Can certification of a nontimber forest product be a tool to protect forest and rural women producers?

Maya Nut Institute finds ourself at a crossroads: For 15 years we have worked to restore the Maya Nut to the local menu in Latin America and the Caribbean. Maya Nut was a staple food for paleolithic hunter gatherer cultures throughout the neotropics. Today it is rare to find people who know it is edible, much less consume it regularly! As a result of the loss of traditional knowledge about Maya Nut, it has been logged ruthlessly and we estimate that less than 5% of the original Maya Nut forest cover remains. This is problematic, particularly in light of the fact that Maya Nut is a critical food source for 85% of neotropical birds and mammals, and also because of the important ecosystem services it provides, including protection of soils and watersheds, and CO2 sequestration.

Thankfully Maya Nut is slowly gaining traction in Central America, México and the US. It is currently classified as a “superfood” in certain boutique markets, due to its nutritional content and its high concentration of antioxidants. While current market demand is miniscule, we predict rapid growth in demand in the coming years.

As we work to develop strategies to increase demand, production and consumption, we have started to develop sustainable management strategies. Donors, forest managers and consumers increasingly demand proof of sustainable management and natural/organic production of products, and some of the more discerning buyers demand participation of small producers and local communities and proof of fair compensation and distribution of profits.

Certifications exist that could be adapted to address sustainability and consumer demands yet these certifications are too expensive for most Maya Nut producer groups.

Maya Nut is a labor-intensive wild-harvested rainforest product with high production costs[1].  Maya Nut Institute has worked for 15 years to empower rural women producers to earn fair wages for their work. While this maximizes economic benefits to producers, it reduces the profit margin to intermediaries and distributors.  Because of the small profit margin, novelty of the product, and consumers habituation to cheap tropical commodities (coffee, sugar, bananas, etc.) based on unfair compensation to rural producers and workers, it is not economically feasible for producers to pass the cost on to consumers at this point in the nascent market. In response to this, we have created an Integrated Self-Certification Program which is affordable to producers and will not notably increase costs to consumers.

Maya Nut Certified™ at this stage is designed to certify producers. Eventually we hope to develop a certification for Maya Nut intermediaries, distributors and companies. This certification guarantees a natural, sustainable, fair trade, women’s product to consumers.  If producers were to finance these certifications individually via conventional certification programs, to obtain 3 of the key certifications (Organic, Fair Trade, Sustainable Wild Harvested) would cost upward of $18,000 in the first year and an average of $5,000 every year thereafter. Because none of the producer groups currently operating has this capital available, we devised a participatory, integrated self-certification. Certification is an effective tool to motivate and reward Maya Nut producer groups that adhere to the highest socioeconomic and environmental standards. For consumers this certification serves to guarantee sustainability, fair trade, gender equity and production without the use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers.

Table 1: Cost of Conventional Certification

Fair Trade FloCert $3,000-$6,000 $2,000
Organic MayaCert $4,000-$5,000 $2,000
Sustainable FairWild or Dept. of Forestry $4000-$6,5000 $1000 every 5 years
Women’s product not sure, maybe MayaCert? Not sure Not sure
TOTAL $11,000-$17,500 $4,000


Our certification standard is based on criteria of sustainable management, harvesting, processing, and commericalization of Maya Nut. The Maya Nut Certified™ criteria incorporate and integrate relevant mechanisms, norms, indicators and atributes of existing and accepted standards including:

  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
  • Utz Certified
  • FairWild
  • Rainforest Alliance
  • National Council of Women’s Business Enterprise
  • Café de Mujer (Coffee from Women)
  • Wild Harvested standard of USDA
  • International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISS-MAP, IUCN)
  • Certified Naturally Grown
  • Organic Certification standards of the USDA, MayaCert and Oregon Tilth
  • Fair Trade Labelling Organization (FLO-Cert)

The Maya Nut Certified™  standard is applicable to Maya Nut harvested from natural forests, forest patches, riparian areas, individual trees interspersed in coffee or other agricultural plantations and agroforestry systems. Monoculture plantations and producer groups or individuals that depend on hired/contract labor do not qualify for Maya Nut Certified!   certification. Maya Nut producers who harvest from plantations that apply chemical fertilizers or pesticides during any part of the year do not qualify for Maya Nut Certified™ certification.

[1] Production costs of many tropical commodities are high, but their production offsets the real cost of production by way of heavy reliance on child labor (cofffee), unfair wages paid to workers (coffee, sugar, bananas, etc.), and sanctioned and unsanctioned land-grabbing (fruit, palm oil, coffee, rubber, timber). Maya Nut production does not rely on these “subsidies” and therefore its price reflects the real cost of production incurred by the producers.


El Salvador Update

June 25, 2013 By Erika Vohman, Maya Nut Institute

We just finished our Participatory Maya Nut (Brosimum alicastrum) Forest Management course in El Salvador.  We received a very generous grant in 2010 from the Darwin Initiative/Museum of Natural History in London for this work, which will be a useful tool for producers to ensure that Maya Nut harvesting in native forest will have no negative impact on the forests or biodiversity.  As usual, we got off to a very slow start, as we needed strong partner buy-in to make the program work.  None of the governmental ministries of forestry in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador or Guatemala responded enthusiastically to our proposal at first. Guatemala, because they already require sustainable management plans for nontimber forest product harvest and commercialization, and Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, because they have no precedent for nontimber forest product management.

Fortunately, over the three year term of the project we and our local implementing partners were able to convince the forest management entities of the importance of this project. In Honduras, PRORENA was able to work directly with the national forestry department to train several staff foresters in our participatory Maya Nut management plan methodology. In Nicaragua, the ministry of forestry was interested in the topic but never offered any assistance and never participated in any field training we offered them. In El Salvador the Ministry of the Environment (El Salvador has no Ministry of Forestry) never showed any interest in the topic until very late in the project, when there were only 3 months left!

el salvadorThe slow growing interest on the part of the Salvadoran government was late but still more than welcome. They sent a high-level staff person to give opening remarks for the workshop and sent 9 park guards from 4 protected areas to be trained in the methodology. In ten days we were able to train 30 Salvadoran park guards, Maya Nut producers and university students to create maps, establish transects, and use census and other sampling methods to collect the field data we need to create sustainable harvest and management plans for the Maya Nut.  We need this information and these management plans to ensure that Maya Nut harvesting does not have any negative impacts on forest regeneration and fauna.

We are inspired to work in El Salvador because the Maya Nut program has so much potential to motivate community based conservation and reforestation.  El Salvador is the second most deforested country in the hemisphere and the second most vulnerable to climate change in the world. It is estimated that less than 2% of their original forest cover remains.  What remains of the forest in El Salvador is mostly Tropical Dry Forest, the most threatened of the major tropical forest types.  When the Spaniards arrived in Central America, there were 550,000 square kilometers of dry forest (approximately five times the size of France) on the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica (from Panama to Mexico). Today, less than 2% is intact enough to be considered representative of native forest. Maya Nut is frequently predominant in neotropical dry forests, so conserving and restoring Maya Nut forests also conserves one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth.

Protected areas in El Salvador tend to be extremely small (averaging 400ha.), highly fragmented, and largely depleted of fauna. Nevertheless, because of the strict level of protection over the past 5-10 years, the country offers one of the best and most accessible opportunities to observe and document natural Maya Nut forest dynamics and regeneration.

Most Maya Nut forests I have visited in Latin America[1] are extremely degraded from human activities ranging from cattle grazing, conversion to annual crops, pasture and biofuels, logging, extraction of fuelwood and construction materials, forest fires, hunting and poaching of wildlife. In contrast, some of the Salvadoran Maya Nut forests can provide excellent data about Maya Nut ecology, phenology, frequency, abundance, size-class distribution, associated species and regeneration potential in healthy, undisturbed tropical dry forest. We need this baseline information to establish conservation and restoration targets for Maya Nut forests where. I was very grateful for the opportunity to conduct vegetation assessments in intact, healthy Maya Nut forests, as these are increasingly rare.

Staff of the Maya Nut Institute, PRORENA-GIZ and the Honduran Institute of Forestry facilitated the course. Financing was from the Darwin Initiative. The Salvadoran Environment Ministry sent 9 park guards to be trained: an indication that the long-entrenched strategy of 100% protection and zero management of protected areas may be changing.  The Salvadoran government’s forest management strategy is unprecedented in Central America, where a large percentage of the rural population cooks with wood and depends on construction materials, medicines and foods from the forest. The hands-off, 100% protection strategy has been very challenging to implement but has functioned very well to preserve what little forest remains. Unfortunately, their strategy has done little to foster a sense of responsibility for forest management and protection among the people.  This may be changing. We were surprised when the Ministry of the Environment asked if they could send 9 park guards from 4 protected areas (La Joya, Plan de Amayo, La Magdalena y El Trifinio) to the Participatory Management Plan workshop.

Maya Nut is a dominant or co-dominant species in 90% of El Salvador’s protected areas. Harvest, consumption and commercialization of wild-harvested Salvadoran Maya Nut can to help alleviate some of the malnutrition, food insecurity and poverty currently affecting the rural poor in El Salvador. Additionally, Maya Nut harvesting and commercialization has been shown to motivate conservation and reforestation at the individual, family and community levels. This is important, as relying on government and donor funding for forest protection is an increasingly precarious conservation strategy.

At the same time, an additional goal of the course was to create more local human resources to manage the sustainability aspects of wild harvested Maya Nut to ensure the long-term health of these forests and the ecosystem services they provide. This work would not have been possible without the financial assistance of Darwin Initiative and the hard work and dedication of our team, most notably in this instance, Nidia Lara (El Salvador) and Christine Woda (Germany/Honduras).

Thank you for reading. Erika Vohman, Maya Nut Institute. June, 2013

[1] I have visited Maya Nut forests in Peru (San Martin province), Jamaica (Cockpit country), Cuba (Santiago), Guatemala (Peten, Las Verapaces, South Coast, Izabal), Honduras (La Mosquitia, Choluteca, Olancho), Nicagarua (La Mosquitia, Volcanic Complex, Rivas province), and Mexico (Yucatan, Jalisco, Nayarit, Quintana Roo) and most, if not all, are considerably degraded compared to Salvadoran forests.

The Seminar will be held in the Millennium Seed Bank Seminar Room.

Seminar Announcement: Livelihood and conservation value of Maya Nut in Central America

On April 25 2014, at 11 am in the Millennium Seed Bank Seminar Room Wakehurst Place,  Erika Vohman of the Maya Nut Institute will give a seminar entitled ‘Livelihood and conservation value of Maya Nut (Brosimum alicastrum) in Central America’, Erika Vohman. Erika has been working with Brosimum alicastrum for over a decade and is founder of the US NGO, the May Nut Institute whose mission is to find a balance between people, food and forests by teaching rural communities about the value of Maya Nut for food, fodder, ecosystem services and income. Directions to the Seed Bank can be found by clicking on this link.Brosimum alicastrum fruits, known as Maya Nuts in the US

Brosimum alicastrum fruits, known as Maya Nuts in the US

Brosimum alicastrum fruits, known as Maya Nuts in the US

Brosimum alicastrum is one of the most widespread and common species in evergreen and semi-evergreen tropical forests in Mexico and northern Central America. It is recognized as a famine food, fodder crop, timber and fuelwood. Also as a key species for reforestation in Central America. Examples of ongoing reforestation include the ‘Healthy Kids, Healthy Forests’ program in Guatemala and Nicaragua (150,000 trees respectively), the ‘Programa Reverdecer’ (Re-greening) in Guatemala (50,000 trees) and the Ecological Ranching Program in Guatemala (300,000 trees) and Restoration of Lake Peten-Itza Watershed (600 ha of trees planted).

In Honduras Maya Nut harvest can generate $650 per ha per annum compared to $326 for a combined maize and beans production system. Erika has been working with Alex Monro (The Natural History Museum / RBG Kew) on a Darwin Initiative funded project ‘Tools for the sustainable harvesting of Maya Nut (Mesoamerica) 18-010’ which finished in March 2014. Erika will talk about her work and in particular her strategy for market-driven community based conservation, improving women’s participation in conservation and Maya Nut restoration and reforestation in the Neotropics. Erika’s talk should last for 30-45 minutes.