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April 17th, 2009
08:52 AM ET

Maya nut changes lives while aiding the rain forest

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/17/art_vohman_cnn.jpg caption="Erika Vohman's Equilibrium Fund teaches women how to reap the benefits of the Maya nut."]

FLORES, Guatemala (CNN) - In the rain forests of Central America grows the nutrient-rich Maya nut. The marble-sized seed can be prepared to taste like mashed potatoes, chocolate or coffee. To those who stumble upon the nuts on the ground, they're free for the taking.

The problem, however, is that many people living in areas where the Maya nut grows abundantly don't know about it.

Erika Vohman is trying to change that - and improve rain forest conservation and women's status in the process.

"People are living right there, in extreme poverty, not even eating more than one meal a day and there's Maya nut lying all around," Vohman said. "They don't eat it because they don't know."

Vohman has traveled to Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, conducting workshops that teach women how to harvest, prepare and cook or dry the prolific seeds into tasty, hearty foods.

The 45-year-old biologist first encountered the Maya nut while visiting rural Guatemala a decade ago for an animal rescue effort. An indigenous colleague told her of the native resource, once an essential food staple of his Mayan ancestors; the civilization had widely cultivated the large tropical rain forest tree, the Brosimum alicastrum, that produces the Maya nut.

That colleague prepared a Maya nut soup for Vohman and she found it delicious.

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