Why Brazil Nut Business Is Shifting to Bolivia
By LARRY ROHTER
MARABÁ, Brazil - Throughout the 20th century, most of the Brazil nuts consumed around the world came from the jungle surrounding this bustling river market town in the eastern Amazon. But the bitter joke here these days is that the only place you can still find a Brazil nut tree is on the municipal seal.
To the chagrin of Brazilians, exports of the nuts that bear their country's name have fallen precipitously to about 7,000 metric tons in 2003 from nearly 19,000 metric tons in 2000, allowing neighboring Bolivia to become the market leader. Groves of Brazil nut trees are disappearing all over the Brazilian Amazon, and the question of who bears responsibility for that sharp decline and resulting deforestation has become the subject of a heated and growing debate.
Economists, scientists and other scholars tend to point to a single family, based here, that has dominated the industry for three generations and controls hundreds of thousands of acres in this region at the junction of the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers. But members of the influential clan, called Mutran, say they are being unjustly attacked and complain of unfair competition and contraband.
A decade ago, Bolivia barely figured as a supplier of Brazil nuts. But in an effort to wean peasants from cultivating coca leaf for conversion into cocaine, the Bolivian government encouraged farmers in its northern Amazon region to grow, process and export the nuts.
"The industry in Brazil is confronting a huge crisis because we don't enjoy the same kind of subsidies and tax exemptions the Bolivians do, not because of something that the Mutran family has done," complained Benedito Mutran, president of the Brazilian Association of Nut Growers. "We're not the guilty party. We're the victims of this catastrophe, this hurricane called Bolivia."
The Mutran clan, of Syrian-Lebanese descent, arrived here at the end of the 19th century as merchants, extending credit to Brazil nut gatherers on lucrative terms. By the 1930's, though, they had became big landholders and later moved into politics, generating mayors and legislators who protected the family's expanding commercial interests.
"At their peak, the Mutrans had a monopoly on everything connected with the Brazil nut industry, from harvesting to transport to exports," said Marilia Emmi, a professor at the Nucleus for Amazon Research at the Federal University of Pará. "Much of their own production occurred on public lands that belonged to the state but were initially leased to them for a pittance as the result of backroom political deals."
Eventually, the Mutrans were able to extend their dominions even to the western Amazon state of Acre, which borders Bolivia and is more than 2,500 miles from here, by the region's tortuous roads. Recent efforts to form independent cooperatives there and in other Amazon states have until now foundered because of dockworker strikes, which critics of the Mutrans say they provoked, or fires or simple economics.
Members of the Mutran family do not deny their domination of the Brazil nut trade, but argue they have also brought prosperity to the region. "There are only three exporters of Brazil nuts in Brazil who matter, and we are all named Mutran," Aziz Mutran said proudly during a walkabout on his ranch here, which includes a 10,000-acre grove of Brazil nut trees he says is the last of its kind in the area. "We provide jobs to many people and create wealth for Brazil."
Critics tell a different story. "Because of their monopoly, the Mutrans paid a price so low that production dropped off the map," said Zico Bronzeado, a former Brazil nut harvester who now represents Acre in the lower house of Congress. The low prices drove growers to abandon the business, the critics say, selling their lands to loggers and cattle ranchers in a process that deforested vast stretches of the Amazon and further enriched the Brazilian elite.
To help break the Mutrans' domination, the Acre state government has supported construction of a nut processing factory, which recently began operating, to compete with plants in Bolivia. "We want exports to take place from this side of the border so that we can get the benefits here," said Mr. Bronzeado, a member of the left-wing Workers' Party.
By Mr. Bronzeado's calculations, the price paid to local nut producers in Acre has tripled since 2000, thanks to Bolivia's challenge to the Mutrans' monopoly. As a result, former rubber tappers and nut harvesters are abandoning cattle ranches and returning to the jungle to resume their trade, which has in turn slowed the rate of deforestation in the region.
Here in the Mutran family's traditional redoubt, however, where there is no competition from outsiders like the Bolivians, production has dropped to almost nothing. Like most landowners in the region, the Mutrans have expanded into cattle ranching, cutting down the jungle and its Brazil nut groves to make way for pastures and to prevent squatters from seizing land and claiming title on grounds that it is unproductive.
Under Brazilian law, owners of Brazil nut groves that originally belonged to the state can cut down only those trees that have been certified as dead or "nonproductive." But in the rush to convert Brazil nut groves to pasture, that restriction has been little observed or enforced.
Here and there along a highway busy with trucks carrying logs and cattle, a few Brazil nut trees still stand alone in pastures, forlorn and scorched. But without the protection of other trees around them, and with the bees that pollinate them driven away by heavy smoke, they are easily toppled by the heavy winds and rainstorms that often rip through the area.
"The problem is that there is not even one monitor to keep an eye on
this," said Alfredo Kingo Oyama Homma, a biologist at the government-run
Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research in Belém, the state
capital. "So it's a virtual invitation to destroy."