The Amazon basin supports a staggering 25% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and more fish species than any other river system. The Kayapó protect the last large block of forest surviving in the highly threatened south-eastern Amazon; at about 40 thousand square miles it’s roughly the size of Iceland. Kayapó communities risk their lives to monitor and protect the forest they live in from deforestation, but there’s constant pressure from illegal invaders seeking to mine, fell trees and farm the land. Like other Indigenous peoples across the world, they’ve entered the role of projectors of the forest, helping preserve more than 9 million hectares of the rainforest. 

The health of the forest, the well-being of the people, and the preservation of Kayapó culture is linked to a single sustainable economic activity – Brazil nut harvesting.

– The Kayapó Project

The Brazil nut tree is widely distributed throughout the Amazon; one of the forest’s tallest trees, it can reach 50 m in height, with some of the trees being up to 1,000 years old. Despite their great size, the trees depend on two small animal species for their survival. One of those is an orchid bee, the female of which is strong enough to pry open the Brazil nut flower and reach its nectar, pollinating as she does so. Meanwhile, the male bee feeds on a very particular orchid and, as well as being its primary pollinator, uses orchid perfume to attract a female. Once pollinated by the bee the mature Brazil nut pods, filled with seeds, fall to the forest floor at which point the tree relies on the Agouti, a rodent with toughened teeth that can break into the pod, to disperse the seeds. It’s these extraordinary relationships between bee, orchid, mammal and tree that ensure that Brazil nuts can’t be grown in commercial orchards, and instead must be collected from wild stands in undisturbed forests.

The Kayapó people and the Brazil nut

For the Kayapó people, the Brazil nut is an important source of food and every year they travel through the forest to collect pods from under the trees. The seeds are removed deftly with machetes, collected in baskets and carried back to the villages. The distribution of the Brazil nut tree through the Amazon indicates that over the centuries the Kayapó have become, like the Agouti, critical in the spreading of seeds. The collection journeys and weeks spent at the Brazil nut groves are an important cultural event for the Kayapó; knowledge is shared between generations, families hunt and pick fruit, plants are gathered for traditional medicines and materials are collected for crafting tools, utensils and ornaments.

I want our forests to remain standing, I want our land protected, our rivers, our fish, our game. And I will always defend that. Why? So that my grandchildren also have the wealth I have today.

– Takak nhotire Kayapó, an elder from the village of Kamoktidjam

Collecting Brazil nuts helps protect the forest and Indigenous way of life by encouraging territorial monitoring and defence by the Kayapó and building cultural resilience through the transfer of traditional knowledge and practices. But Kayapó communities remain vulnerable to co-option into illegal mining, forestry and other destructive industries, and finding alternative Earth-centric economic activities is increasingly important. Here too the Brazil nut can play a crucial role; by selling the surplus from collection each year the Kayapó are assured a degree of financial autonomy to protect themselves and their territory on their own terms. Income from nut sales are equitably distributed between 4000 Kayapó people from 50 Kayapó villages.

In the struggle for their right to exist and steward their territory, the Kayapó formed 21st-century alliances with conservation NGOs. These support networks strengthen the Kayapó with tools for territorial surveillance, sustainable economic autonomy and give them an international platform.

International collaboration

Hodmedods’ alliance with COOBA-Y continues this philosophy of collaboration – an Indigenous-led solution formed in response to the Piaraçu Indigenous Summit, 2020, funded by The Roddick Foundation, and attended by Sam Roddick of the Roddick Foundation and Jyoti Fernandes of the Landworkers’ Alliance.

Piaraçu saw the bringing together of more than 600 Indigenous peoples to unite and strategise against the Brazilian government’s project of genocide, ethnocide and ecocide. When asked what was needed from the UK to support Indigenous justice, building a regenerative supply chain for rainforest products was suggested as a critically important response.

Trade can be exploitative, and modern supply chains which externalise negative ecological, health and social impacts are rightly vilified. But it doesn’t have to be that way and this new alliance is attempting to do things differently; trade built on direct relationships, shared values, equity and transparency across the Atlantic. Hodmedod’s role is one of facilitation, using their UK network of customers and supporters and our existing distribution infrastructure to help sell the Brazil nuts and tell the story of the Kayapó and the forest they live in and defend.

With around 3 million tonnes of soy being imported for animal feed every year, our contribution towards soy-related deforestation in the Amazon is apparent. This initiative provides the opportunity to turn the tide on a history of exploitation, to stand as a force for social and environmental good in the face of adversity. It highlights the importance of making conscious food choices and using our purchasing power to support food systems that serve both people and the earth.

Buy the Brazil nuts and help support the Kayapó, the Amazon rainforest, and the path towards a more harmonious food system. 

(photos by Simone Giovine)