Tonka Beans: The Scent of Sustainability

You may not have heard of the tonka bean, but you’ve probably smelled it. This “bean” — actually the seed from the Dipteryx odorata tree — contains signature notes of caramel, almond and vanilla, making the tonka bean a popular ingredient used in luxury fragrances such as Roberto Cavalli Eau de Parfum, Karleidoscope by Karl Lagerfield and Shine by Heidi Klum.

Tonka bean collection is both a traditional way of life and an income-generating activity for members of the Aripao community in Venezuela. (© Duda/Givaudan)

Tonka beans are found mainly in Venezuela and Brazil; Venezuela also produces high quality copaiba balsam, a resin used to support rich base notes of fragrance. To meet the demand for these products while supporting local livelihoods, Conservation International and Givaudan — the world’s leading fragrance and flavor company — have recently extended their partnership for a further three years to support a conservation agreement project in Venezuela’s portion of the Guiana Shield.

The Caura basin in Venezuela’s Bolivar State is one of the world’s most pristine river basins. It is rich in terrestrial fauna, containing more than 32 percent of the species reported for the country, such as the long-haired spider monkey (Ateles belzebuth), South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and the Arrau River turtle (Podocnemis expansa).

Butterflies congregate on the edge of the Caura River, Venezuela.

Butterflies congregate on the edge of the Caura River, Venezuela. (© CI/Photo by Haroldo Castro)

The Caura forest is also home to indigenous and creole communities. For them, tonka bean collection has been a traditional income-generating activity for generations. In 2007, CI and Givaudan began an initiative with 64 families in the community of Aripao in Caura Forest Reserve — an area threatened by illegal mining, timber extraction and uncontrolled hunting, fishing and agricultural expansion. This project focuses on work with communities and Phynatura, a local NGO, to protect natural habitat while improving the supply of non-timber forest products such as tonka beans and copaiba oil.

A conservation agreement established with the Aripao community has helped improve forest management through activities such as the creation of a community patrolling system. In 2011, community rangers recorded 567 key species such as the yellow-spotted Amazon River turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) — nearly five times the number recorded the year before!

In a conservation agreement, resource users commit to conservation actions that protect priority ecosystems in exchange for benefits that address local development needs and priorities. These agreements are between local resource users and conservation investors — which may be governments, companies, NGOs or other interested parties — and the benefits are determined through discussions with the community. In the conservation agreement with the Aripao community, the 64 families have committed to control hunting and illegal logging in exchange for patrolling wages, equipment and training and better access to markets for tonka beans and copaiba oil. According to Milagros Pérez, a leader in Aripao, “The agreements are established to protect an area for the future of our children.”

Aripao community members patrol Venezuela's Caura River to watch for illegal hunters and loggers.

Aripao community members patrol Venezuela's Caura River to watch for illegal hunters and loggers. (© Duda/Givaudan)

The community members have also seen tangible benefits. Pérez continues: “The project has helped the community a lot. Since the project was established it has become an economic alternative for the community. Many families have benefited from the project. Some of them receive wages through the patrolling program, others sell food to the rangers during the patrolling campaigns, and others can sell tonka.”

In 2011, Venezuelan export firm Cerbatana also signed the conservation agreement with Aripao, demonstrating their commitment to support the initiative through closer interaction with the community and by setting favorable prices for the non-timber forest products. Furthermore, with support from the agreement, the Aripao community has built a storage facility that will maintain a stable supply of tonka to sell in the years when the harvest is not high. This fund has also been used to provide micro-loans to community members involved in the initiative.

Over the next three years, the partnership aims to ensure sustainability by focusing on three pillars: conservation of the protected area, community empowerment and sustainable use of natural products.

Underpinning the collaboration is the aim of conserving the lower Caura Basin and improving the collection and commercialization of tonka beans and copaiba balsam. Under the new agreement between CI and Givaudan, the initial project area of 88,000 hectares (more than 217,000 acres) will expand to 148,000 hectares (almost 366,000 acres), and the partners will engage at least two additional indigenous communities and provide income opportunities for at least 40 additional families.

Juliette Crepin is the private sector engagement manager for CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.


  1. Kathleen Zuniga says

    I’ve never heard of this bean, but it is interesting to find out it is used in a lot of luxury fragrances. I would imagine this bean to be used mainly for cooking purposes. This conservation act is really great. It’s great to see that the main users of this bean are partnering up with the resource and making their consumption not more than the production. This form of conservation should be utilized in other countries to protect their goods.

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  4. Vanessa says

    I am part way through writing my book on Ethical food and I’m doing a recipe using Tonka beans, and want to include details on how the populations, when supported help preserve the rainforest. I have found information about NGO’s working with perfume companies but nothing on the culinary side whatsoever.

    I wondered if you can give me any more information about the fair-trade side of them? Where do they come from? Is there anyway I can maybe interview someone who supplies them and find out more about the people that pick them and what difference the Fair-trade premium makes to them ( and the rainforest they live in please? )

    Thank you.

    Kind regards

    Vanessa Kimbell

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