Our Brazil nuts come from Coopavam in Brazil. The cooperative provides an income to more than 300 families in the heart of the rainforest. Co-founder Luzirene Coelho Lustosa explains how she helped make the small-scale project a success and thereby protect the forest in a country where deforestation and huge monocultures are everywhere.
Brown capsules with a fibrous shell lie on the damp earth. They almost look like coconuts. Quite a few people from the neighbouring villages are out and about today, collecting the capsules from the forest floor. One, two, three cuts with the machete and the thick shell releases its inner treasure: more than a dozen seeds that are still moist. These seeds – the Brazil nuts – have a long journey before them until they end up in our bowls and lunchboxes. While they are a snack for us, they are a livelihood for the people on the ground.
The fact that we can enjoy these nuts from the rainforest is thanks to the cooperative Coopavam based in Juruena, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. And especially thanks to Luzirene Coelho Lustosa, who has been involved since the cooperative was founded in 2008 and has been holding everything together for over 6 years. “When I took over management, no one believed that you could make a success out of gathering Brazil nuts. Similar projects have failed. There were a lot of negative examples.”
The 70-strong cooperative works together with more than 300 gatherers. Covering an area of more than 15,000 square kilometres in total, the village inhabitants collect the precious nuts from the rainforest floor. Most of them are from indigenous tribes whose home has always been the giant rainforest.
What’s unique about Brazil nuts is that they can only be found in the rainforest. The over-50-metre-high Brazil nut trees need the forest ecosystem to flourish. Without the surrounding vegetation, they would wither away – just like they would in monoculture with other Brazil nut trees. The quantities of Brazil nuts produced worldwide are therefore low. Only around 26,000 tonnes are sold every year. For comparison, 1.3 million tonnes of almonds are sold annually.
So, without the forest, there would be no nuts – and also no income for the gatherers on the ground. The work of Luzirene Coelho Lustosa and the cooperative directly help to preserve the forest. In the case of Brazil nut trees, this is all the more important because they absorb a lot of CO2 from the environment. They are one of the most important stores of carbon in the rainforest.
The forest in Brazil is always under threat. Large-scale deforestation has been underway for decades to make space for gigantic soy plantations or cattle farms. In the beginning, however, the environmental considerations were not the primary concern for Coopavam, as Coelho Lustosa explains: “Initially, sustainability wasn’t important to the inhabitants. For them, it was about survival.”
During the land reform in the early 1990s, around 250 families in the region around Juruena each received a plot of land encompassing around 20 hectares. However, the income from this land was barely enough for life essentials. The competition with corporations, often with more than 10,000 hectares of cultivation land, was too fierce. “It was a poor foundation for livelihoods. The people needed other income opportunities to be able to live well.”
Thanks to the commitment of Luzirene Coelho Lustosa and Coopavam, the people here now have a stable income. It is now possible to plan and think of the future again. For Coopavam’s approach to work, Coelho Lustosa says that the trust and direct contact with the gatherers are vital: “In the past, there were sometimes problems that the workers were not paid on time. We sought direct contact to get people motivated again.”
Collecting Brazil nuts is possible for three to four months of the year when the ripe capsules fall to the ground. During this time, the gatherers typically earn 1,500 to 3,000 euros – more than an entire year’s minimum wage in Brazil. This is a lucrative additional source of income for the farming families. And the main income for the indigenous gatherers.
But how can people work together over such a large area? Antônio Vieira de Mello Neto from Coopavam regularly visits the indigenous people’s villages. Coelho Lustosa also drives to these villages in person two to three times a year. Only in the rainy season is visiting difficult due to the muddy roads. Technology also plays a huge part in enabling close contact. “The mobile network works well in some areas of the forest. We are also in close contact with the people through WhatsApp.”
Once the nuts are transported from the depths of the rainforest by boat, everything takes place in the Coopavam processing facility at the edge of the forest. Around 60 people now process these nuts. Most of them are women. Some live in the nearby town of Juruena. They earn the equivalent of around 15 euros for a 6-hour workday. This is also far above the Brazilian minimum wage of 0.85 euros per hour.
The employees pour the seeds into a large dryer that runs on a wood fire. After sorting, the seeds – while still in their outer shells – are moved into a pressure chamber that treats them with steam. This allows them to be cracked more easily in the next step. Then, the employees check each seed by hand and remove the thin skin that envelopes them. Here, the processed kernels end up in the same plastic packaging that we also deliver to your doorstep.
We have been sourcing our Brazil nuts from the cooperative since 2020. Coopavam’s revenue thus doubled in the same year. We are firmly convinced by the cooperative’s work. That is why our goal is to include it in our gebana model in the future. We want to cooperate with Coopavam in the long term and share our revenue from their nuts directly with the gatherers. “Cooperating with gebana gives us security. We can grow and also offer the gatherers long-term contracts,” says Luzirene Coelho Lustosa.
Brazil nuts are more than just a snack. In the region around Juruena, they provide more than 300 people and their families the basis for a good income. Coopavam is a matter close to Luzirene Coelho Lustosa’s heart: “I feel such gratitude towards the forest. We are proud to preserve the forest and also to be able to live from it.”
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