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DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Macadamia Trees Offer Lifeline to Small Farmers

Elizabeth Eames Roebling

SANTO DOMINGO, May 26 2011 (IPS) - A project to help reforest after the devastation of Hurricane David 32 years ago has grown into a plan to lift small coffee farmers out of poverty, all by the introduction of a gourmet ice cream.

On a small holding of one hectare, a farmer can plant about 200 trees, for an anticipated first harvest price of 2,500 dollars. Credit: Elizabeth Eames Roebling/IPS

On a small holding of one hectare, a farmer can plant about 200 trees, for an anticipated first harvest price of 2,500 dollars. Credit: Elizabeth Eames Roebling/IPS

Hurricane David hit the Dominican Republic as a Category 5 storm in 1979, killing 2,000 people and wiping out 70 percent of the country’s agriculture. In 1980, local businessman Manuel Arcenio Urena, working with the Dominican environmental group Plan Sierra, introduced the macadamia nut tree from Australia as a means to both reforest the island and replenish eroded topsoil. Because the tree has a shallow root system, it is capable of holding down precious topsoil.

For 15 years, the trees were simply planted. They began to produce nuts but the shells were very hard and the nuts were unknown here. Since there was no market for them, the macadamia nuts – the most expensive nut on the world market – were left to rot on the ground. Because the trees were seen as having no value, peasants began to cut them down and use them to make charcoal.

Enter Jesus Moreno, founder of the local ice cream company, Helados Bon, who was committed to preserving the ecology of his country. He introduced Macadamia nut ice cream as the founding flavour of a gourmet line of ice cream, and thereby created a sure market for the nuts.

Ten years later, in 2005, the local production of macadamias exceeded the market for the ice cream, and Moreno started commercially packaging the nuts under the brand name of “La Loma“. Today, small cans of the delicate nuts are sold in local fine grocery stores and tourist shops. They are billed as “grown with love in the Dominican Republic”.

But Moreno saw a possibility that this tree could do more for his country.

The macadamia nut tree grows to a height of 15 metres and usually begins producing nuts when it is six years old. The first year, a tree may yield five pounds of nuts, but as it matures, it may produce 40 pounds of nuts a year. Because its root system is shallow, it can be planted right beside existing coffee plants, also producing the needed shade.

Moreno thought it could benefit the 10,000 small impoverished coffee producers, who usually have landholdings of less than one hectare (2.43 acres). The macadamia nut could lift both current and future generations out of poverty.

Edison Santos, manager of the La Loma Project, drives the company truck up into the rainy hills of Bonao, an hour north of Santo Domingo. He talks about the nut trees with the enthusiasm of someone who has discovered gold.

“We have a business plan now for sustainable agriculture. We grow the trees in a nursery until they are two years old and then give them to the small coffee growers along with all the technical support they will need,” he told IPS.

“We assure them that we will purchase the nuts from them. Right now, we buy the nuts for 2.70 dollars a pound. We have to train the farmers, and help take care of the young trees, since it will be four years before the trees produce nuts. But after that, they will produce for 100 years.

“They do not need much care, simply fertilisation every six months, and protection from the rats who love to eat the nuts,” he added. “But the nuts themselves are easy to prepare for market since they dry by themselves on the tree, and do not have to be cared for like coffee beans.”

On a small holding of one hectare, a farmer can plant about 200 trees, for an anticipated first harvest price of 2,500 dollars, with the possibility of a future yield approaching 21,000 dollars per year at current prices. Since the majority of these farmers earn less than one dollar a day, such numbers may appear a fantasy.

But there are farmers who have already seen the results.

Servio Martinez has been growing macadamia nut trees for the last 12 years. He planted 250 trees, but not all at the same time.

“I started growing these trees inside my coffee plantation,” he told IPS. “I am very satisfied with this project and so, when anyone asks me, I say that I am sure of one thing: I have a plantation with a product that definitely has a secure future. So I encourage other farmers to join in the project.”

Martinez sold over 8,000 dollars worth of nuts last year and not all his trees are as yet yielding fruit.

The La Loma project has received international aid money so that the farmers can be given the trees and technical assistance for nothing. But Santos explains how they plan to sustain the project.

“We have designed a small box with a plastic tree, which has the story of our project recorded on it. We are selecting tourist hotels in which to put them. Tourists can then become sponsors for an individual tree,” he said.

“The hotels will get the nuts shells, which are very hard and beautiful, for use around their landscapes. Then, once a farmer’s trees are producing, he will pay back to the project the original cost of his plants, over the course of five or six years, so that we can give trees to other farmers.”

The La Loma project can be found on both Facebook and Twitter.

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