Açaí fashion around the world enables farmers in the Amazon to live better

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In Brazil, cattle ranchers, timber merchants and land grabbers are slaughtering the Amazon jungle faster than ever. “They cut, cut, cut,” complains a local farmer, Nelson Galvão, and in his opinion, this explains the worst drought in a century that hit the Amazon this year, and the flash floods that have regular.

Mr. Galvão works hard for a living without destroying the forest; he grows acai palms, which yield a tangy berry native to his local rainforest that has become a globally coveted superfood among health conscious people.

Why we wrote this

Can farmers and the Amazon coexist? The acai palm, a fruit prized around the world, shows how this can be done.

He’s on a good thing. Brazilian acai exports are surging by 50% per year, and the global fruit market is worth around $ 720 million.

But deforestation, and the resulting climate change, threatens this business; experts say the rainforest is in danger of turning into a savannah, and that would be the end of açaí.

“All of this worries me, of course,” says another local farmer. “But we are doing our part. We are planting trees.

Autazes, Brazil

Squinting in the late afternoon sun, Nelson Galvão leans against the trunk of an imposing acai palm tree. About 20 feet above its head, nestled in the crown of the palm tree, clusters of dark purple berries hang over the slender branches of the tree.

“Açaí has ​​been good for us,” says Mr. Galvão. “If you know how to take care of it, it brings in good income. It is the survival of our family.

Over the past two decades, Mr. Galvão has cultivated açaí, a tangy berry native to the Amazon rainforest that has become a global health food sensation and a company worth nearly $ 1 billion a year. About 2,000 acai palms grow on his land here, some 70 miles from the Amazon capital of Manaus, producing enough pulp with each harvest to earn him around $ 2,150, the equivalent of minimum wage.

Why we wrote this

Can farmers and the Amazon coexist? The acai palm, a fruit prized around the world, shows how this can be done.

Mr. Galvão works hard for a living without destroying the forest. Instead of knocking down trees, he restores the land by planting bananas, pineapples and cupuaçu – a close relative of cocoa – in the interstices between his palms.

Luis Carlos Gomes, an açaí grower, holds a handful of berries from his plantation in Autazes, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Mr. Gomes has been cultivating the Amazon fruit for over a decade and says demand has exploded as acai has grown in popularity around the world.

“Growing up, I saw my parents clearing large plots of land, clearing everything,” says Mr. Galvão. “Now I know that if we destroy without restoring, this will all come to an end. “

Many of Mr. Galvão’s neighbors, however, have chosen a different path. The canopy of the emerald jungle here is quickly giving way to cattle pastures, as in much of the Brazilian Amazon, and Mr. Galvão is feeling the impact.

Acai palms typically thrive in this sunny corner of the Amazon, where floodplains swell during the rainy season to form a maze of soil and water. This year, however, its trees have yielded less as Brazil has been hit by its worst drought in nearly a century. Then this part of the Amazon was hit by devastating flash floods.

“We see these weather disasters and we really care. We are wondering about the future harvests, ”he says. “But the cattle ranchers – they’re not worried. They cut, cut, cut. They deforest everything. And we, the small producers, are the ones who end up paying the price.

A “miracle berry” is spreading

Mr. Galvão is not the only one worried about the future. The Brazilian Amazon is being razed and burned at a dizzying rate, with deforestation reaching its highest level in 15 years, despite government promises to curb destruction. Scientists warn the rainforest is near a tipping point when it transforms into a savannah, with serious consequences for the climate. And açaí – along with other native species – could disappear from parts of the Amazon by 2050, the researchers warn.

Luis Carlos Gomes climbs an acai palm tree in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Mr. Gomes had first hand experience of the acai boom. As he grew, the fruit had been a lunch staple rather than a business opportunity. Today, 12 years later, the demand for the bay has grown exponentially.

“Some areas where Acai palms grow today will not be suitable in a future climate scenario,” says Pedro Eisenlohr, professor at Mato Grosso State University and co-author of a recent study on predicting change climate in the Amazon.

“This poses a huge problem for families” living in such vulnerable areas, says Professor Eisenlohr, “because they rely on açaí for their survival. And it may not be there in the future due to climate change. . “

Full of fiber, acai was a staple in the Amazon long before it became a globally coveted superfood. For generations, indigenous and traditional peoples have harvested and eaten the berries that grow on indigenous palm trees near rivers on the edge of the jungle.

The popularity of this “wonderful bay” spread to gyms and surf huts across Brazil in the 1990s. In a short time, açaí also made a name for itself abroad and has quickly built up a loyal following, making its way into smoothies and protein bars in cities like Los Angeles, London and Tokyo. Exports have grown more than a hundred times over the past 10 years.

And growth has shown no signs of slowing down. Last year, exports jumped 50% from the previous year, and overall, the The açaí market is now worth around $ 720 million a year, says Renata Guerreiro, project coordinator at the Terroá Institute, a nonprofit focused on sustainable development in the Amazon.

“It’s a real force in the Amazon bioeconomy,” says Guerreiro, whose organization is leading an initiative promoting the sustainable production of açaí. “And he has enormous potential.”

Marc Vasconcellos / The Enterprise / USA Today Network / Reuters

Felicia Soares prepares a bowl of açaí at Press It Juicery in North Easton, Massachusetts on October 5, 2021.

The surge in demand for nutrient-rich berries has been good news in the Amazon, promising a path to prosperity for small producers. Although some have sounded the alarm about the unbridled growth, fearing that growers will raze virgin forest to make room for more açaí, the berry has proven to be a sustainable source of income for most growers, often cultivated in the forest.

A rare light point

Luis Carlos Gomes experienced the acai boom firsthand. When growing up, the fruit was a lunch staple rather than a business opportunity. When he started planting the berry 12 years ago, he was one of the few Autazes growers to rejoice in its potential. But soon that changed.

“Before, there was no market for açaí,” says Gomes. “People only picked it for their families to eat. But all of a sudden our açaí began to sell and sell. And other people were also excited about the idea of ​​planting it.

Mr. Gomes, one of the biggest producers in the Autazes region, is also making big plans for the future. He hopes to create an association of acai producers and wants to plant more acai on his 14 hectare land, growing from 8,000 palms to around 10,000.

“There, in other countries, acai has become well known and very popular with people,” he says proudly. “We hope that the demand will only increase.”

Today, some 120,000 families make a living from acai production across Brazil, growing around 1.6 million tonnes of fruit per year, says Guerreiro. Further benefits could be obtained if Brazilian companies processed more fruit locally.

The industry has come under criticism over allegations of the use of child labor, but as the destruction of the Amazon progresses, Acai has become a rare bright spot in the fight to save rainforest. Projects promoting the sustainable cultivation of the bay aim to make the preservation of the forest more lucrative than its shaving. In already deforested areas, planting more açaí also helps restore degraded forests while providing income for local people.

“Açaí is really important for generating sustainable income in the Amazon,” says Guerreiro. “And that’s also a key to preservation, as long as it’s grown in a way that minimizes the impact … and its expansion is sustainable.”

Now that climate change threatens the acai palms, conservationists fear that some producers, unable to make a living from the standing forest, will move to raze it, turning the land into pasture.

Mr. Gomes is also worried about what climate change might mean for his acai trees. Yet for now, he says the future is bright.

“Droughts, floods – all of that worries me, of course,” he says, stabilizing a ladder as his son climbs a palm tree in search of the very last berries of the harvest. “But we are doing our part. We are planting trees. And we put our faith in açaí.

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