In Brazil, Nut-Growing Region Faces Threat

The town of Alerta, on the Interocenianic Highway, is near the Brazilian border. Most of the people there are either engaged in illegal logging or in the 100-year-old tradition of Brazil nut harvesting by hand. Conservationists say it is eco-friendly, but the areas are being invaded by poor farmers who slash and burn to grow crops.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to pick up our travels now along the Interoceanic Highway. It crosses South America from the Pacific in Peru to the Atlantic in Brazil. In the Amazon Basin, the road takes you through the rainforest which teams with life. The highway also brings in threats from illegal loggers to farmers who slash and burn in order to grow crops.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro follows the highway to Peru's border with Brazil.

(Soundbite of noise)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The only way to reach the Brazilian border from the provincial capital, Puerto Maldonado, is by crossing the Madre de Dios River by ferry. Mother of God, it's aptly named, as it parted headwaters of the mighty Amazon.

Cars, motorcycles and pedestrian all jostle for a spot on the large, flat boats. Eventually, a bridge that will be the longest in Peru will be built here to connect the two sides of the Interoceanic Highway. But for now, everyone must cross this river by boat to follow the road to Brazil. The Interoceanic here is straight and flat, and as of now, still mostly unpaved. On either side of it are small towns, settlements almost, closely surrounded by the dense green of the Amazonian jungle.

We stop in the community of Mavila when we spot a jaguar skin hanging over the railings of one of the clobbered houses. Leomissio(ph), who doesn't want to give his last name, tells us he's just killed the large cat which is an endangered species. He recounts the story with the pride of someone who bested a tough competitor.

LEOMISSIO: (Through translator) This jaguar had killed six pigs and two cows, so I was looking for him. I waited for him, and I found him when he was eating one of my sheep. He came towards me because these animals are fierce. As he approached, I shot him in the neck and I killed him instantly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His wife brings out the dead animal's skull still encasing its large, sharp teeth.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LEOMISSIO: (Through Translator) There are fewer jaguars now but they always come to eat our animals. As farmers, we see these animals as something dangerous, as pests. So, of course, we have to kill them. If we don't, they can finish off our cows, sheep and even chickens.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I asked him how many he's killed.

LEOMISSIO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many, many jaguars.

(Foreign language spoken)

LEOMISSIO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's killed about 10 jaguars.

The exchange is a sobering reminder of how difficult it is to balance human needs with those of the environment.

Conservationists fear that the paving of the Interoceanic Highway will act as an artery for even more people to move into one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Already, the battle over resources here has turned deadly.

(Soundbite of a vehicle)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We drive onto the town of Alerta, about 80 miles from the Brazilian border. Last year, a local official was brutally gunned down in broad daylight, after confiscating a truckload of illegally-cut mahogany here.

Maria Isabel Goyaso(ph) worked with the slain man.

Ms. MARIA ISABEL GOYASO: (Through translator) I heard the shots. It was all so fast. Then I saw him. He was lying on the floor. I asked what had happened. They told me the assassin had come in quietly and just blew his brains out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While this violence is common in Brazil, the attack was one of the first of its kind here.

Ms. GOYASO: (Through translator) They killed him because he was doing his job, trying to stop people illegally harvesting mahogany.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Isabel Goyaso said the effect of the killing has been devastating for those like her who are charged with cracking down on illegal logging.

Ms. GOYASO: (Through translator) We're scared. The people around here are very aggressive. We have families, children, we have to stay safe. The illegal loggers do their business in the middle of the night. There are no lights here. What can we do? We don't have phones, no form of communication, nothing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Underfunded and understaffed, the Peruvian government Resource Management Ministry doesn't give Goyaso, who works for them, even a bicycle to travel around on. There's little she can do, she says, to stop encroachment into the forest, home to one of the most important local industries.

(Soundbite of birds)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we're now walking into the rainforest by the side of the Interoceanic Highway. And one of the most amazing features of the landscape here is the Brazil nut tree. You can't really miss them. They rise straight up into the air with no branches, about 60 to 70 feet, and then all of a sudden, they explode into a canopy way, way above us. And environmentalists say that they are one of the keys to keeping the forest here intact.

Mr. FERNANDO GRUYO(ph) (Nut Farmer and Conservationist): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brazil nut farmer and conservationist Fernando Gruyo, points up to one of the Brazil nut trees. He says it's young at 200 years old. These trees can live to 800 years.

For a century, Peruvians here have been harvesting the Amazonian nut called castana in Spanish. The government hands out concessions for harvesting. And within these areas, it's illegal, for the most part, to farm or log.

Mr. GRUYO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gruyo says the nuts fall and pod in November each year and are collected by hand when they're then dried and sold. It's a sustainable industry. It doesn't harm the forest. Illegal logging is threatening the Brazil nut habitat. And Gruyo says, subsistence farmers have also been moving into the area.

Mr. GRUYO: (Through translator) The way it works is that someone builds on a piece of land in the forest, and he claims that it's his. Then he moves farther in to stake a further claim, and he starts selling cleared land to others. That's how the land gets taken over.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we walk, we see a field that's been recently cleared. Even though it's illegal to harm them, there are a few burnt Brazil nut trees waiting to be chopped down and hauled away. Further on, there's a clearing with a few animals penned next to a thatched hut. A woman and her son live here. They don't want to give their names.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Through translator) We found this place, and it was a virgin forest. This was free land. We have taken possession of it. They say we have taken the land away from the Brazil nut farmers. But it's not like that. That's a lie.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's clearly terrified of us. Dressed in ragged shorts, her son squats on a tree branch glaring at us wearily. Through sheer hardwork, she's tilled this land and made a living for herself.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Poor and illiterate, she said she came from the highlands of Peru 11 years ago and has been squatting here ever since. She's been told the land is under Brazil nut concession, which makes her presence here illegal. But she says she has nowhere else to go.

The problem, explains Enrique Ortiz, a conservationist who's been traveling with us down the Interoceanic Highway, is that she's not alone. In this one area, there are at least five other families who've burrowed into the forest. And there may soon be more.

Mr. ENRIQUE ORTIZ (Conservationist; Vice President and Co-Founder, Amazon Conservation Association): Why do we care? Because of our highway and the price of land goes up, and that basically makes the land more expensive and then also more desirable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says the Brazil nut habitat needs to be protected while it still can be.

Mr. ORTIZ: This area is a Brazil nut area, and there is a solution that is Brazil nuts, and we have to make it work, you know? People have been living, harvesting these for the last century. And there is a resource that produces, you know, income for probably half of the population of all this region and they're working it off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's an income that isn't enough to live off though. Nearby, harvesters are spreading out Brazil nuts to dry on a raised platform. Javier Juachisto(ph) says the price this season of the nut is low. So he says he'll have to turn to the type of work that conservationists are most concerned about.

Mr. JAVIER JUACHISTO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We'll log, he says. We'll farm. A little bit of everything to survive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then he goes back to sorting through his bounty in the hot sun.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: And tomorrow, Lourdes completes her trip on the Interoceanic Highway. We'll explore the Amazon's pristine forest and the innovative plans to save it.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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