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close this bookCommercialization of Non-Timber Forest Products in Amazonia (NRI, 1993, 26 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentAbbreviations
View the documentGlossary
View the documentSummary
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentRubber and extractive reserves
View the documentOther extractive products
View the documentImpact of commercialization
View the documentThe future of extractivism
View the documentResearch and development priorities
View the documentConclusions
View the documentReferences
View the documentAppendix 1
View the documentAppendix 2

Other extractive products

Brazil nuts

Bertholletia excelsa is found in terra firme forests throughout the Amazon Basin, in 50 to 100 tree groves. Balee (1989) and others believe that indigenous groups are responsible for this distribution. Its importance in extractive economies in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia is partly due to the seasonal complementarily with rubber - it is harvested in the rainy season while rubber is extracted in the dry season. Women have an important role in the extraction activity, as they crack the fruits collected by the men, separate out the nuts, and prepare them for home consumption.

Brazil nut extraction became important after the rubber price crash from 1910, when rubber tappers looked for alternative income sources. It developed at a slower pace than rubber, partly because it is a high-volume low-value product with a more elastic demand. O'Donnell Sills (1990) notes that the Brazil nut market share has declined to less than five per cent of the edible nut market, due mainly to the growth in consumption of almonds and hazel nuts.

The quality and quantity of Brazil nut production varies widely between trees, regions and years, the latter partly the result of the unusual flowering to fruiting cycle (12-15 months) and fluctuations in world prices. There has been a shift from the states of Parnd Amazonas to Acre, causing significant increases in production and transport costs, due to lower tree densities and the greater distance to Bel(Torres and Martine, 1991). These changes have benefited Colombian and Peruvian producers.

Case study: Brazil nut extraction in maraba (o'donnell sills, 1990)

In the Maraba area of Para State, traditionally the main extraction area of Brazil, extraction quickly came under the control of the local political elite. These Brazil nut barons used land tenure legislation to ensure control of the castanhais (Brazil nut groves) to add to their control of the commercial process. Extractors who worked the castanhais were tied to the aviamento system; their only alternative was the publicly owned castanhais of the people, but these were privatized during the late 1970s.

Roads, particularly the BelBrasilia highway and the Transamazonica, which reached Maraba in 1971, brought major changes to the area. The population of Maraba grew by 258% in the decade to 1980, by which time there were 800 sawmills (compared with I 00 in the mid- 1960s), and there was a large increase in forest clearance for agriculture and ranching. Between 1978 and 1984, cattle numbers increased by 350% while Brazil nut production fell by 68%.

This was the result of both the reduced tree population and labour shortages, as most people sought alternative forms of employment to escape debt bondage. There were also pollination problems due to smoke from land clearance. Deforestation of castanhais also resulted from the land tenure laws, in which land rights were, until recently, secured by conversion to pasture or agriculture, and due to demand for charcoal from the massive Carajas iron ore project, as well as for the timber itself.

During the 1980s the Brazil nut barons saw their economic and political power wane but made various attempts to prevent land reform. After a series of violent conflicts, in 1988 some 64 castanhales (estates) covering 240 000 ha were expropriated by the Government on payment of exaggerated compensation levels negotiated by the barons.

There followed a period of increased invasion, violence and deforestation as a result of lack of definition of the tenure situation. The setting up of communally managed forest areas was discussed, but found little support from residents more interested in rice, cassava and maize. This was due partly to the low producer returns from the aviamento system, and the fear that sales would be boycotted. O'Donnell Sills (1990) makes the important observation that the local Unions and their members have a history of fighting for the right to cultivate the land in the castanhais, as opposed to preserving it, and have always sought individual tenure.

These conditions appear to rule out the extractive reserves and/or processing co-operative options, unless direct links with importers could provide a guaranteed price basis. However, the grassroots institutions in Maraba do not appear to be strong or interested enough at present.

Holt (1991) reports that 80% of the commercially traded nuts are now bought in Acre, including Bolivian and Peruvian nuts smuggled in to take advantage of exchange rate differences. The nuts are then transported 4000 km down river to Bel Over 70% of Brazil's exports are handled by three major companies in Belowned by the Mutran family, who thereby control the commercialization process both in Brazil and internationally.

The current crisis and future prospects

The current situation is one of great concern, according to J. Holt (pers. comm.), one of the main UK importers. In 1991 the Mutrans attempted to supply the market with sub-quality produce from the poor harvest, 45% down on 1990. As a result demand and prices fell, so much so that the Belshippers decided not to supply seed money to finance the aviamento system in March 1992. Holt fears that this could set off a downward spiral which could further erode the position of Brazil nuts in a competitive market.

The future of Brazil nut extraction may also be under threat due to a dwindling resource base. Nepstad et al. (in press) report a lack of regeneration and juvenile trees in Acre. Possible causes include the over-harvesting of fruits which are large and easy to find (leaving too few for seed); the reduced population of agoutis (the main dispersal agents), due to hunting; and low germination rates due to small felled-tree gaps in Acre's forest; seed vulnerability to fungus; and burning beneath adult trees to facilitate fruit collection. The trees are also increasingly felled (illegally) for their high-quality timber in western Amazonia (O'Donnell Sills, 1990).

Domestication is a further threat to extraction. Torres and Martine (1991) report that several thousand hectares have been planted in Para and Amazonas States. The Humid Tropics Agricultural Research Centre (CPATU) is confident that rapid genetic improvements will make it possible to replace the extractive activity with a much smaller plantation area. However, there is still time for technical or disease problems to make commercial production impractical, as happened with earlier attempts to domesticate rubber and cocoa in Amazonia.

Co-operative processing and marketing will be important if Brazil nut gatherers are to be sufficiently remunerated to continue. Following the successful establishment of the Xapuri plant (at the time of writing), Cultural Survival has been approached by five more groups in Brazil, and two each from Peru and Bolivia to set up similar or more decentralized shelling plants.


Baba(Orbignya phalerata), a palm used for its oil, charcoal food and shelter, grows in successional palm forests over large areas of Brazil and Bolivia, but especially in the transition zone between the semi-arid northeast and the humid tropics of northern Brazil. It has a particularly high potential because it is a pioneer species in cleared forest, growing in almost pure stands on degraded sites.

Anderson et al. (1991) report a density of over 6000 seedlings and juvenile palms per hectare in central Maranhao: this reflects a capacity to escape predation, high shade tolerance and a growing point being just below ground, making it resistant to burning. It has a high leaf production rate, while its undersurface germination promotes soil mixing, soil structure and recycling of deep nutrients.

Babais traditionally favoured in swidden agricultural systems by both indigenous groups and settlers, because it represents a subsidy from nature (Anderson et al. 1991): this is due firstly to the release of nutrients accumulated during the fallow period through litter fall and biomass burning, and secondly, due to the wide range of subsistence and cash products it provides.

Babaproducts are particularly important for the subsistence economy as they are obtained in the period between peak labour demands in annual crop production, and are produced primarily by women and children. One survey found 83% of the participants in babaactivities were women (Anderson and Anderson, 1983). All parts of the tree are used: the leaves for shelter, the husks for charcoal, and the oil kernel, palm heart and starchy outer husks for human and animal food. The main cash products are oil (used for cooking, soap and chemical applications), feedcake and charcoal. May (1990a) estimates that some 450 000 Brazilian households depend on the palm for a significant proportion of their incomes.

The babaoil industry was at one time the largest oilseed industry in the world based solely on the harvest of a wild plant: in 1984 it contributed an estimated $150 million value-added to the Brazilian economy (Balick, 1987). However, there was a dramatic decline in its export value from $4.26 million in 1985 to $109 000 in 1989, due to substitution by synthetic detergents and less fatty edible oils, but domestic usage in Brazil remains substantial.

Changes in tenure and land use

Initially land at the Amazon frontier in Maranhao was open access, but gradually usufruct rights over palms and other extractive resources were established informally by peasant groups. Households often retained exclusive property rights over dense stands in the vicinity of their homes - this being a strong settlement criterion (May, 1990a).

Another form of tenure existed on the private estates in the babazone, where peasants were granted usufruct rights on condition that sale of the kernels took place through the landowner. The regressiveness of land distribution in Maranhao is shown by the fact that in 1980, 85% of the population had less than one hectare, mainly in shifting cultivation, while 43% of the land was in estates of over 1000 ha. Access to additional land was gained by squatters or share-croppers.

In the 1970s, expansion of the road network, subsidized credit and land concessions stimulated major land-use changes throughout the region. The big expansions of mechanized rice cultivation, pasture (by 72% between 1970 and 1980) and agro-industrial crops resulted in babaclearance, widespread eviction, and a reduced area for subsistence agriculture, further increasing peasant dependence on the depleted babastands (May, 1990b). Ranchers were advised by extensionists, clear cut babau stands in order to increase pasture productivity so that by 1986 some 15% of babastands had suffered this fate. Ironically, the combination of babaand pasture has been shown to be a silvopastoral system of proven mutual benefit to ranchers and extractors (May et al., 1985). It has now been made illegal to fell baba but this law has proved ineffective.

Impact of commercialization and processing changes

The commercialization process has passed through three main stages: the first between 1920 and 1935 when unprocessed kernels were mainly exported; the second from 1940 to 1960 when the kernels were transported for processing in southern Brazil; and since the 1970s with the development of the regional oil industry. In the 1970s and early 1980s extraction was too low to satisfy demand, fuelled by fast economic growth and population expansion, causing increases in (deflated) prices by an average of 20% a year from 1973 to 1984 (May, 1990a).

A survey in Maranhao revealed very little production response. This was firstly because merchants and landowners did not pass on the price increases, resulting in a fall in the extractors' real terms of trade by 39% from 1973 to 1983, and secondly because babaproved to have an inelastic supply (May, 1990a). May found that the rice harvest took priority and extraction only increased in February when labour was freed from weeding rice. The time devoted to extractivism was found to be inversely correlated to rainfall - in higher rainfall years more time was spent on agricultural activities.

Because of these factors, the babaprocessing plants found it increasingly difficult and expensive to obtain the kernels. They therefore looked for ways to reduce costs. Innovations led to the production of charcoal, ethanol and tar as well as the traditional oil and feedcake. This led to a shift from manual kernel extraction to whole fruit marketing and centralized processing.

Whole-fruit processing is less labour intensive than manual extraction. Babafruits need to be gathered in large volumes and transported to a central processing unit rather than broken up at home and sold when convenient. This led to men replacing women as the main income recipients. The sale of charcoal for industrial fuel also had the effect of almost eliminating the most important source of domestic fuel in the region (May, 1990b). Therefore subsistence and income benefits to resident extractors were considerably reduced on the estates of 'progressive' landlords who went over to whole-fruit marketing.

The fallow period has also decreased. Between 1970 and 1980 the average fallow period in the forest zone declined from 4.2 to 3.2 years, leaving insufficient time for restoration of babaleaf biomass. May (1990b) concludes that the combination of land use and processing changes caused drastic alterations in rural employment and income distribution, and resulted in large-scale outmigration.

The main need, according to Anderson et al. (1991), is to alter the prevailing institutional mechanisms through which development benefits are distributed by establishing babaindustries as community enterprises in extractive reserves. So far one extractive reserve of just over 8000 ha has been designated for about 300 families in northeast Maranhao. In conjunction with this, Anderson et al. (1991) report on successful trials with appropriate village level technology. May (1990b) also calls for the (politically complicated) formalization and protection of usufruct rights of extractors on private land.

Products from the varzea

A juice

The main source of a juice and palm hearts is Euterpe oleracea, which occurs in extensive natural stands on the varzeas of the Lower Amazon in Brazil, as well as in the Guyanas and Venezuela. Although a juice making is an old tradition, the commercial importance of the palm is more recent as Table 1 (see page 3) shows. In 1966 a output was not even recorded in official statistics, but by 1987 it had become easily the most important, extractive product, by value, in the Brazilian economy.

Strudwick and Sobel (1988) note that every part of the palm is used in some way for a range of subsistence benefits. For example, the seeds are used as livestock food or manure, the leaves are often used for basketry, and the trunks for flooring or fencing. It is also processed for sale as ice-cream.

The main marketing constraint is the high perishability of a fruits, which must reach the market place within 24 hours. This limits it, as a cash crop, to areas near market centres. However the short distances, ease of processing and absence of complex wholesale and export market structures result in a high proportion of the sale value accruing to the producers. Most of the produce is brought by the producers themselves to the processing plants.

A palms have the advantage that they can be easily managed for both the juice and palm hearts on a sustainable basis, due to their multi-stemmed self-regenerative habit. They are being increasingly planted, and respond well to low intensive management. Anderson and Jardim (1989) show an almost 50% increase in returns from selective thinning and pruning over unmanaged stands.

A juice is regarded in Pars a staple food forming a major and basic part of the diet with a daily consumption of up to two litres per person (Strudwick and Sobel, 1988). (1992) reports that some 50 000 litres of unprocessed fruit were normally sold daily in Belalone, until the cholera epidemic. It is therefore not an ephemeral boom-bust extractive product.

Clay also observes that the juice is equally popular at all socio-economic levels which means that it does not suffer the normal demand problem associated with staples - a negative income elasticity of demand. Another advantage is that due to regionally different seasons of maturity, an all-year-round supply can be maintained.

Palm hearts

Having depleted natural stands of Euterpe edulis in southern Brazil during the 1960s, the palm heart canning industry has now moved to Para and Amapa States. Production has declined since the mid-1980s, when a stands were exploited at a rate of over 90 000 tonnes a year (Arkcoll and Clement, 1989) due to the destructive harvesting methods used, with gangs of contracted labourers cutting the tops off entire Euterpe olearaca stands, and lower export prices.

The palm hearts are processed and canned in factories on the banks of the Amazon before being taken to Bel from where they are distributed to the large domestic market, or exported if the fibre level is sufficiently low principally to France and the US (Strudwick and Sobel, 1988). Arkcoll and Clement (1989) report that poor quality control by numerous small firms in the canning business has led to the rejection of much of the export material, and that the product is variable due to the subjective decision of which outer fibrous leaves to eliminate.

Palm hearts could be harvested on a sustainable basis by leaving some of the stems and cutting from the base, but labourers are paid on a piece rate basis and have no incentive to practice slower sustainable methods. Schwartzmann (1990) argues that this is a clear case where land reform would result in sustainable management practices: the combination of extractive reserves and cooperative marketing in Amapa was under investigation in 1990.

In the absence of rationalized harvesting techniques, future demand could be met from plantations of Bactris gasipaes, which can produce palm hearts at six times the rate of E. oleraca in experimental plantations, according to Arkcoll and Clement (1989).

Impact of market expansion for a products

Nugent (1991) looked at the impact of rapid market expansion on extractive groups on Combu Island in the Amazon estuary near Bel Many extractors were sharecropping tenants to the major, absentee, landlord of the island, whose main interest was the profitability of a extraction. Thus access to land became more dependent on willingness to specialize in this increasingly profitable activity.

This was resisted by many share-croppers who preferred a broader livelihood basis. The result was increased social conflict, and those denied access to land were marginalized (Nugent, 1991). The recent collapse of the a juice market due to cholera (D. Cleary, pers. comm.) will have vindicated the actions of the more conservative extractors.


Aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa) is another common varzea palm with a large regional market in the area of Iquitos, Peru. Padoch (1988) estimated the daily urban consumption to be about 15 tonnes during most of the year. It has a wide variety of market and household uses: Padoch remarks that 'no other fruit is sold in so many forms'. However the main demand for the raw fruit or maduro, soaked in water, or as a drink, will have suffered from the cholera epidemic.

Like a it has suffered from destructive harvesting practices. Most harvesting is done on a commercial contract basis. Following an official permit to harvest an area, wholesalers use contractors who hire individuals to cut the palms. This has led to a sharp fall in the aguaje population in the swamps near Iquitos, and a consequent increase in prices (Padoch, 1988). Vasquez and Gentry (1989) also report that Aguaje, as well as Mauritellia peruviana and Jessenia bataua, have been rapidly depleted in Peru due to market pressures. Padoch (1988) flags the development of more sustainable harvesting methods as a priority if the commercial importance of aguaje is to be maintained.

Camu camu

Camu camu (Myrciara dubia) is a lake-margin plant found throughout Amazonia in nutrient - poor black water forests, and is of particular commercial importance in Peru (Prance, 1989). The fruit matures as river levels rise, making it easy to harvest by canoe. The fruit, which has the highest known vitamin C content of any fruit, some 30 times that of citrus, is sold in Iquitos markets for processing into fruit drinks and ice cream. Prance (1989) quotes a study in Peru which calculated a sustainable annual gross income of $6000 per hectare, presumably within easy reach of the Iquitos market. However, Clay (1992) comments that the local market is limited.

Essential oils and flavouring products (excluding baba

Rosewood oil

The essential oil of rosewood (pau rosa) is the highest unit value NTFP of the Amazon region, priced at US$ 27/kg (fob) in 1992. Production is export orientated for the perfumery industry. Global consumption declined from approximately 500 tonnes in the late 1940s to 150 tonnes in 1990 as a result of dwindling supplies, upward price movements, and substitution by synthetic linalool in the cheaper range of fragrance products.

Production is based on the destructive felling of Aniba rosaeodora and A. ducke which were formally extensively distributed throughout the central and northern Amazon region. Although legally categorized as extractivism, production in Brazil has been a highly organized industry since the 1920s (Guenther, 1950; France, 1989; Schwartzmann, 1990). Producer firms tow distilleries, mounted on rafts up-river to the closest natural stand. Teams of labourers are then despatched to fell and manually carry the trunk wood to the distillery for processing. The industry has been centred on Manaus (Amazonas State) and Bel(Pare State), from which the oil was exported to the international market.

Apart from some areas specially designated in recent years by IBAMA, exploitation of the wild resource has been unrestricted. Any natural regeneration has been dependent upon the slow growth of self-sown seedlings. Over-exploitation has led to a progressive reduction of the industry from over 100 distilleries in the 1960s to 20 in the mid-1980s. The decline in the last decade was swift and saw the demise of production in the State of Para.

Field surveys conducted under a Brazil-UK technical co-operation project in 1991-92 revealed the virtual extinction of the two species in areas where they had been abundant just a few years previously (Green, 1992; pers. comm.). Trees of one metre girth, the basis of the former industry, no longer exist in economically accessible areas and there are few exceeding 30 cm girth within 20 km of river banks. The six remaining processing firms, based in Manaus and operating in northwest Amazonas, now harvest all trees greater than 15 cm girth for a distance of up to 30 km from the river, including Aniba species which were previously left untouched since the yield and quality of the oil is poor. The quality of exported Brazilian rosewood oil has deteriorated also by the practice of adulteration with synthetic linalool.

Although substantial natural stands of Aniba rosaeodora and A. ducke remain, they are in inaccessible parts of the Amazon. The life-time of the industry as presently based is expected to be short. Revitalization in the longer term will be dependent upon the success of formal cultivation in an agroforestry context and this is the subject of the current Brazilian-UK project investigations. The work includes an assessment of the potential for production of oil through non-destructive leaf harvesting.

Copaiba balsam

Copaiba balsam from Copaifera spp. is used after further processing to an essential oil as a medicine throughout Brazil, in perfumes and in varnish. Oil production is in oscillation rather than decline. Prices have increased steadily on the export market, and demand appeared to be increasing in 1989 (Schwartzmann, 1990). Sizer (1991) reports increased collection of copaiba balsam in Amazonas in response to higher prices.

Cumaru nuts

Cumaru nuts (Dipteryx odorata) are the source of coumarin, which is used in cigarettes and perfumes. Cumaru nuts declined in export volume and price in the 1940s as a result of the development of synthetic coumarin, and again after 1985, but this may also be partly due to increased manufacture in Brazil for export of coumarin itself. In 1985 the export price was $8.36/kg, but in 1989 fell back to $3.84/kg (data in Schwartzmann, 1990).

Fatty oils


Seeds of ucuuba (Virola spp.) are exploited for their fat content and supplies have dwindled. Its demise stems from a combination of timber harvesting, low prices, rural to urban migration and alternative income-generating possibilities in the rural areas, which have reduced labour availability and thus supply consistency. From 142 tonnes of seed used in soap and candle manufacture in 1983, it fell to 10 tonnes in 1985 (Schwartzmann, 1990). It also has an important regional medicinal market.


Andiroba is a fatty oil extracted from the nuts of Carapa guianensis, and is used for soap production and as an illuminator. In the 1920s up to 350 tonnes of andiroba oil were exported. In 1985, 363 tonnes were still produced, but Schwartzmann (1990) reports that the nuts have virtually disappeared from the commercial market, due to low prices and logging, although there is still a significant regional market for medicinal purposes.


Sorva latex from Couma utilis and Couma rigida is used mainly in chewing gum production, and although it has suffered from competition from synthetics, remains an important extractive product, both as an export (see Appendix 2) and because of its complementary role in extractive economies. Sizer (1991) notes that it was the main extractive activity in the Jau Valley of Amazonas State when conditions were bad for rubber collection.

Arkcoll and Clement (1989) reported that Couma spp. were in the process of being eliminated from accessible areas due to destructive tapping methods, but Sizer (1991) reports a recent change towards sustainable extraction methods as a result of the availability of climbing irons. However, domestication may be imminent: Arckoll and Clement (1989) report good growth rates on experimental plantations. It is also an ideal agroforestry tree according to Prance (1989).

Balata (Mimusops bidentada), known in the trade as gutta percha, is used in golf-ball cores and electrical insulators, but its demand has declined due to synthetic substitution. Macaranduba (Manilkara huberi) is also in decline because the tree is increasingly logged for its timber.