Drive from Puerto Maldonado along the Inter-Oceanic Highway in the direction of Brazil, and you will arrive at the small village of Alegria, or Happiness, home to Peruvian concessioner Felicitas Ramirez. Felicitas earns her living as a Brazil nut harvester, working a 330-hectare tract of primary forest three kilometers from the village. Felicitas has exclusive rights over all Brazil nuts grown in the concession, and knows every one of its valuable trees by heart – their exact location, their productivity, their history: some, after all, she has grown from seedlings, in the lighter spaces created by falling trees.
By protecting the trees, Felicitas protects a large tract of forest high in biodiversity. Passing under the green humming canopy , she pauses to collect leaves, or points out plants with valuable medicinal properties: That is ‘uña de gato’, she says, and there is ‘sangre de palo’. But at the edge of her concession, the vista changes.
Felicitas’ neighbour has decided to use his land for agriculture. His land is empty of trees, the area burned. ‘I am lucky’ says Felicitas, ‘my neighbour respects my boundaries.’ She is right: land clearances within concession borders are notoriously common. Still, her neighbour’s decision is bad news. Slashing and burning trees inevitably damages adjoining ecosystems, threatening bee populations, vital pollinators for the precious Brazil nut.
Further economic and environmental threats are posed by the increasing numbers of outsiders who make use of the new highway for quick getaways. Nut theft and illegal logging is rife. ‘When the trees fall across the path,’ Felicitas exclaims, ‘we are even happy, because those guys with motorbikes cannot come in and steal… Sometimes people even come by my house and ask if Felicitas is around; it is so that they can go in peace and steal.’
With little support from authorities, the solution to these problems must lie with the concessioners themselves. The project’s investment in the Federación de Productores de Castaña de Madre de Dios (FEPROCAMD) is designed to empower concessioners to clearly demarcate and, importantly , defend their boundaries. Carbon offset sales and a nut processing plant will improve the financial returns of sustainable nut harvesting, reducing the temptation to convert land to other uses. As Felicitas explains, it has given the concessioners new hope: “We can look after our forest and also ourselves. Things will get better now.”