In 2016, GTC awarded Oxford University Masters student, Daniela Requena Suarez, with a grant to support her research on a group of threatened tree species in the Peruvian Amazon. In this blog, she shares insights into her research and tells us what seed collection can mean for the conservation of these amazing trees.
Not all trees are equal in the Amazon. Shihuahuaco (Dipteryx sp.) trees grow to be giants, many reaching 60 meters in height. Their presence is vital for the structure of the rainforest due to the height and size of their trunks and crowns, which provide shade and create significant canopy gaps when they fall. In addition, they support wildlife populations such as bats which act as pollinators, birds which nest on their branches and agoutis which live within their roots.
Unfortunately, the increasing demand for shihuahuaco timber, combined with their slow growth, has made them vulnerable in the Peruvian Amazon. But it appears that efforts to conserve this valuable group of species have been overlooking two key elements: shihuahuaco seeds and smallholders.
A multi-purpose tree
Shihuahuaco wood is valuable due to its appearance and durability, and increasing international demand has led to the decline of natural populations of shihuahuaco trees. In an effort to create a source of sustainable harvest, mixed shihuahuaco plantations have been established within degraded land in the Ucayali Region in the Peruvian Amazon.
Despite these challenges, only one Peruvian species of shihuahuaco has been assessed by the IUCN Red List, Dipteryx charapilla. The species was included back in 1998 and listed as Vulnerable due to land conversion and selective logging. The thing that makes it so valued by people, also threatens its existence. There are large information gaps in relation to their distribution. As for the unlisted shihuahuaco species, the Peruvian government is currently evaluating their categorisation and addressing the information gaps.
But shihuahuaco trees are much more than just wood. Several villages in Peru have been gathering shihuahuaco seeds for generations. Their seeds taste like a combination of cashews and peanuts when toasted. Also, shihuahuaco bark is used to colour textiles and for medicinal purposes.
In search for overlooked links
There have been several studies regarding the ecology and vulnerability of shihuahuaco trees, however there is very little information regarding the traditional uses associated with these trees and the impact that these uses may have on shihuahuaco conservation. With the help of the Global Trees Campaign this summer I went to the Ucayali Region of the Peruvian Amazon to find out more about the existing links between shihuahuaco trees, their seeds and people’s livelihoods.
Since most of the forest’s products end up in local markets, I expected to find shihuahuaco seed suppliers there. However, after the first couple of days it seemed as if there weren’t any in Ucayali! Given that the seed’s traditional consumption was not commercial in nature, it seemed as if seed traders were impossible to find. Where could I find the collectors of a seed whose consumption was informal and mostly limited to networks within individual villages?
I decided to change my approach and search for the buyers of shihuahuaco seeds, instead of the elusive seed collectors. Interviews with relevant experts in the city of Pucallpa led me to find a shihuahuaco plantation which had used several tonnes of seeds for planting since 2004.
Conversations with the plantation managers helped me to discover the roots of this cottage industry. In order to obtain shihuahuaco seeds, the plantation managers had established informal agreements with smallholders from several villages in Ucayali. With the help of the plantation workers, these smallholders had identified their nearest shihuahuaco trees for collection and had provided the plantation with seeds on more than one occasion.
Hector Paz, a former plantation worker, said “If you want to find shihuahuaco seed collectors, then you have to go to the village of Nuevo Eden”. So, with the name of the village and a couple of contacts written down in my field notebook, I set out to find the place where some shihuahuaco seed collectors hopefully lived.
The seed collectors
After several hours on a road bike and some more on a small boat, I arrived at Nuevo Eden. Once there, I started asking around whether anybody had ever collected shihuahuaco seeds.
Several smallholders in Nuevo Eden had gathered shihuahuaco seeds for the plantation. They told me how they used to go into the forest looking for shihuahuaco trees with fruit and came out of the forest with large bags full of seeds. These bags would then be carried in small carts and boats with the help of the plantation workers.
Other smallholders said that they had collected shihuahuaco seeds, but had never sold them. Instead, they had roasted and eaten them. Cecilia, a young female collector, said that she had sugar-coated the seeds and sold them to her friends as “forest candy”.
As I spoke with the seed collectors of Nuevo Eden, they said that they were not the only ones who had collected shihuahuaco seeds for the plantation. They pointed to other villages, which I visited one after the other. Collectors from these villages would direct me out to other ones, and so on. By the end of summer, I had visited eleven villages in Ucayali and spoken with over a hundred shihuahuaco seed collectors.
After speaking with the traditional and opportunistic seed collectors, two things became evident:
- The plantation’s demand for seeds created a new motive for seed collection different to the traditional one of personal consumption. With this new motive, smallholders who had never collected shihuahuaco seeds started to do so.
- Local perceptions towards shihuahuaco conservation were surprisingly similar between the new, opportunistic seed collectors and the traditional collectors, regardless of their motives for gathering. During this time, several of them had planted some of the collected seeds and/or had taken care of young shihuahuaco trees which had started growing on their land.
From this, it seemed as if that the plantation’s demand for shihuahuaco seeds resulted not only in the creation of a new type of opportunistic seed collector, but had also unknowingly encouraged more smallholders to think about shihuahuaco conservation and engage in activities such as looking after small shihuahuaco trees. While these individual activities carried out by smallholders may not be perceived as important, together they could prove to have the potential to benefit the conservation of these trees.
Next steps for shihuahuaco conservation
Currently, tree conservation measures in Peru mainly focus on the fight against deforestation, illegal logging and informality. For example, intersectional agreements such as the National Pact for Legal Wood subscribed by the Peruvian government and private companies further exclude smallholders, who cannot formally own natural forests. Also, since smallholder activities are mostly based on unofficial use of forest resources, they are often harmed by governmental conservation measures, which don’t take this type of forest use into account.
It is time for conservationists and policy makers to think outside the box and beyond the common narrative when addressing tree conservation. Currently, the potential of smallholder participation on tree conservation exists, but is often overlooked during implementation.
The conversations I had with shihuahuaco seed collectors made me think how seemingly trivial actions such as collecting a few seeds or taking care of young trees had the potential to add up throughout the Amazon. I believe that the inclusion of smallholders in governmental conservation policies and recognition of their individual practices would have positive conservation effects and be of benefit to their livelihoods.
Before I started this project, people told me that I would not find a single shihuahuaco tree in Ucayali, and if I did it would be very far from any access route. After visiting eleven villages and interviewing over a hundred seed collectors, I can say that not only do these breath-taking trees still exist in Ucayali; but that they are closely related to and cared for by the people that surround them.