Almonds & Cusi


Did I mention how rough the roads are? I know it’s all relative, because the people living in the Chiquitania, don’t think twice about it. Only when it rains and the wet, red clay becomes the closest they’re likely to see to a skating rink, do they take notice of the road conditions. Dodging pot-holes at 40km/hr. for a few hours isn’t exactly my idea of fun, but the scenery and bird watching, makes up for the churned innards.

Last Wednesday, we drove east out of Concepcion and headed north for Palmarito de la Frontera, a small village a few hundred kilometers into the forest, where CUSO is involved in developing alternative forestry practices, through a Canadian, international initiative referred to as the Model Forest, which attempts to set international standards for management practices that focus on bio-diversity, water quality and climate change. Many of you know that I, with the help of family and friends, have planted thousands of trees on a 50 ha. property, north of Toronto, for over thirty years, so this subject is very dear to me.

Photographs and written descriptions don’t always provide an accurate picture of a place, and that was certainly the case for what I saw during our bumpy drive to Palmarito. Hollywood and Disney typically portray a romantic image of “exotic” locations and you may have noticed that I’ve described the landscape we traveled through as forest, not jungle. Were it not for the wide variety of palm trees, which in our northern climate would be replaced by conifers, the landscape looks much like the rural forests of eastern North America. Much of what we saw was low scrub, some regeneration and older forests as well. Nothing in this part of Bolivia is what we might call Old Growth, since the soils are thin, with relatively little rain, and natural forest fires, periodically reset the cycle back to zero.

The fruits and oils provided by these forests, have long been known to the local people, however, in many cases the younger generations regard them as something their grandparents pass the time with, or have lost all connection to. This is where Ulysse, the CUSO volunteer stepped in, not only to rediscover traditional uses, but to help educate the local people as to their commercial potential and, thereby, provide additional income sources.

In Palmarito, we met a small group of women that have formed a cooperative to harvest two locally found fruits: the Chiquitanian Almond, an indigenous nut similar to but in no way related to the Middle Eastern and European almond, and the Cusi. Harvesting either of these, has depended, until recently on gathering the naturally growing fruits as they fall to the forest floor. However in the case of the almond, although occasionally consumed locally, it was not regarded as having a commercial value. That is to say that it did not become part of the typical fare at the village market or road side stands.

Without getting into too much detail, and roughly speaking, Bolivia is divided into two major ethnic groups. The folk from the Andes, referred to as Coyas and those from the Amazonia, referred to as Cambas. This is not my description, but rather openly their own. The Coyas, perhaps because they come from a harsher climate and environment, are very focused on business, earning without spending, living miserably if necessary. It is said that a Coya will show up in La Chiquitania with 10 Bolivianos in their pocket, and five years later will have purchased land, so that they can produce more to sell, to purchase more land… Where as Cambas, perhaps because they live in a very, very warm climate where food is abundant and grows easily, are much more focused on having a good time.

A great challenge for Ulysse has been to convince the Chiquitano to seize the commercial opportunities that exist. Now one may react by thinking “so what?s wrong with being satisfied?” and it’s a fair question. However, as the world changes around them, their children, like it or not, are exposed to the outside world. The parents see the need for their children to receive a basic and higher education, and everyone we spoke with, who was participating in one of the projects we would visit, listed as their top motivation, sending their children to school. Although education is subsidized, sending a child to University in Santa Cruz, may cost as much as 450 Bolivianos per month. That may not sound like much when converted to $CDN, however, when the only income they have is generated from the selling of home-baked goods or excess produce from their gardens, along the road to passersby, every centavo, is hard come by.

The almond has long been cracked open with a machete and the nut eaten as is. The challenge for CUSO via the FCBC, was to demonstrate that by harvesting the nuts in large quantities and sending them off to be processed (more on this later, since the entire chain is designed to remain within local hands) their was great potential to exploit the forest without the need to slash and burn it down, for grazing livestock and, thereby, provide for the education of their children. The soils in this region aren’t very good for large-scale farming, however, as the almond is indigenous to the area, areas previously devoid of trees are being replanted with the nut.

The second fruit being harvested in this area of the Chiquitania is from the Cusi, a type of Palm tree which produces large bunches of hardball sized, nuts that when cracked open release a fragrant oil which has long been used, in the region, as a natural body oil.’ It is currently being sold as straight oil, however, once there are sufficient quantities, the plan is to market it as an additive for hair-care products.

The work being done by the volunteers here, is truly inspiring. Be it the forester sharing best practices for forest management, the food processing engineer that designed and manufactured hand-operated tools, fashioned from old car parts, to efficiently crack open rock-hard shells or the Marketing Consultant, helping to identify and develop outlets to sell their 100% Free Trade, Organic products.

I haven’t harped on this ’till now, however, as I spent time with the people of the Chiquitania, I couldn’t help but see how little it takes to make such a huge difference. The potential is enormous to change lives in a profound way that respects their integrity and builds their autonomy. As you follow me over the next few days, I hope that you will consider making a donation, however small, to CUSO via the button to the right of the screen. Next on the agenda, tapping into good old-fashioned Canadian ingenuity.

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