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How the Brazil Nut Shows a Path for Sustainable Development in the Amazon

Martin Raiser's picture
Also available in: Portuguese
A couple of months ago, we published a book on Brazil’s lagging productivity growth and referred to the example of the Brazil nut, which currently is mainly exported from Bolivia. That fact highlights the lost export opportunities for Brazil due to poorly integrated value chains.

I am glad to say that on a recent trip to the state of Acre, which borders Bolivia in the very far northwest of Brazil, I saw signs that this may be changing. The rural producer cooperative, Cooperacre, founded 16 years ago by an enterprising farmer now in his early 80s, gathers an increasing large share of Acre’s Brazil nut production. Cooperacre processes the nuts locally and markets them both domestically and for export. The cooperative’s  revenues in 2017 amounted to 30 million reais (US$7.8 million). From that, it paid the salaries for its 269 workers and helped sustain incomes for over 3,000 producer families.

I visited Cooperacre’s largest and oldest Brazil nut processing plant, located just outside of the state capital, Rio Branco. Here the nuts are stored, cleaned, cracked, dried and packaged, with the nutshells used to make biofuel to meet over two-thirds of the plant’s energy needs. Producer families collect up to 200 bags of nuts a year, for which they receive between Rs. 30-80 per bag. (This year’s average is around Rs. 50.) Although the output is not enough to sustain a full family, Brazil nut trees can be grown jointly with manioc, bananas, pineapple, and other types of fruit trees. This offers diversified produce for consumption by family farmers and increasingly for processing locally. In a rural settlement outside of Rio Branco, more than 200 families are now cooperating with Cooperacre to process their harvests of heart of palm, pineapple and other fruits.

Cooperacre’s investments have been partially financed by a series of World Bank multi-sectorial projects, with the aim of supporting sustainable and integrated rural development. The projects form part of a series of World Bank investments to support productive alliances in various regions in Brazil, of which I had the opportunity to blog about earlier. Not all of these investments are successful. In particular, it is difficult to connect producer cooperatives with larger consumer markets, which would allow them to end their dependence on government subsidies for investments in equipment and on having the state be the main market for their produce.

Even in Acre, Cooperacre has become an exception, rather than the rule, by achieving scale and in gaining access to national and some international markets. However, the support for rural producer cooperatives in Acre is important for another reason: 87 percent of the state’s territory is still natural Amazon rainforest and the majority of Acre’s family farmers live in highly vulnerable ecosystems. By offering them economic opportunities that build on sustainable forest management practices, the government of Acre has dramatically reduced any conflicts between conserving the environment and economic development.

Indeed, the achievements in Acre may well hold more general lessons for the management of tropical rainforests. Acre was the first Brazilian state to receive international payments to preserve the native rainforest under the REDD early mover program. Native rainforests still cover 87 percent of its territory, well above the 80 percent threshold established under the 2012 Forest Code for the Amazon biome, even though this area has shrunk by some 90,000 hectares in the last three years.  Acre is the first state to have registered almost all properties under the Forest Code, allowing farmers to take actions to overcome shortfalls in forest management, including  reforestation. and integrated forest management practices in protected areas. This makes up an important part of Acre’s strategy to reconcile economic, social and environmental objectives.

The strategy to support rural producer cooperatives is complemented by state investments in municipal infrastructure and social services. For instance, based on careful territorial planning under the Proacre project, four isolated communities were identified and selected for priority investments in water and sanitation. This is attracting people to move to these settlements, where they also have access to health and education services, whilst shifting from the traditional slash and burn agriculture to integrated production methods on permanently cultivated plots. Acre’s educational achievements are particularly noteworthy. It is the first state to have virtually eliminated illiteracy, and its test results in secondary education are best among all states in the Northern region. By investing in quality education, Acre is creating the foundations to increase local value added and thus see further sustainable increases in incomes for local residents.

In returning from Acre I had a final speculative thought: wherever I went in the state, I was greeted by local union leaders, leaders of local communities or politicians who had gained their first experiences during the 1980s movement of the “seringueiros” (rubber tappers). The leader of that movement, Chico Mendes, was murdered 30 years ago because of his resistance to land seizures. He gave his name to the NGO that today manages all protected natural reserve areas in Brazil. Acre thus has built a dense network of social and political organizations committed to the goal of conservation and sustainable development. In some ways, this represents critical social capital for the strategy of supporting rural producer cooperatives.

I saw a similar dense social capital in Santa Catarina, which was supported there by traditional village structures derived from the many immigrants from Europe. And like in Acre, rural producer cooperatives are at the heart of a successful model of integrated rural development in Santa Catarina. In translating these successes to other areas in Brazil or in other countries, we may need more study of the available local social capital. As Robert Putnam first noted when examining different development paths in Northern and Southern Italy – the density of social networks may be a key factor of success.

I am not sure we have very good measures of social capital that would allow us to test this hypothesis. What I do know is that the experience of Acre is worth sharing as an example of successful sustainable development in a fragile social and ecological context.  

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