Berkeley-Haas Part-Time MBA students Joe Bass, Mayhul Jain, Chidananda Khatua, and Hideaki Oshima participated in a summer IBD project in Peru with the nonprofit organization ProNaturaleza.
Quick background: Our project was about a nut that is grown on the Yarina Palm tree in the Amazon rainforest. The name of the nut is Tagua and it has an ivory like hard feeling to it; Tagua is commonly used to create jewelry. The non-profit organization that we were working with, ProNaturaleza, was attempting to determine what new products could be created out of this nut to be sold to the US market and elsewhere eventually.
After taking a visit to Machu Picchu and checking out other sights in Peru, we were excited to start the project! To learn more about the plant, the people and the infrastructure, the first week was spent in Iquitos, the gateway town to the Peruvian Amazonian Basin. It began with a chance encounter with Lisa Ling at the Iquitos airport who was working on a documentary on local hallucinogens – we think!
In Iquitos, a town connected to the outside world only by river or air, we were able to visit a factory that processes Tagua nuts into buttons but was currently shut down due to unmet financial commitments. We then visited the drying plant to learn how these nuts were dried – turns out it’s the old school method of a big cement slab and baking sun. Perspectives are different everywhere and this was true on our factory visit as well.
However, the most interesting part of the Amazon visit was a trip to Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, one of the largest reserves in South America. The trip to the national reserve consisted of a two hour bus ride and then a three hour canoe ride to the ~150 person village of Viente de Enero. Though there was no running water and no steady electricity in this village in the middle of the rainforest, we were able to watch the World Cup semifinal match between Argentina and Netherlands in a local person’s hut thanks to his generator – the man had his priorities straight!
In meeting the locals and seeing their homes, it was evident that this was a simple life with chickens running around and huts constructed primarily of straw and natural materials. In the evening, the kids would play football and the community would hang out; the village even had their hut version of a discoteca, which would play music till 6am in the morning. Their entire livelihood consisted of picking Aguaje and Tagua from palm trees and fishing in the local waters, and selling these raw materials to the larger towns down river.
The next morning we went on a short jungle walk to see how the Tagua nut was harvested. With machete in hand, our local guide led us on another canoe ride within the Reserve where we were able to walk around the dense and beautiful jungle. Lesson learned – New Balance tennis shoes don’t do the job for jungle walks! Especially when the guide tells you that there are four types of venomous snakes in the area where the Tagua nut is harvested. This put things in perspective though – for these local villagers to even make a few bucks requires putting their lives at risk everyday. We heard multiple stories of being bitten by snakes.
After returning to Iquitos, we were able to kiss a pink river dolphin and feed Amazon manatees at a rescue center. We also visited a local market where people from across the Amazon visit in an attempt to search for organic glue, which we were able to eventually find. While looking for this glue, we also saw both legal meat as well as illegal meat (spider monkey, turtles, tapirs, sloths) for sale, which speaks volumes about the tough job that law enforcement has protecting the local species.
In embracing the Berkeley-Haas Defining Principle of “Student Always,” we not only learned about the Peruvian Amazonian people and the Tagua nut, but also came to the realization that the Amazon basin has an incredible amount of sustainable economic potential – be it through eco-tourism, harvesting fruits or nuts, or fishing. The next step is to just unlock it!