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June 2006

Palma Real, Where the Technicians Come From

Giving harvesters of Brazil nuts the skills to manage their forests sustainably secures their livelihoods and land rights - and provides a Bolivian community with a new export

When December rains hit Bolivia, the towering Brazil nut trees swell with moisture and unload their bountiful burden. Nuts the size of a grapefruits plummet to the ground and bury themselves in the soft earth.

And so the harvesting season begins. Tens of thousands of people head to the forest to collect, crack open, and carry out the prized Brazil nuts. For many poor families, 3 months of frenzied harvesting provides income for a year.

Just as the nuts are now finding their way into the hands of local people, land reform is seeing the forests come under the control of local communities. Greater community involvement in the forests of Pando, Bolivia's most heavily forested region, follows a wave of land reforms that, starting in 1996, saw large forest estates dismantled and now allows rural communities to request up to 500 hectares of forest per family.

The price of Brazil nut has recently skyrocketed, but this is not entirely good news for Pando villagers. Because of the high demand for the nuts, the forests now swarm with people seeking their fortune. Locals have started taking nuts that do not belong to them, and outsiders have arrived in search of a quick buck. Rivalries and conflict within and between communities have quickly emerged. Traditional land-management approaches cannot cope with these new challenges. Without maps, resource inventories, family registries, or rules of access, communities find it difficult to defend their rights and serve as effective custodians of their forests.

To help communities better manage their forest resources, and to reduce the likelihood of conflict, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) was asked to help.

The village of Palma Real, in the municipality of El Sena, was in the process of receiving title to 9,000 hectares of forest when CIFOR researchers were invited to visit. On arrival, the researchers found that villagers had no maps of their forest, only a small printout provided by the government to show its borders. As it turned out, even the borders were wrong - which none had realized because none could read a map.

Using CIFOR's multidisciplinary landscape assessment, researchers helped the community record a range of important data. This included a global positioning system (GPS) map of the area, transects of vegetation, a survey to learn local views regarding natural resources, and inventories of those resources. The researchers ran capacity-building workshops that leveraged existing experience in the community. Kristen Evans, one of the researchers, reports that training the more knowledgeable villagers helped others improve their knowledge of vegetation and trees.

"Through the workshops, we were able to rapidly collect data using local knowledge and teamwork," Evans says. "Community members trained each other in using a GPS to record map references. Then they did the mapping themselves."

The villagers were ecstatic, using their new map to substantiate land claims when negotiating border issues with the National Land Reform Institute. The Palma Real community then presented their work to government officials and started training other community leaders in their newly acquired skills.

"Palma Real is now exporting technicians," one community member proudly proclaimed.