Can money grow on trees?

Amazon forest

23 January 2013 by Peter Newton

Peter Newton describes his work investigating whether medicinal oil could help provide income for people living deep in the Amazon.

Antonio taps the bark hopefully with his machete: 'Espero que ela vai dar muito óleo,' he declares. I hope that she'll give us a lot of oil. Ten minutes later he is sweating with the effort of drilling a 15cm-deep hole into the hardwood trunk with a hand-borer, but his wish is granted and the familiar trickle of copaíba (cop-ay-ee-ba) oil begins to seep from the tree. Pensamento grabs the waiting plastic tubing and deftly fits it to the hole. Already attached at the tubing's other end is an empty two-litre plastic drinks bottle, which now begins to steadily fill with the copper-coloured oil.

The three of us are in a remote part of the Brazilian Amazon, collecting medicinal copaíba oil as part of a study of the potential for forest resources to provide an income for families living here. Antonio has been harvesting copaíba his whole life, but only occasionally and only to use at home as a medicine. Now, new opportunities are emerging, and a non-government organisation (NGO) working in the area has asked us to see if it's feasible for them to train and equip local people to harvest the oil commercially.

And so we have formed our team: me and my colleagues from the University of East Anglia, with an interest in the sustainable use of tropical forests, and ten local Amazonians, who are keen both to share their knowledge and to learn more. Copaíba harvesting has only ever been opportunistic here, not systematic, so by drilling trees throughout the study area and recording what we find, we hope to build up a more complete picture of the possibilities.

Andiroba seeds drying

Andiroba seeds drying

Our study site is the vast (900,000ha) extent of two sustainable-use reserves: the primary forest here is interrupted only by meandering rivers. Small communities of Amazonians live by fishing, hunting, harvesting forest plants and growing crops such as manioc. People are largely self-sufficient. They have to be; there are no shops or roads here, and the reserves are a 12-hour boat ride from the nearest town, Carauari, itself a week's river journey from the state capital, Manaus.

Governments and NGOs in tropical forest countries around the world are increasingly recognising that people living in rural areas need help to find ways of earning a living that don't damage the forest. One option is to develop local industries based on collecting and selling forest resources.

There is a growing demand both in Brazil and abroad for sustainably-sourced rainforest products - health food shops in the UK regularly stock products made from Brazil nuts, açaí palm fruit and - increasingly - copaíba oil. This natural oil is stored in the trunks of copaíba trees (various members of the Copaifera family). Brazilians have used it for centuries to cure colds and flu, and to help treat wounds and infections. This is no placebo; colleagues at the Federal University of Amazonas, Brazil, have spent years documenting the biochemical compounds behind its healing properties.

Harvesting from the forest - profits and perils

On the face of it, copaíba is as close as you'll find to money growing on trees - or at least, dripping out of them. In Carauari, the oil sells for $7 a litre, and we drilled trees that yielded up to four litres of oil within 24 hours. The average household income in these communities is just $275 a month, so a sale like this would be a welcome financial boost to a family.

There are some catches. Nine different species of copaíba are found in the Brazilian Amazon alone, and not all are created equal - as we found when we began experimentally drilling trees of different sizes and species, and in different types of forest. In fact, most trees didn't yield any oil at all. Even those that did showed huge variation in volume - many produced less than 100 millilitres. It takes time and effort to locate and drill a tree and if it turns out to be hollow, or to contain little or no oil, that effort goes unrewarded.

Drilling for copaíba oil

Drilling for copaíba oil

Collecting forest products as a money-making option has other downsides, too. Travel by river is costly, either in time spent paddling or in fuel. Passing through the forest on foot is hard work and dangerous. Snake bites are one of the most common causes of injury in this region; I was lucky to escape unscathed when an unseen Bothrops - a kind of venomous pit viper - struck out at the bottom of my boot. No surprise that many Amazonians have opted to focus their efforts on agriculture.

Nonetheless, experience shows that if the rewards are sufficient then people will go into the forest. A few years ago, a cooperative in a neighbouring community established a small plant to process the oil found in andiroba seeds, the product of another Amazonian tree. Now, almost every family on the river spends a couple of weeks each year collecting their quota of seeds, to sell on to the cooperative. Could a similar system be developed for copaíba oil?

A key unanswered question that would determine whether harvesting copaíba trees could be truly sustainable was whether oil could be extracted from an individual tree more than once. Anecdotal evidence suggested it could, but common consensus held that it might take several years for trees to replenish their stocks.

To find out, we returned to trees that had been drilled either one or three years earlier. We found that they were just as likely to produce oil as were 'virgin' trees. Although they only produced around half the original harvest, here was firm evidence that a profitable volume of oil could be extracted from a tree just a year after its first harvest.

Having worked out the rate at which oil could be collected, our task was to compile data on oil volumes, prices, tree densities and travel costs - all the factors that together determine whether it's worth harvesting a resource commercially. We estimated that the reserves contained more than 38,500 litres of oil, and that harvesting just two litres per family per month would generate five per cent of an average household's income.

There are still some uncertainties - such as whether oil extraction has any long-term impact on a tree's health, and how many times a tree can be reharvested. But we concluded that, as long as a market for the oil could be secured, then copaíba harvesting could complement andiroba seeds, rubber and other forest products as a source of income for men like Antonio, who are trying to support their families and look after the forest at the same time.

More information
Since finishing his NERC-funded PhD in September 2011, Dr Peter Newton has been working as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan with the International Forestry Resources and Institutions network, and the CGIAR program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.