Buttoning Up With Tagua Nuts

Some people proudly wear buttons proclaiming, “Save the Rain Forest.” Now they can also wear buttons that actually do help save the rain forest.

Thanks to an ongoing program that links human needs with conservation practices, tagua nuts from South American rain forests are being used to make ivory-like buttons for more than 30 clothing manufacturers around the world. The effort requires a complicated mix of diverse fields, including biology, business, community development and conservation planning.

More than 30 million of these buttons already have been sold through a unique partnership created in 1990 by Conservation International (CI), a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to saving rain forests and other threatened ecosystems. The more than 15,000 tons of tagua used has generated more than $3 million in button sales, said Robin Frank, CI’s director of SEED Ventures – an acronym for Sound Environmental Enterprise Development.

“Deforestation of the rain forests is driven by a lack of alternatives for the local people. We want to offer viable economic alternatives for the long run that will help them and save these ecosystems,” she said.

Called the Tagua Initiative, sportswear makers Patagonia and Smith & Hawken Ltd. were the first companies to join the venture, which demonstrates that rain forests are more valuable left intact rather than cut for lumber. Companies such as Esprit, The Gap, Banana Republic and Timberland have since boosted the effort with more tagua-button purchases.

Tagua palm trees grow throughout western South America, but the species with the highest quality nuts grows only in northwestern Ecuador. The nuts are now harvested by local people, then dried and sliced before being shipped to button manufacturers for final processing. The initiative now employees more than 1,800 Ecuadorian community members in part- or full-time jobs, ranging from collecting the nuts to handcrafting buttons.

Tagua was a popular button material in the first part of this century, until inexpensive plastic versions took its place. At one point in the 1930s, one in five buttons manufactured in the United States was made from tagua.

Because the golf-ball-size nuts resemble elephant ivory in texture and appearance, markets for tagua jewelry, chess pieces and carvings also are opening up, she said. An artistry training center has been set up in Ecuador to teach local artisans how to create tagua carvings of endangered animal species and other subjects. Men who once cut down tagua palms are now protecting the trees so they can sell nuts. One Ecuadorian has quit working as a logger because he can now make a living handcrafting tagua buttons and carvings.

To ensure that SEED Ventures accomplish their goals, community development must be tied to scientific research to protect the rain forest from any possible damage, Frank said. Strict business and marketing practices also must play an important role in each project.

“The whole management issue is crucial,” she said. “We must harvest the rain forest using a scientific basis or there will still be a potential for harm. To that end, ecological monitoring assures that products are collected without damage to the surrounding forest, while social and economic monitoring provides insight into just how great our impact is.”

Conservation International currently has a number of other projects under way in other parts of the Developing World. Hundreds of other sustainable rain-forest products that have economic potential are being researched by the organization. For instance, the same Ecuadorian rain forest that provides tagua is being studied for its potential to provide a variety of waxes, oils and foods.

As an example of alternative land use, the initiative has become of focal point in local debates in Ecuador concerning how to manage the forest. Local people rejected a proposed 30,000-acre banana plantation in part because of the initiative’s success.

“The Tagua Initiative is providing a perfect example of how this can work,” Frank said. “If we can manage the rain forest and provide income and jobs for the local people year after year, these projects are going to make a difference.”

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