Ian Diamondstone (second from left) stands with local villagers in Honduras.  His ramón seed project will include two countries, between 100 and 200 villages and hundreds of people.
Courtesy of Ian Diamondstone
Ian Diamondstone (second from left) stands with local villagers in Honduras. His ramón seed project will include two countries, between 100 and 200 villages and hundreds of people.

A tall order

A southern Vermont trade consultant has worked to help bring to market a nut that indigenous people in Guatemala have used for 2,000 years — a process with formidable complications and, for impovershed workers, a promise of sustainable reward

BRATTLEBORO — Ian Diamondstone was on his phone speaking with a key player representing a major natural beverage company when a realization hit the logistics and trade consultant.

The Brattleboro native, who operates an international trade consulting practice from Putney, realized that there, around the company's conference table discussing the ramón nut - "a tree seed that people in Central America have been using for thousands of years" - sat a flock of specialists representing the gamut of U.S. businesses, from finances and logistics to sales and science. Also there were some highly skilled organic ingredient industry specialists.

"Everyone was there," remembers Diamondstone, a Brattleboro native, noting that the product under discussion had been in use indigenously for thousands of years.

That was when Diamondstone realized that his clients "had everyone at the table except a field agent like me, because they had no idea what it is like in the field."

The meeting made him think about his career trajectory.

All he was thinking about, Diamondstone said, was "the time 20 years ago when I was sitting with a tribe of indigenous people in a mountainous village wondering, 'What am I doing here? What's next?'"

On his first trip to rural Guatemala, he was out in the tiny villages of the jungle, assigned to meet with coffee growers and cardamon producers.

"I get to this little settlement, and I see handmade wooden rakes, people working the fields with a tiller instead of having an animal like a bull or a cow pull it for them," he recalled.

"Then, suddenly, people started appearing from jungle paths with huge bags weighing 120 pounds on their shoulders, barefoot," Diamondstone said. "Everything is in the indigenous language and translated into Spanish for me."

Some of the people lived in the mountains and produced one or two bags of coffee a year - all a part of this coffee project of which he was now in charge. As more and more people came out of the forests they gathered, sitting in a circle, with Diamondstone sitting at the front of the room.

"They would say, 'My name is this or that,' then they would name their village and say, 'God has brought us all together, and for this we are grateful.'"

Diamondstone began to realize how far away these people had walked to get to this meeting. The translator, knowing that the people's knowledge of the rest of the world was limited to their own sphere of influence, could use only a few Spanish words to explain what was being said.

"At one point, the translator told me that the person who was speaking said, 'I know that you have come from very far away to help us. I have seen the great iron birds fly over us so that you can come to share our endeavors,'" he said.

"I couldn't believe it," Diamondstone continued. "It was such an honor to be speaking with the tribes of people who have had this way of life for thousands of years."

The long path to Guatemala

Diamondstone began his career in logistics and sales with ForesTrade, a multinational company based in Brattleboro which imported certified organic products like coffee, spices, and essential oils for sale in western countries. These commodities came from South and Central America and from Indonesia.

When the company went into receivership, Diamondstone was asked to be the field agent in Guatemala.

Since then, he's worked for a maple syrup producer for a few years in Putney, while growing his own business, New Forest Organics, which he began in January 2011.

"I sell to major tea companies; they need me to verify the ingredients for their tea. I have found a small niche for certified organic specialty spices."

Verification is the process of revisiting the supply chain every year to meet safety standards from the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture as well as certifying that a product is organic and has been tested for heavy metals, moisture content, and microbes like bacteria (including E. coli and salmonella), yeasts, and molds. This ensures that the product is safe to enter the international market and meets international standards.

Only about one project in 10 will come to fruition, in part because standards need to be so high. And, without proper equipment and education of prospective suppliers in the field in the specifics of the processes and equipment they'd need to use, many spices won't pass the test.

Guatemala is by far the world's largest exporter of cardamom, the most expensive spice after vanilla and saffron. The country exported approximately 35,000 tons in the last year, about three-quarters of all world exports, according to the USDA. It sells for $20,000 per ton, most of which is sold to India and the Middle East.

"Sometimes even the best-prepared companies find that their cost is higher than the sale the product will bear on the international market," says Diamondstone. "Of course, there is a financial bottom line - if you can't make money, you can't pay people - but the social, environmental and the religious aspects are very important as well."

Economic shifts, and a new working class in need

After the country's civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, thousands of displaced families were respectively given one or more parcels of land by the government, depending on the number of male descendants. (If the family had four sons, they would receive five parcels.)

The bigger families that had more land began to make lots of money - but at a cost to their culture.

"These very poor indigenous farmers were suddenly making lots of money with the sales of their cardamom," Diamondstone explained. "And then the Pepsi-Cola truck started making its way to these tiny villages."

Indigenous people who usually serve hibiscus tea "were suddenly serving Pepsi to their guests," he continued. "The women who used to prepare all their meals cooking over an open fire began buying the white bread that the bread truck brought. In its place was obesity, diabetes, rotten teeth, and the loss of thousands of years of culture."

Diamondstone explained that banana leaves used to be used for the packaging of food, but now locals use plastic bags because they don't break down, creating difficulties with a plastic product that can't be recycled as easily as a banana leaf.

"Now these wealthy families hire 90 seasonal workers a year. They all sleep in the little buildings and on the ground. The women cook all day, as part of the pay is feeding the workers who go out into the dense jungle where there are poisonous snakes and spiders, picking cardamon cherries."

Those workers, he said, emerge from the jungle "after working 12, 14, sometimes 18 hours a day with 220-pound sacks on their back, for which they are paid $8."

Diamondstone noted that there are also excellent organic corporations worldwide that have good philosophies and pay a fair market price for the products they purchase from the villages. They will help the local people by building community centers and schools and by providing books. Many have built safe havens for women and girls that include prenatal care.

But there are also unscrupulous companies that take advantage of the people in the villages, he charged.

He also identified some nonprofit NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that start with lots of money. They build factories to dry and process the spices, and they educate people in how to make a living with the spices found in their area.

But just as quickly, the money can dry up, and suddenly the NGO is gone before the process is complete, leaving families with nothing more than they had when the process began.

"These people have had their hopes raised and dashed so many times. It doesn't have to be this way. With all that I've seen, I am truly committed to try to make the world a better place, where there is fairness and social justice."

A little nut with a big future

Diamondstone has been working in a small community called Big Turtle River, a tiny village. After the civil war, the people established themselves in a redistricting.

"The people are very poor indigenous villagers who have suffered so much for so long. During the war they were chased through the jungle by people with machine guns," he said. "Helicopters with huge bags of gasoline were dropped on them from the air. Their villages were burned, and many were killed or suffered with burns themselves."

For the last 15 years, Diamondstone has been working with a local woman there to identify a buyer for the ramón nut, which local tribes have eaten for thousands of years.

Ramón nuts can be ground to flour to make tortillas or roasted and brewed as a beverage. They are high in protein, and potassium, and they are full of nutrition. They contain no fats or oils, and they never turn rancid.

The nuts are hard, like acorns, and they store well. For thousands of years, people collected them in homemade baskets and hid them in caves to be used during times of war or famine.

15 years of working comes to fruition

Diamondstone began to work with this wild-harvested forest seed more than 15 years ago, when he worked for ForesTrade.

"I approached power bar companies - energy bars - but it was a food ingredient that had never been on the market, and I couldn't find permanent markets for the ramón nut," he said.

Now that's changed.

"One way to save the rainforest is to find a market for these communities' ramón nuts," he said. "There is environmental impact and social impact for the people. I personally don't have the money or the resources to make it my primary interest or focus, but now I have this huge group of people who would benefit if I can find them a market."

And that is what the phone call with the conference room was all about.

Diamondstone has taken a contract for 30 tons of ramón nut to be delivered by Dec. 31, even though he is aware of the difficulties.

"Big business finally came to me; 15 years of working has finally come to fruition!" he said. "There I was on the phone, this company calling me out of the blue."

"I think I have a buyer, and it's long-term income for these villages for six to nine months of the year," Diamondstone noted, with joy in his voice.

He goes on to explain the impact that a new product can make for the people who live there.

"Thousands of Central American families will have families who don't have to leave to find work in other countries," Diamondstone explained.

"So often now, the father [of a household] disappears to go north or go over the border, most of the time, illegally," he continued.

Out of the thousands of men who leave, he said, "only about 36 to 40 will make it to the U.S. and bring the money home to live the life they can only see on their cell phones. Many never return, and their families will never know what happened to them."

Diamondstone said the money from the sale of the ramón nuts "will provide enough for their children to be able to pay the $3 for a pencil and a notebook, something they don't have now, allowing them to attend school. Most of these people are so poor they are living day to day. A little money can help them buy a pig or a cow, so they have new opportunities and have no need to leave their village."

"Bringing a nut that has been used for 2,000 years to a place where it can be industrial is a tall order," he continued.

To make it happen, he needs to find drying tables and arrange for transportation. To offer the ramón nut in the U.S. and European Union markets "require[s] the strictest standards in the world," he said.

And that would mean coming up with massive infrastructure, "like hundreds of covered drying tables, trainings, central processing facilities, transportation, and all manner of logistics."

"Each community will produce small amounts which have to be weighed and brought to a central location for blending and finishing for a consistent product," he said.

"From there we will need a truck that runs, someone trained to be sure the product is dry enough, and a team of people that aren't making enough money to do all this, but who will volunteer so that their community can thrive," he continued.

It's a labor of love. His hope and excitement show on his face and in his voice.

"My true goal is that when I die, I want to go knowing that I will have empowered 1,000 people to do this themselves," Diamondstone said.

"It's not about owning a corporation; it's about helping others to do what they should be doing themselves," he said. "I've devoted most of my career years to this industry, and here is this one product that I will be able to see from the beginning to fruition."

This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

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