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Raising the Resilience of Brazil Nut Gatherers in the Amazon Basin: Towards Transformative and Sustainable Change?

26 Jan 2018

  • Author(s): Marcelo Cunha

Raising the Resilience of Brazil Nut Gatherers in the Amazon Basin: Towards Transformative and Sustainable Change?
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change, launched to coincide with the Resilience 2017 Conference, Resilience Frontiers for Global Sustainability, hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Resilience Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2017. In this series, experts discuss examples of policy reform and their potential to foster transformative change and social-ecological resilience for sustainability. The series contributes to a better understanding of the political processes underlying a range of policy approaches and reforms, and aims to inform global policy debates about the kinds of change processes that promote sustainability and resilience. It complements the UNRISD panel organized at the conference.

How can the resilience of traditional quilombola communities in the Amazon Basin, whose livelihoods depend on trading the Brazil nuts they gather, be improved—while conserving forests? This think piece uses value-chain analysis to provide insights on how the institutions the forest dwellers are embedded in could be improved to provide a more enabling environment. The piece concludes with recommendations on how to achieve social, economic and environmental sustainability, and transformative change, in the region.

Marcelo Cunha is an Associate Programme Officer at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and a PhD candidate in Geography at the Free University of Berlin. He holds an M.Sc. in Economics from the University of Cologne, Germany. His research focuses on environmentally sound access to resources as well as governance structures for sustainable and inclusive development of production networks, including value-chain, cost-benefit, and sustainable livelihoods analysis.

Triple bottom line sustainability?

Traditional quilombola1 communities along the Trombetas River in Brazil, living on land mostly made up of environmentally protected areas, rely to a considerable extent on gathering and trading Brazil nuts as part of their sustainable livelihoods strategy. Ensuring inclusive and sustainable use and trading of non-timber forest products like Brazil nuts is crucial for achieving the triple bottom line of sustainability: It prevents deforestation, contributes to social equity and provides an economic basis for rural communities. Yet these communities remain economically marginalized. This think piece uses value-chain analysis with a focus on institutions to help understand the scope for improving the resilience of Brazil nut gatherers in the Lower Amazon Basin and to provide the basis for policy recommendations for transformative change.

Institutions shape asymmetries along the Brazil nut value chain

In the Brazil nut value chain, the first node is composed of the gatherers themselves and the buyers. They are referred to as upstream value chain actors. Analysis of the institutions around these actors, carried out as part of the author’s doctoral research, shows that both informal and formal institutions create asymmetric trade relations between Brazil nut gatherers and purchasers.

The informal institution is known as aviamento, which is a system of debt servitude (or peonage) by which suppliers sell Brazil nuts only to buyers who provide them with advance payments (with rare exceptions), as a type of informal credit provision. This highly unequal patron-client relationship severely limits the Brazil nut gatherers’ bargaining power, negotiation possibilities and market access. It could be argued that aviamento fills a certain gap, as the forest dwellers do lack access to formal credit. However, at the same time it institutionalizes debt-based dependencies between patrons and clients.

The formal institution at play is the Term of Compromise, a regulatory framework issued by the environmental entity of the Brazilian government, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio). It was introduced to deal with conflicts over natural resources arising where (traditional) populations live in, and derive their livelihoods from, areas subject to environmental protection. Aiming to reconcile environmental and social goals, the Term of Compromise restricts the number of external buyers (those who live in neighbouring urban centres) that can enter the environmentally protected area to purchase Brazil nuts at community level.

While this measure may disincentivize Brazil nut gathering, it has unintentional social consequences. It further weakens the bargaining power of gatherers and distorts local market structures by limiting the number of purchasers compared to suppliers, leaving competition among buyers relatively low. It reinforces the already asymmetric trade relations between Brazil nut gatherers and buyers produced by aviamento and limits the value chain position of the gatherers.

In addition, there are only three regional Brazil nut processing mills, and reducing the number of external buyers facilitates the development of community-internal cartels and price squeezing (which is often compounded by global price squeezes).

Inclusive policies facilitate transformative change for more sustainable value chains

In order to address these institutional limitations, the government has already taken the following steps toward more context-sensitive and resilience-based policies for Brazil nut gathering and other non-timber forest products:
  • Introduce state-facilitated market access for rural dwellers through the Food Acquisition Program (PAA) and the National School Feeding Program (PNAE), whereby 30% of food in schools is procured from non-timber forest product gatherers and family farmers. These are policies to overcome trade asymmetries by creating alternative market outlets;
  • Create good governance structures along non-timber forest product chains in line with the multi-ministerial National Plan to Promote Value Chains of Socio-biodiversity Products (PNPSB), which has been integrated into the National Plan of Agroecology and Organic Farming (PLANAPO) in 2013. An example is the Governance Commission for Strengthening the Brazil nut Value Chain in the Lower Amazon Basin, Pará, that was initiated in 2014.

A conducive institutional environment for resilient upstream actors in the value chain involves specific shifts in practices of the three most involved groups of actors:
  • Non-timber forest product gatherers need to strengthen their levels of social and economic organization to access better-paying markets, for example through effective participation in well-managed member-driven cooperatives, but also by accessing credit, engaging in public and private initiatives, and using rural extension and advisory services provided by associations;
  • Non-timber forest product purchasers (including processing mills) need to further invest in win-win capacity-building measures such as training courses for quality assurance along the supply chain;
  • The responsible government entity (ICMBio) needs to enable participation in decision making by changing governance structures of protected area management councils from consultative to deliberative.
Value chain agents need to be embedded in an enabling organizational and institutional environment in order to achieve context-sensitive transformative change with economic, social and environmental benefits. The institutions which currently prevent sustainable Brazil nut value chain development, as discussed in this piece, could particularly be improved through more participatory decision making. This would result in the co-management of inhabited protected areas and effectively contribute to overcoming asymmetric relations between buyers and sellers of Brazil nuts.

1With reference to ILO Convention 169, the traditional populations mentioned in this think piece are Afro-Brazilian populations who fled from slavery and settled in remote areas, establishing quilombola communities, for example in the Brazilian Amazon.

This think piece draws substantially on the author’s PhD thesis, to be published by mid-2018. The author gratefully acknowledges funding for his research from the CAPES-DAAD scholarship provided by the Brazilian and German governments.
This think piece was written in the first semester of 2017.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.