The Maku Nut - A hidden gem of the forest

by Christian Rivera (RECOFTC-Enhancing Livelihoods and Markets, Princeton in Asia fellow 2014-2015)

Driving to Nam Yone Mai village one can see the Mekong River one side, and rolling mountains on the other. Amid these mountains is found a particular species of tree locally known as “Maku”, which produces a round yellow-orange fruit. Inside this fruit can be found a seed containing 4-5 chambers, each with a single nut inside. Noticing that these nuts were being sold on the roadside of the village, members of the ForInfo project decided to dig in deeper to learn about this particular NTFP.   ForInfo is a four year project funded by the Finnish Government and focuses on the generation and ownership of Forest Information to improve people’s access to markets and support them to improve their livelihoods, often by addressing efficiency improvement opportunities.  Their interests were sparked when they learned that the nut was sold for food, and that the species might be the critically endangered Dracontomelon macrocarpum, a tree native to Yunnan Province in Southern China, and possibly northern Laos and Thailand.

After informal discussions with the village chief and local shopkeepers, I learned that certain community members benefit from the harvesting and selling of Maku nuts during the fruiting season, which occurs from the months of September to December.  It appears that about 20 of the 100 families in the village collect these nuts. Collection is very informal and involves the following three simple steps: 1) hike into the forest in groups of 2 or 3, 2) pile up the nuts that have fallen on the ground, and 3) throw the sacks over your shoulder as you make your way back to the village. According to the Village Chief, one sack can hold 35-37 kg of seeds which eventually yields about 4 kg of Maku nuts. Moreover, a single tree is said to yield about 25 sacks of seeds per season. Doing the simple math brings this to about 100 kg of Maku nuts per tree each season.

Maku shells and nuts. Photo Credit: Jephraim Oro

But how many Maku trees are there? How are the nuts processed and for what purpose?

“We have no idea how many Maku trees live in the surrounding forest. There can be anywhere from 200 to 1,000. No one really knows”, stated a local villager. So, with the help of a few locals and ForInfo team members, we trekked into the forest and managed to identify about 269 trees along three “collection trails”. Of these 269 trees, only 140 of them (52%) appeared to be mature enough to produce fruit. This means that if the numbers provided by the Village Chief are accurate, there is potential for a yield of about 14,000 kg of Maku nuts total from all recorded producing trees during one fruiting season! What’s more, the number of Maku trees recorded versus the number of trees actually out there is quite low. One could see an abundance of the tall 40-50 meter trees expanding over the vast landscape.

Now, the processing techniques were quite interesting. In fact, there really was only one essential “processing” step: extracting the Maku nuts from each of the five chambers in the seed, a process that involved a knife, a Maku seed, and a very vulnerable hand. Locals involved in the extraction take 30 to 45 seconds to break the seeds and remove the nuts.  According to Bernhard Monhs, ForInfo Technical Advisor: “This is just not an efficient or safe method of extracting these nuts. There is so much potential for improvement here”. Given that one of the main goals of the ForInfo Project is to enhance the capacities of local communities through first providing fundamental technical assistance needed to improve efficiency, this seems to be an appropriate gateway to try and find a less dangerous way of cracking the seeds, while at the same time reducing time inputs and increasing yields.

A local villager demonstrates how the Maku seeds are cracked to retrieve the nuts. Photo Credit: Ronnakorn Triraganon 


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