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BOLIVIA: Amazon Nuts at Exploitative Prices

Franz Chávez* - Tierramérica

LA PAZ, Oct 8 2009 (IPS) - Bolivia is the world’s leading exporter of the shelled Brazil nut, a nutritious food source that grows abundantly in the country’s Amazon rainforest region. But in this tropical paradise, many of the nut-gatherers live in hellish conditions.

Shelled Brazil nuts  Credit: Photo Stock

Shelled Brazil nuts Credit: Photo Stock

Bolivians simply call the Bertholletia excelsa a “castaña” (a catch-all name for “nut”). Globally, it is known as the Brazil nut or the Pará nut, while in South America it has many other local and traditional names.

It is a food rich in selenium and other minerals, as well as proteins, carbohydrates and oils, and represents 30 percent of the Amazon forest revenues in the northern Bolivian provinces of Pando and Beni, bordering Brazil. In fact, nut-gathering is the main local economic activity, following the decline of natural latex extraction from the jungle’s rubber trees in the mid-1980s.

But the competitive price of Brazil nuts from Bolivia brings with it a heavy component of exploitation of poor families, including children and adolescents, warns a study by the Centre for Labour and Agrarian Development Studies (CEDLA), sponsored by the Ministry of Labour, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the Dutch development organisation Hivos.

Families who work gathering nuts are in a situation of extreme vulnerability, according to the study.

Poverty, exclusion from labour rights and “cruel” exploitation are the norm in the collection of nuts in the northern Bolivian Amazon, according to CEDLA researcher Bruno Rojas.


In the 2008 season, which lasts from November to March, nut gathering mobilised some 17,000 people in Pando, Rojas told Tierramérica.

Nut exports in that period represented 75 percent of the region’s economic movement. Data from Bolivia’s foreign trade institute indicate that exports reached 80 million dollars and created jobs for 30,000 people, including work in nut processing and transport.

Under the “piecework” mode, workers are paid 11 to 17 dollars per 23-kg box of nuts, which takes 12 to 14 hours to gather. Not only is the work poorly-paid, but workers, and often the entire family, put in much more than eight hours a day, the limit stipulated by the country’s labour laws.

In last year’s harvest, the nut company owners and landholders caused an artificial drop in the price of the 23-kg box from 17 dollars to just three dollars, according to María Saravia, communications secretary of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia.

This practice is common among landowners and wholesalers, in order to drive down wages and then avoid paying back wages for the harvest, she said in a Tierramérica interview.

Some indigenous communities who have obtained formal title to their land can get better prices and deliver their products to whoever they choose, but workers and their dependents who come from other regions are subject to the whims of the wholesalers, Saravia added.

“This is an ongoing fight for a change in the lives of the nut-gathering families,” said the indigenous activist.

According to Rojas, “the more that is produced, the more the country’s labour laws are broken.” Entire families make their way through the dense forest, left to their fate among the dangers of the jungle, the threat of disease and the long distances they must cover while carrying their harvest on their backs.

“They have no medical or accident insurance, they do not pay into the social security system, and they are unprotected by labour laws and by a weak government that lacks the ability to make the company owners obey the law,” the researcher said.

Silvia Escóbar, the lead author of the CEDLA study, told Tierramérica that “often the law is negotiated, when it should really just be obeyed. We need a government that enforces the law.”

Sixty percent of the people employed in nut-harvesting and processing come from urban areas, and the other 40 percent are from rural areas of Beni, Pando and the far north of the province of La Paz.

The nut-growing area is rainforest, situated at an average altitude of 300 metres above sea level and temperatures of 30 to 38 degrees Celsius. The trees, which grow to 50 metres tall, cover an area crisscrossed by rivers, study co-author Wilson Rojas told Tierramérica.

Because of its topography and soil conditions, the area is not suitable for raising cattle or for growing rice or root crops, he added.

Today’s nut-gatherers are the successors of the labourers who worked in nut, cotton and latex extraction, the Amazon products of greatest international demand in the early 20th century.

Harvesters of these products in the 1920s and 1930s often worked in conditions of servitude and semi-slavery. In addition to gathering latex and nuts, the labourers were required to work without pay in the homes and ranches of the large landowners, said Bruno Rojas.

In the country’s Amazon jungle region, a pre-capitalist economy reigned. Today, so many years later, the labour rights of nut-gatherers are still not protected.

According to the Ministry of Labour, in 2007 there were 2,600 children and 2,000 adolescents involved in nut-gathering, and 450 children and 1,400 adolescents working in nut processing.

In the cracking, shelling and selection of Brazil nuts, two out of three children in the area work five days a week between 2:00 and 7:00 in the morning, “and the lucky ones go to school at 8:00, without sleeping or eating, and they fall asleep in class,” said UNICEF representative in Bolivia, Gordon Jonathan Lewis.

“We have to do something. It is an obligation and a duty,” he said as a challenge to the Bolivian government when the study was presented in mid-September.

According to Escóbar, decisions must be taken to eradicate child labour in the forests and in the warehouses where the nuts are selected. Bolivia consumes just two percent of the nut harvest, while 98 percent is exported to Europe, the United States and Asia.

The manual labour involved in nut-gathering has not changed in decades. It requires the use of a machete and a box to carry the nuts, he said.

Labour Minister Calixto Chipana promised to take the report into consideration in drafting the National Plan for the Progressive Eradication of Child Labour, which is part of the ongoing process of reforming the country’s labour laws.

Approximately 116,000 of Bolivia’s 1.5 million children between the ages of seven and 13 work in various activities. The government wants to create a “list of jobs prohibited for children,” said Chipana.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

 
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