Brazil’s other edible seeds

There is a tremendous diversity of food in South America, and in particular, Brazil. One can find a wide variety of edible seeds and nuts of all sorts growing all over the country. In fact, two of them are popular all over the world! Can you guess?

  • Brazil nuts

Ok, this is a given, but these nuts are actually native to a big part of South America. How do you call Brazil nuts in Brazil? “Pará” nuts, a Northern Brazilian state which was once the world’s largest producer of them. However, Bolivia took over as the largest producer of Brazil nuts decades ago.

Brazil Nut Pod

Brazil nut fruits

The species is actually a relative of cranberries and blueberries and can live up to 500 years. The fruits are hard and resemble a coconut, with 8 to 24 seeds inside.

It was first made popular by the English in the 1700s, and then by Americans in the early 1900s. In contrast to their popularity, there are very few farms of  Brazil nuts; they are mostly wildcrafted, as the trees depend on native pollinators, which in turn can only be found in the Amazon rainforest.

In fact, the tree co-evolved with a number of different pollinator insects for its flowers, and a few mammals for the spreading of its seeds, such as the agouti and certain monkeys.


Agouti opening Brazil Nut fruit through its “back” hole

Deforestation threatens Brazil nut trees, just like baru trees. This is because the Brazil nut tree cannot be easily cultivated and requires proximity to a pristine rainforest to be pollinated, otherwise, it will not bear fruits.

The extraction of Brazil nuts protects the Amazon rainforest biodiversity by generating revenue for a number of local foraging communities, which encourages the preservation of their environment.

  • Cashew nuts

This might come as a shock to most people, as they are incredibly popular in India. Did you know this species originated in Northeastern Brazil?

The Portuguese, in the 1500s, went to Brazil and eventually brought cashew seeds to former colonies Goa and Mozambique. To control coastal erosion, they planted cashew trees. The story goes that in India wild elephants took a liking for the fruits. This, in turn, spread cashew seeds over a large territory, making the tree widespread in the country.

However, the first plantations were established only in the 1800s, and nowadays India and Côte d’Ivoire are the largest global exporters of cashew nuts, with a staggering 46% of the world’s production.

Native cashew varieties still inhabit the Brazilian Cerrado, along with baru trees and many other wild species adapted to the dry climate.


Wild cashews growing in the Cerrado

Curious fact: several cultures around the world are not familiar with the cashew “apple”. It has a sweet, astringent flavour and can be eaten casually, or used in jellies, juices and beverages. Also, it is related to the mango tree!


Direto da Amazônia, livro revela como a castanha-do-pará ganhou o mundo. Jornal da USP, 2017. 

PANDA, H. The Complete Book on Cashew (Cultivation, Processing & By-Products). 2013.

DENKE, J. S. The Carrot Purple and Other Curious Stories of the Food We Eat. 2015.

The Tragedy of the Cerrado Deforestation

Were you aware? The heart of South American biomes is at risk.

The Cerrado is one of the oldest ecosystems in the world, a savanna far richer than its African counterpart. Just south of the Amazon rainforest, it once sprawled over an area half the size of Europe. It holds the springs to three of the major rivers in South America and holds the second largest freshwater reservoir in the world.

Its trees allow for the rainfall coming from the Amazon forest to be stored and slowly feed the water tables through deep-rooted trees forming an “inverted forest”. This, in turn, feeds watersheds that will flow back to the Amazon. Without trees, rainfall erodes and compacts the soil instead, evaporating fast, and preventing the regular rain cycle to happen. The only thing holding this cycle in place is the remaining Cerrado vegetation. Unfortunately, only a tenth of it is protected and currently is at only 20% of its original area.

The Cerrado deforestation has been 5 times faster than the Amazon for the last 15 years. A number of international articles in Nature magazine, The NY Times, The Washington Post, institutions such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the WWF, Mighty Earth, Mongabay, and countless other respectable sources has been documenting this process, but it just keeps going.

Deforestation is already showing its ugly head in Midwestern Brazil. Currently, over a thousand cities face major water shortage issues. All of them related are to the Cerrado’s now erratic water cycle.

If the Cerrado collapses, the Amazon rainforest collapses in less than 30 years. If the Amazon collapses, the domino effect will put us in serious trouble regarding climate change.


Footage: Mighty Earth
Music: Aurora – Life on Mars (Bowie)

3 Ways Baru Seeds Impact The World Positively

Did you know baru seeds are much more than a snack? These are ways baru seeds impact the world and are beneficial to everyone:

    1. Socially
      The foraging of baru seeds generates revenue to local communities and creates a sustainable industry in the Brazilian savanna. It is a poor region of a country with a huge wealth gap. Baru takes power away from large agribusiness trading corporations as it creates self-employed families and co-ops. This stimulates the local economy and also shares revenue a lot more evenly than the corporations.


      Baru seeds are individually handpicked and processed. This employs hundreds of communities and discourages deforestation as it generates income.

    2. The Amazon
      Baru seeds bring awareness to a little-known fact: the Cerrado’s deep connection to the Amazon rainforest’s water cycle. Baru trees, as other Cerrado deep-rooted species, allow rainfall to enter water tables, which eventually form major Amazon rainforest watersheds.  Thus, baru and other deep-rooted trees allow a massive water cycle to come full circle. Because this distributes humidity and avoids severe droughts, it hinders self-amplified deforestation actively in the Cerrado and passively in the Amazon rainforest.


      Water clouds come from the Atlantic Ocean (1) and enter the Amazon rainforest becoming flying rivers (2), heading south (3) towards Midwestern Brazil (4). This rainfall penetrates the soil through deep-rooted vegetation and integrates water tables that feed rivers such as the Tocantins, Araguaia, and Xingu (5), returning to the rainforest.

    3. Climate Change
      As published in several magazine articles, such as in Brazil: Urgent action on Cerrado extinctions: “(…)our findings show that a severe extinction episode is unfolding in the Cerrado, with plant extinctions projected to be an order of magnitude higher than all global recorded plant extinctions so far — yet in our view, this catastrophe can be avoided(..)”. Unlike the Amazon rainforest, there are very few laws protecting the mostly deforested Cerrado. There is also very little international awareness, and because of this, great vulnerability to the agribusiness lobbying. Several credible sources note the huge threat the collapse of the Cerrado could pose to the global environment and economy. Business-as-usual scenarios predict a collapse of the Cerrado, and by proxy the Amazon, by 2050. This is due to a feedback loop caused by the state of deforestation and consequent increasingly severe droughts. We are literally on the verge of living a Black Mirror episode.


      The Araguaia River saw in October 2017 the worst drought in its recorded history. Depicted, stranded alligators starve in the mud. Source: Globo Tocantins.

Agribusiness seizes Brazilian power. New Internationalist, 1 Oct 2017.
Agronegócio acelera a devastação do Cerrado. 3 March 2017. Caritas Brasileira.
Anticipated changes to environmental law may jeopardize Brazilian natural resources. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 15. 65-66. 10.1002/fee.1461.
Brazil’s Cerrado forests won’t be saved by corporate pledges on deforestation. 8 December 2017, The Conversation.
Brazil’s drought: Protect biodiversity. Science Magazine, 27 Mar 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6229, pp. 1427-1428.
Brazil’s indigenous people outraged as agency targeted in conservative-led cuts. The Guardian, 10 July 2017.
Brazil: Urgent action on Cerrado extinctions. Nature 540, 199, 08 December 2016.
Brazil’s Water Cycle: Effects of Deforestation on the Water Supply. The Nature Conservancy.
Com metade da área devastada, cerrado pode desaparecer ainda neste século. 19 Nov 2017, Correio Braziliense.
Como as raízes do Cerrado levam água a torneiras de todas as regiões do Brasil. BBC Brazil, 27 March 2017.
Devastação do cerrado gera desequilíbrio ambiental. Correio Braziliense, November 2017.
Dry land, full rivers. October 2009, FAPESP.
Hard times for the Brazilian environment. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1213 (2017).
Moment of truth for the Cerrado hotspot. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 0099 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0099.
Soybean cultivation as a threat to the environment in Brazil. Environmental Conservation 28 (1): 23–38, 10 Oct 2000.
Fred Pearce. The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth. Beacon Press, May 29, 2012 – Social Science – 286 pages.
Policies mix can avoid extinctions of historic proportions projected for the Cerrado, shows a study coordinated by Brazilians, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. CSRIO, 23 March 2017.

A Biome Under Threat

“With over 4,800 plant and vertebrate species found nowhere else, the Cerrado is a global biodiversity hotspot. It also spans three of the largest watersheds in South America, contributing 43% of Brazil’s surface water outside the Amazon. Despite its enormous importance for species conservation and the provision of ecosystem services, the Cerrado has lost 88 Mha (46%) of its native vegetation cover, and as little as 19.8%
remains undisturbed. Between 2002 and 2011, deforestation rates in the Cerrado (1%
per year) were 2.5 times higher than in the Amazon.”
” […]The Cerrado’s beauty and ecological significance are profoundly underappreciated, even among urban populations living in the biome. The 55% decline in deforestation rates in the Amazon in the period 2010–2014 is nationally and internationally recognized. However, the increases in losses of native vegetation in the Cerrado of 41% during the same period went largely unnoticed. Indirect land use changes are difficult to establish, but a number of studies infer translocation of deforestation from the Amazon to the Cerrado.[…]”
Soybean harvesters on a massive soybean field“[…]The Cerrado has great social importance as well. Some 12.5 million people depend on its natural resources to survive and thrive. Traditional communities and small farmers are everywhere where the native vegetation remains, but suffer intense pressure from crop and cattle expansion. The Cerrado is inhabited by traditional peoples (indigenous, quilombolas, geraizeiros, sertanejos, vazanteiros) who over many generations have developed sustainable and mutually beneficial uses of the region’s biodiversity and natural resources. Satellite-based evidence shows that native vegetation is better protected when conservation units are managed by local and traditional communities than by government park guards, who have a limited capacity to control illegal logging, poaching, and mining. Rapid and extensive loss of native vegetation in the pristine regions causes an intense fragmentation, undermining important ecological functions. The vast territories dedicated to large-scale monoculture eliminate the ecological “corridors” that flora and fauna need to migrate and thus survive extinction.[…]”
Baru and other incredible species are increasingly under threat in the Cerrado, and with them, water reservoirs and local communities. Please raise awareness on this cause!