Exploring the value of the Amazon

Posted by Cristina Ruiz on 10 December 2018

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to the Amazon in Bolivia with Richard Cooper from Liberation to scope opportunities for value chain development. A new country for me, but somewhere Richard has visited many times since Liberation started sourcing Brazil nuts from the area in 2008. The trip was an opportunity to explore what Twin and Liberation could do further to improve the lives and livelihoods of the Amazonian populations.

Deforestation in Amazon BrazilVisiting the Amazon for the first time is always an impressive experience: flying in a six-seater aerotaxi from Riberalta to Cobija (which borders Brazil) reveals the immensity and fragility of the world’s largest tropical forest.  The Amazon is so rich in many ways. I was just reading in the journal, Nature Sustainability, about a research project to establish the monetary value of its ecosystem services. The rainforest contributes $8.2 billion a year to Brazil’s economy. Yet, this isn’t evident in the Amazonian communities in Bolivia. I was struck by how the communities survive in such remote, poor living conditions with extremely limited access to markets and services. I got a strong sense of how marginalised these communities are, and how this has led to a lack of trust and the feeling of these communities being left behind in terms of economic development.

During the trip we met and visited NGOs, UN agencies, private traders, factories and processors, associations and indigenous communities. There are a number of associations of Brazil nut gatherers in the area which are small and fragile with several governance and management challenges. Their routes to market are well-established however give them very few alternative options. Brazil nuts are processed in the town of Riberalta by a small number of processors with export standard factories. Members of the associations also gather other products from the forest like Acai (a different and superior variety than the Acai found in Brazil) which has great potential for export.

Twin’s vision is a world where trade benefits everyone engaging in it; where business respects and supports the people and ecosystems it touches; where smallholders farmers have the power to shape their own business and community development. Liberation is all about putting producers at the centre of the business. Liberation’s vision is of a world where farmers can earn a decent income and plan for their future. In the Bolivian Amazon we found a total lack of trust among the actors in the value chain, which makes difficult to achieve either of these visions. But Twin and Liberation have the opportunity to start changing this, building examples of trustful and transparent value chains that empower gatherers and farmers.

Working with gatherers is quite different to working with farmers as we do in most of Twin’s programmes.  There is no control over their yields – they are what they are. The working conditions are exceptionally hard - gatherers have to walk deep into the forest at night. They have to clear a path with a machete to reach increasingly remote the deeper areas because deforestation is advancing. And they have very few options for alternative livelihoods.

In addition to creating livelihoods through a more transparent supply chain, it’s essential that we think of the environmental component of this work. Protecting the Amazon should be an imperative for all. In our case, the opportunity to develop value chains that tell the story of the origin and the environment to buyers and customers is exciting. For example, we work with cocoa farmers on the outskirts of the Gola rainforest in Sierra Leone and Liberia, with coffee farmers in the Gorilla mountains in Uganda and we see the huge potential to market rainforest-friendly products.

What is our plan after this exciting trip? There is certainly a clear need for further work. We are exploring funding opportunities to further develop programmes in Bolivia alongside Liberation. We want to work together to support the Brazil nut value chain in quality and sorting at farm level to reduce the number of losses and improve incomes. We want to work with associations to improve governance, business management and approach to gender - both at the organisational and member level. And we want to improve how cooperatives coordinate with others, so they have a greater leverage and a stronger role in the value chain power dynamics.

As part of Twin’s strategy to support farmers to earn a decent income, the issue of crop diversification often arises. Twin works with a few specific commodities in which we have strong trading and programme expertise. But can these commodities alone lift people out of poverty? I have always been of the opinion that we should keep focused on what we do well and not get involved in other commodities, however after this trip I hesitate. The potential of Acai as a diversification crop for the Brazil nuts gatherers showed me the potential we can have. And I welcome the opportunity to work with sister companies like Liberation to explore how we can continue to support farmers through trade.