JASON CLAY'S house has been invaded by nuts. Stacked floor to ceiling, an imposing fortress of boxes dims the light filtering through the windows of Mr. Clay's Cambridge, Mass., living room. The invasion signals the success of a nutty new enterprise, in which Indians deep in the Amazon have joined with socially conscious Western entrepreneurs. It is called the Rainforest Marketing Project, and was launched a year ago by Clay as an activity of Cultural Survival, a Harvard University-based human rights organization of which he is research director.
The project's goal is to stem Brazilian rain forest destruction by bolstering the economic strength of those most threatened by deforestation - forest dwellers themselves. The aim is to buy forest commodities directly from Amazonian cooperatives of Indians and rubber tappers, exclude middlemen who often make exorbitant profits, and generate more income for jungle residents.
The warehouse look of Clay's home is largely the result of Rainforest Crunch, a Brazil-nut brittle marketed both as a candy and an ice cream mix-in by Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., the Vermont-based ice cream manufacturer. The company is interested in converting jungle crops into cash while showing concern for rain forest preservation.
Most Amazonian gatherers receive 3 cents a pound for Brazil nuts - a tiny fraction of the New York average wholesale price of $1.30 a pound. They are sometimes paid by middlemen in food marked up as much as 1,000 percent, Amazon researchers say. By selling directly to the shelling factory, collectors organized into cooperatives have increased their profits three to four times. Some gatherers, benefiting from a processing plant donated by Cultural Survival, could boost their profits 15 times.
Rain forest cachet is helping to make the project possible. With more than $3 million in sales projected for 1990, Rainforest Crunch is selling faster than it can be produced. Another 50 companies on both sides of the Atlantic also are keen on marketing Amazonian items procured through Cultural Survival.
The Body Shop, the British-based cosmetics company, is researching a new line of rain forest products. One of the world's largest supermarket chains, Loblaw Companies, is considering adding rain forest goods to its $21 million, ``ecologically friendly'' Green Line.
In the meantime, Clay is scrambling to bring back 1,200 tons of nuts - $3.5 million worth - in 1990. Cultural Survival takes the 10 to 15 percent profit generated from each pound sold and plows it back into projects in Brazil.
Though the operation sounds like an ideal mix of shrewd entrepreneurship and concern for both ecology and indigenous peoples, it faces formidable obstacles. While the venture is targeted only to Indian groups that invite it, some observers worry that some hitherto isolated peoples will be overwhelmed by the introduction of a market economy.
Another concern is that opening markets hastily in areas with no extractive tradition could lead to a boom crop one year, a bust crop the next. The consequences for the forest people's way of life would be disastrous.
Other experts say large-scale businessmen might start their own plantations. Their lower operating costs would allow them to sell at lower prices, thus stealing the market from the very people Clay is trying to help.
Companies on the receiving end of these ventures may have to deal with inconsistent levels of supply and quality. Yet the entrepreneurs seem blas'e about these sticking points.
``All the rules of commerciality are reversed in this situation,'' says Gordon Roddick, chairman of the Body Shop. ``You can't go around creating a rampant demand that you can't fulfill. The object isn't ultimately to benefit the American, it's to benefit the rain forest.''
There are few programs that address forest dwellers within the context of forest conservation, says Susanna Hecht, a specialist in Amazonian natural resource development at the University of California at Los Angeles. ``The rain forest marketing project is a gamble,'' she says. ``But not to gamble is to be defeated.''