grieving the Brazil nut tree

If you have ever traveled through nature with people who are attuned to its secrets, you know what I mean when I suggest that they can hear things most of us can’t. When my family spent three days back in 2012 in the Tambopata National Reserve – a vast tract of undeveloped Amazon rainforest in Peru – we were amazed at our guide’s abilities. We didn’t even notice the sound of water dropping, but he immediately recognized it to be a monkey’s subtle call; what we barely acknowledged as a piece of mud on the ground, he saw as a tarantula den. In the eco-lodge, we met individuals who had been transformed by their closeness to the rainforest. One employee, a PhD from Stanford, had discarded his old life and decided to teach yoga in the Amazon. He told me that the longer one stayed in a place like Tambopata, the more one’s powers of observation improved, and the more peaceful one felt.

The Associated Press reported on November 21, 2015, that as many as half of the Amazon’s tree species are threatened with extinction because of massive deforestation. Among these species in trouble are Brazil nuts and mahogany. When I read this, my mind immediately flashed to the tasty snacks they gave us on bus rides, rich Brazil nuts rolled in sugar, coconut flakes, and cocoa powder. My fascination with the Brazil nut, though, comes not from its taste but its story.

The Brazil nut tree cannot grow outside of the Amazon rainforest; the nuts are harvested by hand once they fall from the tree. But this is not for lack of trying to bend the Brazil nut tree to Western control. Our guide told us about how savvy entrepreneurs saw the Brazil nut as an opportunity for profit. They researched the conditions, shipped the seeds to plantations in different parts of the world – Australia, Canada – and waited. Crop after crop failed. After losing incredible amounts of money, they realized they were missing something: the ecosystem.

Brazil nut trees are one part of the complex organism that is the forest. The pollination of the Brazil nut relies on a particular species of bee. Once the nut drops to the forest floor, its dispersal relies entirely on the agouti, a mid-sized rodent we frequently saw scuttling through the eco-lodge’s grounds. It rains nearly every day in the Tambopata, and the detritus of the forest floor provides a unique set of natural fertilizers for the tree. An entire economy relies on the manual harvesting of these nuts, which also provide vital nutrition for local tribal communities.

When I see one line in a newspaper article that mentions that the Brazil nut could go extinct, I think of the vast ecosystem the Brazil nut is part of. If the Brazil nut tree dies, so too do the bees. The agouti will lose its source of food. The local economy will be disrupted forever. A traditional source of nutrition will disappear. The least important impact is the tourist who will not be able to eat her delicious coconut-coated snack, and yet feeling the sweet, fatty crunch of the nut in my mouth was my first direct, tactile connection to this ecosystem.

Going to the Amazon was an incredible privilege, one that most individuals outside of South America will never experience. It is a tragic fact of today’s human condition that we find it difficult to connect with communities and environments that we have never seen. Conceptualizing the loss of fifty percent of the tree species in the Amazon is perhaps too much to comprehend. The extinction of the Brazil nut is intellectually a tragedy, but emotion – grief – comes from our senses. My memories of the agouti and the tall, majestic Brazil nut trees – along with the other vibrant, incredible creatures we saw, from the prehistoric clawed Hoatzin bird, to the hanging fruit bat colonies, the giant kapok trees, the snapping piranhas, all of which are connected in ways I will never know – these memories are what make the tragedy sink into my heart.


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