Maya Nut is the seed of a massive tropical rainforest tree, Brosimum alicastrum, in the fig family. Maya Nut was very important in the diet of prehispanic cultures throughout the neotropics who protected it because of its importance for food for their favorite game species. Maya Nut was the dominant species in vast tracts of tropical dry forest from northern Mexico to Northern Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba and Trinidad, covering huge swaths of land from the mountains to the lowlands. These were probably important “food forests” for hunter-gatherers and hundreds of species of birds and mammals. These forests also provided valuable ecosystem services, such as protection of soil and water sources and CO2 sequestration. Maya Nut trees can grow up to 150 feet tall and can produce up to 800lb of seed a year. Today, the presence of Maya Nut trees in a forest means that local communities can make money by conserving and planting Maya Nut forests.
Unfortunately, a very low percentage of original Maya Nut forests remain. Most Maya Nut forests have been decimated to plant crops such as corn, beans, coffee, cacao, banana, and sugarcane. Today the food value of the Maya Nut is largely forgotten in its native lands, so people don’t appreciate it beyond its use for fuelwood. Where Maya Nut forests remain, free ranging cattle voraciously devour Maya Nut seedlings, creating “standing dead” forests with no young trees to replace the older trees as they die. For these and other reasons, Maya Nut is locally extinct in many areas. It is becoming increasingly rare to find healthy Maya Nut forests in Latin America. Loss of these forests jeopardizes the wellbeing of human and wildlife communities through the loss of valuable ecosystem services, food and habitat.
What remains of Maya Nut forests is critically important for conservation of genetic diversity of the species, biodiversity, water quality, and availability, and as a source of nutritious food for humans and livestock. Maya Nut forests provide the last refuges for Tapir, Jaguar, and Ocelot, the latter two whose prey depend on Maya Nut seeds for food. For humans also, Maya Nut retains an important role as seen in recent history when thousands of villages survived drought, war, and famine by eating Maya Nut when no other food was available. The growing interest in Maya Nut as an ingredient in new products is motivating communities to conserve and plant Maya Nut forests. This is called “Market-driven Conservation” and is a powerful tool for rainforest conservation.
While Maya Nut has been the subject of much research, there remain large gaps in our knowledge base. The Maya Nut Institute has worked to provide free and open access to all articles about Maya Nut in the hopes that academics, nutritionists, food scientists, conservation biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, wildlife biologists, foresters, and agronomists begin to prioritize Maya Nut for research because of its immense potential to improve human health and well-being in the face of climate change.