Research Article: Socio-ecological costs of Amazon nut and timber production at community household forests in the Bolivian Amazon

Date Published: February 24, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Marlene Soriano, Frits Mohren, Nataly Ascarrunz, Wolfram Dressler, Marielos Peña-Claros, John P. Hart.


The Bolivian Amazon holds a complex configuration of people and forested landscapes in which communities hold secure tenure rights over a rich ecosystem offering a range of livelihood income opportunities. A large share of this income is derived from Amazon nut (Bertholletia excelsa). Many communities also have long-standing experience with community timber management plans. However, livelihood needs and desires for better living conditions may continue to place these resources under considerable stress as income needs and opportunities intensify and diversify. We aim to identify the socioeconomic and biophysical factors determining the income from forests, husbandry, off-farm and two keystone forest products (i.e., Amazon nut and timber) in the Bolivian Amazon region. We used structural equation modelling tools to account for the complex inter-relationships between socioeconomic and biophysical factors in predicting each source of income. The potential exists to increase incomes from existing livelihood activities in ways that reduce dependency upon forest resources. For example, changes in off-farm income sources can act to increase or decrease forest incomes. Market accessibility, social, financial, and natural and physical assets determined the amount of income community households could derive from Amazon nut and timber. Factors related to community households’ local ecological knowledge, such as the number of non-timber forest products harvested and the number of management practices applied to enhance Amazon nut production, defined the amount of income these households could derive from Amazon nut and timber, respectively. The (inter) relationships found among socioeconomic and biophysical factors over income shed light on ways to improve forest-dependent livelihoods in the Bolivian Amazon. We believe that our analysis could be applicable to other contexts throughout the tropics as well.

Partial Text

The contribution of forests to rural livelihoods is well-acknowledged throughout the tropics [1–6]. In particular, the local provision of, and the financial benefits from, timber and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) play an important role in improving rural livelihoods while also preventing forest degradation and deforestation [7]. Yet, high dependency on forest income can potentially ‘trap’ rural families in cycles of poverty due to low prices caused by insecure forest tenure and poor access to markets [8,9]. Under improved socioeconomic and biophysical conditions, however, a greater value can be drawn from forest resources with the potential to increase the income and living conditions of rural families [1,2]. Recent studies show that income from the forest increases when rural families harvest a larger set of forest products [2], and have improved organization [10] and road infrastructure [1]. The influence of these and other socioeconomic and biophysical factors on rural livelihoods have been examined in the context of changing rural economies. More specifically, we investigated how such factors are shaping the various sources of income derived by community households in the Bolivian Amazon, focusing on two keystone forest products: Amazon nut (a.k.a. Brazil nut, Bertholletia excelsa) and timber. We address these questions by combining socioeconomic information of community households and ecological information of household forests.

Hierarchical models such as the SEM modelling approach used in this study helped us disentangle existing inter-relationships among socioeconomic and biophysical factors, which shed light on ways to increase the income derived by community households. Our findings offer insights on how community households can enhance their income, and simultaneously, reduce pressure over keystone forest resources. The modelling approach used for predicting income of campesino community households in this study, ie., SEM models, could easily be replicated in other regions, and at varying temporal and spatial scales to come up with sound policy decisions to manage tropical forests accordingly. Even in communities with high degree of reliance on forest income like the communities in the present study, off-farm and husbandry income are complementary to their livelihoods, and can be targeted to improve their living conditions. Although pressure over forest can be overcome by husbandry income, one must be very cautious with the scale of the implementation of husbandry-related activities; particularly, when it turns to cattle ranching expansion [61]. Currently, the majority of the husbandry activities practiced by studied campesino communities in the Bolivian Amazon are based on shifting cultivation and raising small livestock (e.g., poultry and pigs). The contribution of cattle ranching is minimal (only four out of 24 households had between 1–17 cows in our sample). These generally “subsistence” driven activities currently practiced by campesino community households are certainly being outperformed by Amazon nut and timber production, which may be preventing them from obtaining further economic returns from other sources. For example, a most recent study in the Bolivian Amazon showed a relatively rapid increase of these activities amongst less forest-reliant communities [18].