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 genreate 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. For the past few years, 56 women in Ixlu, Guatemala, which is located on the border of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, have discovered the financial potential of many of the forest’s often overlooked services. They founded a business to market the Maya Nut, also known as the Breadnut or Ramón. 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, but it is currently endangered by unsustainable practices. But Alimentos Nutri Naturales, the business owned by the Ixlu women, recognizes that the Maya Nut has the potential to be one of the world’s most profitable non-timber forest products. They employ more than 650 people from the community, providing them with food and a steady income. The women of Ixlu have partnered with their local government to have Maya Nut given to schoolchildren as a nutritious snack.
The 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 distributing that knowledge to local women in Central America. The Equilibrium Fund works with hundreds of villages in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras to provide them with the knowledge and incentives to maintain and replant Maya Nut forests. As a result, locals have planted 200,000 Maya Nut trees, with plans for many more. In the process they have conserved 90,000 hectares of existing forest. With this preservation comes increased food (one tree alone can be the source of up to 400 pounds of food every year), income, and stability (through climate regulation, erosion regulation, and other services) for the residents of these countries.
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 their local government to plant tens of thousands of trees to protect watersheds.
Maya Nut trees now provide a sustainable source of food and income to local populations while safeguarding Central American communities by regulating 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.”