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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Guest Post: Maya Nut Trees Make A Comeback in Central America

By Francisco Noguera

karen_bennettGuest blogger Karen Bennett is a Research Program Coordinator at the World Resources Institute. Her current work focuses on mainstreaming an ecosystem services approach to assure ecosystems' capacity to provide humans with needed goods and services. She also provides support to projects in the People and Ecosystems Program.

In Central America, the Maya Nut is making it clear that trees are worth more standing than cut down. Trees are critical to the well being?of forest inhabitants in Central America. Ironically though, many forest dependent communities find it pays more to cut trees down than to keep them standing. That's because timber can be used for firewood, building material, or sold internationally, and cleared land can generate income from agricultural products. Unfortunately, deforestation eliminates other ecosystem services that forests provide, such as climate regulation, soil retention, and water regulation. As current deforestation rates attest, many of these forest benefits have received little recognition.


That is starting to change, however, as local communities discover the financial potential of the forest's often overlooked services. For the past few years, 56 women in Ixlu, Guatemala, which is located on the border of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, have operated a business to market the Maya Nut, also known as the Breadnut or Ram?n. Dried and roasted, the Maya Nut can taste like chocolate or coffee and can be used to make cereal, cookies, cakes and other foods.The Maya Nut is native to the rainforests of Central America and is currently endangered by unsustainable practices. But Alimentos Nutri Naturales (ANN), the business owned by the Ixlu women, recognizes the Maya Nut's potential to be one of the world's most profitable non-timber forest products, as well as a source of economic opportunity for the community as a whole. The company currently employs more than 650 people from the community, providing them with food and a steady income. The women of Ixlu have also partnered with the local government to have Maya Nut given to schoolchildren as a nutritious snack.

maya_nut_treeThe formation and success of this company is one outcome of work by the Equilibrium Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to gathering indigenous knowledge on the value and uses of the Maya Nut tree and transferring it to local women in Central America. The Fund works with hundreds of villages in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras providing them with the skills needed to maintain and replant Maya Nut forests, as well as processing the produce to engage in ?income generating activities like that of ANN. As a result, local communities have planted 200,000 Maya Nut trees, with plans for many more. In the process they have conserved 90,000 hectares of existing forest that are allowing for increased food (one tree alone can be the source of up to 400 pounds of food every year), income, and environmental stability (through climate regulation, erosion regulation, and other services) for local communities and residents of these countries in general.

Value from the Maya Nut tree's other ecosystem services is also being captured. The Equilibrium Fund recently started a project to reforest Maya Nut trees to offset carbon dioxide emissions and women in Chinandega, Nicaragua, are working with local governments to plant tens of thousands of trees to?protect watersheds.

Maya Nut trees are an example of how ecosystems can deliver increased economic opportunity for local communities at the BoP while also safeguarding them through the regulation of natural processes. According to one participant, Juan Jose Interiano, "I cut four huge Maya Nut trees this year because I thought they were worthless, now I am reforesting because I know how valuable they are."

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