The production of Brazil nuts, one of the main products of the Amazon’s bioeconomy, could be severely hit by the possibility of a strong El Niño event later this year. Concerns have been growing amongst researchers and producers of the nut, who experienced a collapse in production the last time that the climatic phenomenon, which leads to increased drought in forested areas, occurred. The 2015-16 El Niño event was the most intense of the last fifty years and caused a 37% fall in the 2017 harvest, when compared to the averages recorded for the period between 2010 and 2019.
The data, from the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics, refers to harvests of the crop in the Brazilian Amazon, however, increased temperatures and lower rainfall also affected production in other countries that share the Amazon region, such as Bolivia and Peru. Such is the drastic nature of the fall in supply, robberies of the nuts have even been recorded.
The effects of the El Niño on the production of the nut has been closely followed by a group of scientists on the Rio Cajari Extractive Reserve, located in the state of Amapá, in the far north of Brazil, and home to the region’s largest known and monitored Brazil nut groves. The researchers – coordinated by Marcelino Guedes, a forestry engineer from the Amapá state branch of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa-AP) – analyzed meteorological data from 2007 to 2018 alongside Brazil nut production on two 9-hectare plots on the reserve over the same period.
The aim of the study was to investigate whether the fall in production of Brazil nuts could be attributed to the climatic changes caused by the El Niño phenomenon, marked by the periodic and accentuated warming of waters in the Pacific Ocean. The scientists noted how annual variations in temperature and rainfall impacted the growth of the trees’ fruit – which contains the nuts – the following year. Such changes, however, were on a whole other level during years in which the El Niño phenomenon was active.
“The scientific community had already forecast that the El Niño of 2015 and 2016 would be a really strong one, but we did not imagine that it would have any kind of effect on the production of [Brazil] nuts. Embrapa-AP have been monitoring the species’ fruit since 2007, and had never seen such a sharp fall in production as the one that was observed in 2017,” explained the main author of the study, Dayane Pastana, who works at the Federal University of Lavras in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.
According to data from one of the Brazilian National Institute of Meteorology’s monitoring stations located 120 kilometers from the Rio Cajari Extractive Reserve, the occurrence of the El Niño event led to a 2ºC increase in the maximum temperatures in the areas analyzed by the study, and the Amazonian summer – or dry season, which tends to last for three months, between September and November – lasted for six months in 2015. “In Macapá, the [state] capital [of Amapá], we went 100 days without so much as a drop of rainfall,” Guedes recalled.
The researcher explained that the combination of low rainfall with increased temperatures during the 2015-16 El Niño led to a collapse in the following Brazil nut harvest, which took place in 2017, after the fruits had finished their on-average 15-month ripening period. In the Rio Cajari Extractive Reserve, production per-Brazil nut tree was eight times lower than in 2015 and twice as low as the general average, according to the study’s calculations. The results of the study were published last year by the National Institute of Amazonian Research.
Brazil nut trees are tall in size, with their crowns reaching higher than the rest of the forest canopy, leaving them more exposed to sunlight. The high temperatures recorded in the treetops during the study caused what is known as physiological drought, which occurs when the tree’s roots are not able to absorb water from the soil and transport it to the treetops. This causes the pulp of the Brazil nut trees to dry out, which in some cases even leads them to die off.
The climatic disruption caused by El Niño also saw an increase in bee deaths, which are the main pollinators of the species and, as a result, harmed the growth of flowers and fruits on the trees.
With the return of the phenomenon confirmed this year, as temperature records have been broken worldwide and sea temperatures have risen, so too have the concerns of communities in the Amazon region who depend on harvesting Brazil nuts for a living. For Guedes, the outlook is far from encouraging: “The next harvest will be quite hard hit, even more so if the forecasts that are suggesting that it will be a particularly strong El Niño turn out to be true.”
Unprecedented robberies and socio-economic impacts
In 2017, the shortage of fruits from the Brazil nut tree in the Amazon saw the price of the final product sky-rocket. The cost of an 11 kilogram can of nuts, which is the standard marketing unit, increased 140% between 2016 and 2017, according to a survey carried out by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation.
The rising price of Brazil nuts has made them a target for crime. In the past, nuts were stolen from within the reserve, but this has become more common in recent years. In 2017, sacks of nuts were stolen, and people from illegal mining settlements have even left their settlements to collect nuts, Guedes said.
Rondinele Quina’s family is one of the 300 families who live in Alto Cajari and depend on the harvesting of Brazil nuts in order to make a living. Quina, 42, who has been helping his parents with the Brazil nut harvest in the Rio Cajari Extractivist Reserve since he was ten years old, said that his whole family had felt the effects of the El Niño: his brother, for example, had his harvest stolen and had to sell his plot of Brazil nut trees. “He couldn’t find any more nuts because of the robberies. There was no violence, but it was a big blow for him, he lost a lot of nuts.”
The impact of the strong El Niño on production forced Brazil nut harvesters to search for other sources of income in order to make up for the money they had lost out on. The Brazil nuts harvest season is often the only time of year that the families of Alto Cajari are able to gather enough money to create some savings or make home improvements. According to Guedes, the fall in production increased the families’ dependency on unproductive sources of income, mainly in the form of welfare payments and other government aid.
Researchers have suggested a number of actions that can be taken to minimize the impact that El Niño and other extreme weather events linked to global warming have on the Brazil nut trees and the lives of the harvesters.
Guedes explained that the older trees in the reserve are more sensitive to changes in climate, in particular increases in maximum temperatures and decreased rainfall. Thus the rejuvenation of the Brazil nut groves, by planting young trees, is a strategy that can be used to alleviate the impacts of the El Niño. Guedes, however, said that there is a lack of incentives to get such an initiative off the ground.
Dayane Pastana added that, in the long term, it will also be important to work on studies focused on how to genetically enhance Brazil nut trees, by selecting varieties that are more resistant to adverse climatic conditions.
Pastana argued that those in power need to implement public policies aimed at strengthening the productive chain of Brazil nut trees in order to guarantee that Brazil nut harvesters have the support they need to continue their work which contributes to the rainforest conservation.
“The Brazil nut tree is a symbol of the conservation of the Amazon. It is an example that shows that the best way to protect the biome is through use-based conservation, and not full-scale protection that sees people removed from the forests [that they live and work in]. The way forward is through the rational management [of the rainforest], using forestry engineering techniques, people’s lived experiences and the traditional knowledge of those who have lived among nature for centuries,” Guedes concluded.