Global climate models indicate that Central America will experience temperature rise and increasingly dry conditions over the next decades. Precipitation will decrease, causing severe water stress and more frequent and intense drought periods. Pressure on natural resources will grow, as a result of both demographic pressures and climate change, while degradation of ecosystems will further exacerbate water and food scarcity, worsening the living conditions of vulnerable people and communities.
In the whole region, adapting to climate change will require measures to safeguard and restore forests, in order to ensure the delivery of critical ecosystem services, such as the regulation of the natural water cycle and the provision of food and raw materials.
The Maya nut (Brosimum alicastrum) is a large tree in the fig family that is native to dry, seasonally dry, humid and gallery forests below 1,500 metres throughout South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. It was once abundant but, since the advent of farming in the neotropics, has become highly threatened in some regions — and even locally extinct in certain places — as a result of logging, cutting for firewood and clearing for annual crops, pasture and biofuels.
The Maya nut is one of the few tree species able to adapt to predicted climate changes in tropical forests (particularly those to which it is native, and perhaps others) as it can survive in temperatures of 18 to 32°C and precipitation levels of 600 to 4,000 mm per year. It can access water stored in limestone bedrock, allowing the tree to remain green and leafy even during long dry seasons. This, helps prevent erosion, stabilize riverbanks and maintain flows from natural springs. The tree requires no agricultural inputs, and its abundant leaf litter improves soil fertility. It plays a significant role in defining its agro-ecosystem’s resilience to climate change and extreme meteorological events.
“The Maya nut is a large tree in the fig family that is native to forests below 1,500 metres throughout South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.”
Photo by the Maya Nut Institute.
Brosimum alicastrum was cultivated in the pre-Columbian era. As its leaves, pulp and seeds are an important seasonal food for many birds (e.g., parrots, toucans, macaws) and mammals (monkeys, honey bears, rodents and bats) Maya nut forests protect biodiversity, including important game species (deer, peccary, tapir, turkey, pheasant and agouti).
Five to eight years after planting, the tree begins producing nuts. An individual tree stays productive for about 100 years, reaching peak production of up to 300 kg/year between the ages of 50 and 85.
The Maya nut is rich in proteins, B-vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and is nutritionally comparable to amaranth, quinoa and soy. It can be eaten fresh or dried and dried nuts can be stored for up to five years. The boiled seed tastes like potato and can be ground into a dough for soups, tamales, tortillas, and burgers. Dry seeds can be roasted and ground into a chocolate-tasting powder for use in drinks, desserts and baked goods.
Maya nut revival in Mesoamerica
Despite its importance to human survival as a ‘crisis food’ following crop failures due to droughts, locust infestations, hurricanes, or even as recently as during the 1980s Contra war in Nicaragua, today the Maya nut is rarely consumed by local communities making up no more than 5% of their diet.
The tree also offers good construction and fuel wood, while its latex is used medicinally and its leaves are an excellent fodder for livestock, being high in protein and highly digestible.
Together with local civil society and governmental institutions, the Maya Nut Institute (MNI) promotes community-based conservation of Brosimum alicastrum by teaching rural and indigenous women in 12 countries about the Maya nut. Maya Nut Institute workshops for women provide information on nutrition, recipes, processing and propagation.
MNI is also developing participatory sustainable harvest guidelines to ensure program sustainability and minimize impacts on biodiversity and forest regeneration. The institute works with the harvesters to design forest monitoring tools (transects, seed production sampling techniques) so women producers can monitor the current state of their forest and compare it over time. Also so that they can quantify the production potential of their harvest sites and understand (and implement) harvest quotas to ensure that they don’t negatively impact wildlife.
“By participating in Maya nut agribusiness activities, women are becoming significant income generators and their empowerment results in improved food and economic security for their whole family.”
Women, as caretakers for the household in the project regions, are expected to bear the majority of the burden of climate change impacts on ecosystems. This is why they are the primary beneficiaries of the program. By participating in Maya nut agribusiness activities, women are becoming significant income generators and their empowerment results in improved food and economic security for their whole family. This improves their self-esteem and social status in the family and the community. Following the workshops, many women have gone back to school, started using the internet and opened bank accounts.
To date, 534 women have formed 23 micro-enterprises to produce and sell Maya nut derivates, such as ice cream, bread and cookies, in the local market. Some of these businesses are now exporting to the United Sates and Japan. MNI is facilitating the creation of a women’s Marketing Organization to consolidate, certify and manage exports, to eliminate the need for middlemen and outside certifiers and ensure that the majority of benefits accrue directly to the producers. Maya nut is now providing income for more than 5,000 people in Central America.
Healthy food and reforestation
At least 200,000 people are now aware of the food and market value of the Maya nut, which has improved conservation and reforestation. The effects of the institute’s basic one day training program are evident in the emergence of women’s Maya nut producer groups (23 to date) and in the interest in reforestation by communities where we have worked, and even in communities exposed indirectly to our work.
Another good example is that we implemented, in partnership with government authorities, “Healthy Kids, Healthy Forests Maya Nut” school lunch program in 22 Guatemalan schools in 2009 and at the end of 2010 the Ministry of Education passed a law that Maya nut lunches should be served weekly in schools and another law banning all cookies except Maya nut cookies.
“At the end of 2010 the Ministry of Education passed a law that Maya nut lunches should be served weekly in schools.”
Photo by the Maya Nut Institute.
Since program inception in 2001, the institute estimates that 1,800,000 new trees have been planted, for a total potential production of over four million kilos of food per year, providing both a long-term solution to malnutrition and food insecurity in the region, and a significant improvement in ecosystem function. Maya nuts may become a viable alternative to annual crops, such as corn, sorghum, peanut and rice in certain climate-change affected regions.
Land tenure issues, which could affect women’s access to the trees, logging for timber, and forest conversion to pasture, crops and biofuels are risk factors for program success. Once eradicated, Maya nut trees can be difficult to reintroduce, as seedlings require regular watering during establishment and are extremely appetizing to free ranging cows, goats, pigs, deer, mules and horses.
It is hoped that preliminary sensitization programs will motivate governments to capitalize on their Maya nut resources. Its cultivation is currently being promoted in Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Jamaica, Cuba, Peru and Haiti. There is a growing demand for women-produced Maya nut in the US, Canada and Japan, which, if managed correctly, will contribute to forest conservation and reforestation as well as reducing rural poverty by sustaining women’s agro-industries based on Maya nut.
The full Maya nut case study, published by The Ecosystem and Livelihoods Adaptation Network (ELAN), is available in the Download this Paper sidebar at top right of this story.
ELAN is a partnership between CARE, the International Institute for Environment and Development, World Wildlife Fund and The International Union for Conservation of Nature that aims to increase the resilience of poor and marginalized people to the impacts of climate change by promoting sound ecosystem management. It promotes knowledge sharing and research and capacity development to promote ways of helping people adapt to the impacts of climate change and reduce their risk to natural disasters. ELAN is creating a global network of scientists, policy makers and practitioners dedicated to supporting the integration of sound ecosystem management into adaptation policies, plans and programmes, especially in the world’s most vulnerable countries.