A Little Nut with Big Possibilities
Planted by the ancient Maya in their forest gardens and once found throughout Central America, the ramón tree (Brosimum alicastrum) towers above its neighboring trees in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve, providing habitat for spider and howler monkeys, retaining soils and water and helping to regulate the climate. But it's the fruit of the ramón that holds the greatest potential for communities within the reserve and could provide them with a key to alleviating poverty, conserving forests, improving health and nourishing their children.
Locals have long-collected the chocolate-flavored ramón or Maya nut, roasting it over an open flame (or drying it with heaters) before grinding it into flour that acts as the base for an assortment of popular foods. While its nutritious properties are widely known throughout the region, until recently no clearly defined strategy existed for incorporating the nuts into the diets of Guatemala's rural and indigenous children, 49 percent of whom suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Thanks to Healthy Kids, Healthy Forests -- a program launched by the Rainforest Alliance, the Equilibrium Fund, the Guatemalan Ministry of Education, the Banco de Desarrollo Rural S. A., the National Forest Service of Guatemala, Alimentos Nutri-Naturales and the Association of Community Forestry Concessionaires of Petén -- communities throughout the reserve will now be able to capitalize on the nut's many benefits. The world's first ramón nut-based school lunch program, Healthy Kids, Healthy Forests is helping to feed more than 8,000 children from 46 rural communities, while providing jobs for women and offering a real incentive for forest conservation.
Children throughout Guatemala's Petén region, like Leister Pascual of Ixlú, a community located on the reserve's border, participate in the program by collecting ramón nuts from the forest after school and on weekends. "I like doing this as I'm outdoors in the forest, and earn money, too." Adds another local child, Maxamillo: "We have fun while we collect the nuts, and often try to collect more than each other!"
The enterprising kids -- and the adults who accompany them into the forest -- deliver their hauls to the local bakery, where they receive one quetzal (about 12 cents) for every pound of ramón gathered. An all-female staff removes the skins from the nuts before roasting them. "Before I had no job," says Lubia Flores Rodriguez, who works in the Ixlú bakery removing the nut's tender skins. "Now I come to work and I am able to make a living," she says.
Once they have been roasted, the nuts are ground into flour and distributed to teachers and school boards in nearly fifty communities throughout the Petén. The flour is used to make wholesome food (the ramón is a naturally complete protein, high in calcium, fiber and potassium) for school lunches.
"Worried about poverty and the struggle to feed our children adequately, we found in the ramón nut a nutritious food and a source of work for rural woman," said Gladis Rodriguez, president of the Association for the Development of Women of Ixlú. "Thanks to the support of the Rainforest Alliance (and other organizations) who helped us start this project, we look forward to a better future for all our families."
The ramón's benefits do not end with classroom lunches and employment opportunities -- the nut is also proving to be a valuable incentive for forest conservation. With training and outreach from the Rainforest Alliance and others, community members are learning the importance of leaving these towering trees standing, rather than cutting them for timber and clearing them for the cultivation of corn and beans. Not only do they provide a nutritious food source, but they support biodiversity, protect soils and watersheds and sequester carbon. A donation of 300,000 ramón nut seedlings from the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture is helping to secure an enhanced and continued supply of ramón. Trees from these seedlings will eventually produce over nine million pounds of nuts and offer shade, wildlife habitat and an assortment of environmental services to the community.
"Little by little, with projects like Healthy Forests, Healthy Children, we are halting the high levels of deforestation in the Petén," reflects Ramon Zetina of the Rainforest Alliance. "Working with communities (here), the Rainforest Alliance is beginning to change the mindsets of people who realize the importance of the rainforests and the need to conserve them, so that future generations can sustainably harvest from them."