line is that Brazil nut trees need to grow in forested areas if they are to be pollinated by the bounty of orchid bees that live there. As a result, huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest are preserved for the Brazil nut trade. That means that consumers in western countries, like the U.S., can help ensure a healthy Brazil nut trade by purchasing and enjoying Brazil nuts. This, in turn, brings sustainable income to local communities throughout the Amazon, where Brazil nuts are collected. Local communities are then motivated to preserve the rainforest because in tact forested areas bring income.

I love the Brazil nut story.

I love even more that Brazil nut harvesters are called the “Guardians of the Rainforest” because they truly are. The harvesters hand collect the large nuts using machetes to break their pods, hiking the rainforest floor with sometimes 175 pounds of Brazil nuts on their backs! I think about all of that when I eat a Brazil nut now.

There’s a bit more to the story too. And it involves a giant rat.

There’s a large rainforest rodent called an agouti. (It’s actually very cute.) The agouti is about the only animal with strong enough jaws and sharp enough teeth to break the pods and hard shells surrounding the Brazil nuts. They do this and store some of the nuts, like a squirrel. However, they inevitably forget about some stored nuts. And when a tree falls and opens up a space of sunshine in the forest canopy, the stored nuts germinate into new Brazil nut trees. It’s a beautiful cycle of death and rebirth.

The entire Brazil nut story is a triumphant one for a nature lover like me. It’s like the Brazil nut tree stood up (literally) for the rainforest and said, “No! You can’t control me or the bees that pollinate my flowers. I will remain in the forest with my brothers and sisters and provide income for the people who live here.”

It’s exciting when nature triumphs over greed.

I became so enamored with Brazil nuts, agoutis and rainforest saving, I told the story frequently when I was on the road promoting my book. I told it at schools and to friends. I served Brazil nuts at my book signings and began eating them as snacks. I chopped, roasted and sprinkled them on vegetable dishes, pasta and hot cereal—and added them to chocolate chip cookies. I even roasted them at holiday time with savory spices and gave them as gifts with the Brazil nut story enclosed in order to spread the great news of their rainforest-saving benefits. People responded and asked for more!

So, the Brazil nut tree was very high on my list when I made my first jaunt to the Peruvian Amazon last July.

It was the late afternoon when our boat turned off the quiet and serene, clay-colored Tambopata River to the dock of Posadas Amazonas, the eco-lodge that would be our home base for the duration of our stay. Our entire group—a collection of climate change specialists mixed with several of us writer-adventurers—was truly excited. You could feel it. We silently followed each other in one solitary line first up the wooden stairs, and then step by stone step about a quarter mile through the thick forest to the beautiful wooden, yet simple, clean and comfortable entrance of Posadas Amazonas. We were greeted with smiles by our Peruvian hosts and given glasses of a mysterious, sweetly refreshing native fruit juice drink that we all drank without question.

In what seemed like just moments, we shed our belongings in our rooms and headed out to the nearby watchtower, where we could get a sunset view of the majestic Amazon. Single file again, we made our way for our first walk in the forest. A trail of leaf cutter ants greeted us first and continued to zig zag across our path throughout our trek. I noticed how our guide asked us to tread carefully as not to step on them. A native to the area, he held a healthy respect for forest life great and small. His deep knowledge and understanding of the plant and animal life commanded respect from us too.

About half way to the tower, to my surprise, there it was! And so soon! I came to the base of my long-distance friend, the Brazil nut tree, rising up all the way to the very top of the canopy. Months of preparation, three planes, a night in a jungle frontier town, a nauseating bumpy bus ride and a boat ride had brought me to this moment. I had finally “arrived” in the Amazon, the land of Brazil nut trees.

I gazed at the base of this tall, awesome (in the truest sense of the word) tree and looked up to the canopy and down again. I could feel its strength. Although Brazil nut season had long passed, the Amazon saved at least one pod for me to see. At the base of the tree, I saw the decomposing remnants of a Brazil nut pod. Normally full and round like a baseball and about 4-5 lbs., however, this pod’s outer shell was partly crushed, the contents were long gone and its remains were decaying on the rainforest floor. It didn’t matter to me. Just seeing it filled me with joy and excitement. Brazil nut season may have passed, but evidence of its existence lay before me— pods really do grow on the Brazil nut tree and they really do fall to the ground.

Moments later, we arrived at the watch tower and up we went step by step, careful in our pacing as it was a larger group. Higher and higher we climbed. Finally at the top, the last bit of sunlight hit our faces as we looked out at the Amazon and the Tambopata River in all its glory. For as far as the eye could see was a blanket of forest treetops, punctuated only on one side with the winding curves of the Tambopata. There were no buildings, no lights, no roads, and no dwellings—just deep, green forest illuminated by the setting sunlight.

The next morning, my colleague and I returned. This time, it was just the two of us and our guide. It was not long after sunrise. When we finally reached the top of the tower, the sun had risen quickly and now basked the steaming Amazon in its golden rays. The view was breathtaking. In the darkness the previous evening, I had missed the most glorious sight of all—a sight that now stood before me with tremendous beauty and power. I was gazing at the very top of the most gorgeous Brazil nut tree.

It was spectacular!

Hosting a variety of tropical birds, the Brazil nut tree stood confidently before me, center stage in the forest canopy. It looked like the very tree of life itself!

I stood and observed the Brazil nut tree for what seemed to be a very long time, absorbing the tree’s quiet strength and mature beauty. It had a feminine presence to me, and I felt like I was before a wise, beautiful, caring elderly woman whose presence brought security and comfort. I reflected that soon I would have a significant birthday that marked a departure from my youthful self and the entrance to a more mature identity—a time where, as a woman, you become more powerful. This extraordinary tree had that kind of power. She was a fierce protector of the rainforest by providing her seeds that ensured the survival of her species—and inadvertently helping to protect the forest community she was deeply knit in. Her branches provided a home to many rainforest animals great and small, and her fruit, nourishment and income to her human friends. And in my own way, through my work, I was a protector of sorts of her and her brethren spanning the Amazon. It felt like I was meeting a respected friend I had long admired. Her kindness and beauty and authenticity moved me deeply. Her presence felt all at once like the father I had lost, a universal mother and a connection to something greater all wrapped up into one glorious tree. My beloved Brazil nut tree did not disappoint!

So, I did what most any tourist would do. I took some photos on my iPhone.

A few moments passed and four brightly colored scarlet macaws flew before me in perfect unison. Wow! I was surprised by how completely and totally delighted my spirit was to see these iconic birds fly free—not in a zoo or even captured in a picture, but totally free, flying in their native habitat as it should be.

In that moment, I felt free too. I felt the freedom and wildness of the Amazon with no sign of development, electricity, roadway or building in sight. I felt the freedom of the birds. And I felt the freedom and resolve of the Brazil nut tree. It felt a lot less complicated than life at home. Freedom and simplicity often go hand and hand.

All my efforts to travel to the Amazon were worth that one moment.

Later that day, after lunch at the lodge, I heard a commotion of people looking out at a piece of grass and pointing. I quickly hopped up to see what it was they were observing. (Monkeys made their way through the property frequently throughout the day.) But there before me was a beautiful agouti with the cutest beady eyes you ever did see. It was a sizable creature for a rodent, and very different looking than its North American cousin. A bay brown—similar to the color of a horse, it was simply chewing and sitting in the grass, looking at us looking at him or her. I marveled at this little creature (and unfortunately did not have my camera!) for a short while. Here was the little creature that had a tight-knit relationship with my newfound friend the Brazil nut tree. Oh how I would have loved to see him bite his way into a Brazil nut pod.

But off he scampered under the floor planks of the lodge.

Like that, the agouti, the Brazil nut tree and I were intimate friends. A dream realized, a trip taken.

Five Fun Facts About Brazil Nuts

  1. Brazil nuts have enough amino acids to make a complete protein making them a great protein source for vegans.
  2. Brazil nuts are one of the richest natural sources of selenium (One nut has 780% of U.S. RDA!). Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that appears to have prostate and breast cancer protective properties.
  3. Brazil nuts are also rich in copper, magnesium, fiber, vitamin E and essential fatty acids making them a powerhouse of nutrition!
  4. Brazil nut oil is used in skin and hair products for its restorative properties.
  5. Brazil nut trees are among the largest in the Amazon growing up to 160 ft. tall!