How Açaí Helped Save Amazonian Forests

This is Part III of New Worlder’s first series: Food & The Amazon Rainforest, which explores the relationships and possibilities surrounding food in one of the most diverse and vulnerable ecosystems on Earth.

I’ve had açaí infused into carbonated drinks in the United States and the pasteurized, frozen açaí pulp sweetened with condensed milk and tapioca at cafés in other parts of Brazil, but how it’s serve in the stalls at Belém do Pará’s Ver-O-Peso market is different. For one, it’s warm. Cylindrical machines, batedores de açaí, remove the thin outer layer of the super-fruit from the pit and turn it into a pulp, which the woman who runs the stall waters down in a large metal pot and scoops out into a hollow gourd to serve. It resembles a soupy bowl of kidney beans more than tropical fruit. It’s like tasting coffee from fresh ground beans for the first time. There’s nothing overtly sweet about it. The flavor is earthier than the versions I’ve had before. There’s a slight funk to it.

I arrived early that morning to Belém, not far from where the Amazon River meets the Atlantic Ocean. I dropped off my bag at my hotel and went straight to Ver-O-Peso, more specifically the Feira do Açaí, the section where riverboats loaded with baskets of açaí pull up to sell their harvest. The state of Pará produces 90 percent of the world’s açaí (pronounced “ah-sigh-ee”) and this market is the epicenter of the trade.

It is well before dawn and hundreds of people are rushing about. Both the deep purple and seasonal white varieties of açaí are there, filling woven 14 kilogram latas, or thatched baskets, covered with green leaves, that are being stacked or tossed directly from the boats into trucks. Fresh açaí has less than 24 hours before it spoils, so the activity is ferocious. About 70 percent of it is going to some of the hundreds of stands in the market or to vendors around Belem, while another 20 percent will be processed into pre-sweetened pulp and sent throughout Brazil. The remaining 10 percent is frozen and shipped internationally. Almost everything will be gone by the time the day breaks.

At Ver-O-Peso you see the consumption of açaí in its most basic form. While the price has been steadily increasing as global demand grows, açaí is still served as it was when it was the food of the poor, thought of more for calories than an energy boost. For lunch that same porridge like bowl gets paired with fried fish like pirarucu or dourado, while sweeter versions, favored by younger generations, might add farofa, tapioca, or sugar.

In Caboclo communities açaí can be as much as 42 percent of total food intake by weight. It’s what they survive on. Even in Belém açaí has taken on new life in the past decade as its popularity has soared. There are fancy cafés in air-conditioned malls and restaurants in posh districts all over Brazil that focus on selling the fruit into smoothies.

“My dad is like an addict for açaí,” said Thiago Castanho, the chef of Remanso do Bosque near Belém’s botanical gardens. “He needs it several times a day.”

The açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea) grows along the edges of rivers and streams of the rainforest, places that flood regularly and there is plenty of shade. It is a multi-stemmed palm with an average of four to nine stems in a single root system. It can grow as high as 100 feet. The fruit, technically a drupe like a pitted olive and not a berry, is harvested during the dry season between July and December. The existence of these trees equates to a healthy forest. They need organic material from other trees and the tides to fertilize them, so açaí tends to be found in places of high biodiversity. As the value of acai increases more palms are planted. They are replacing cattle farms, which has made a significant impact on deforestation rates in the region and is helping rebuild diverse ecosystems.

Yet, a few decades or so ago, most açaí palms were being cut down to extract the heart of the palm. The trees died and nothing was put back into the forest.

“The heart of palm industry that originated in the south of Brazil was an extractivist business,” says Georges Schnyder, who was the director of Muaná Alimentos, a now closed açaí fruit pulp company founded in 1998 as a subsidiary of a palm heart processor located on Marajó Island at the mouth of the Amazon River, not far from Belém. “The workers would go into the forest and cut the stem of the Euterpe edulis, the palm tree commonly known as Jussara. The Jussara has only one stem. When you cut it, you kill the tree. When the southern heart of palm industry began to cope with raw material shortage they moved up to Belém do Pará where a relative species to that palm tree could be found. This was the açaí palm, Euterpe oleracea.”

The difference between the palm trees was that açaí had multiple stems. Still, up until the end of the 1980s, all the stems of the açaí palm would be cut off at the same time. However, it began to be a problem when there was much less açaí around, which was an integral part of the local diet. So Muaná helped install a 3x3x3 sustainable management system where each acaí palm must have nine stems: three younger ones (1 year old), three middle aged (two years old), and three ready to harvest (3 years old). In the first year, the stem has no production. In the second year, the production of the stem is left on the tree for the birds and the forest. In the third year, the fruit is harvested and sold after the harvest of the stems for heart of palm. After they are cut the palm sprouts again and goes back into the cycle. Under this system, which was simply what locals had been doing for centuries, a single açaí can produce both the fruit and the heart of palm for more than thirty years.

“This wasn’t our discovery,” says Schnyder, now the president of Slow Food Brasil and executive editor of the magazine Prazeres da Mesa. “This was how the oldest people treated the palm trees near their houses.”

There was resistance among the ribeirinhos at first. The heart of palm industry was exchanging medicine, food, and all kind of merchandise for the processed stems. It was almost a slave labor situation, but when they began to see their income double under the new system it quickly spread to all of Marajó and eventually the rest of the Brazilian Amazon.

Some conservationists feared that the value of açaí and surging demand could have created a destructive agribusiness model where diverse forests were being cleared for a monoculture: plantations of a single species that is being pumped full of pesticides and fertilizers. It didn’t pan out.

“After some initiatives that tried to grow açaí on plantations and failed, we now know that what protects the açaí palm tree from bugs and diseases is the biodiversity and the organic material provided by the forest,” says Schnyder. “So açaí grown in the forest truly protects the forest.”

Since 2013, açai has been the most economically important forest product in the Brazilian Amazon. It is the first time that a non-timber forest product has become more valuable than timber. What makes this story particularly spectacular is that until the late 1990s açaí had yet to be exported from Brazil.

In the U.S. I see it in everything: ice cream, smoothies, soft drinks, and skin creams. Açaí bowls are now commonplace in nearly every major American city. They are served with granola, hemp or chía seeds, or the pulp is blended with bananas, mangoes, or green algae. Victoria Beckham loves it. It’s in Veev, a 70-proof açaí-infused wheat-based vodka alternative that’s carbon neutral. The frozen pulp is at Whole Foods and in specialty Brazilian shops in Queens, New York.

Some brands with little investment in Brazil overstate the properties of açaí as a cure for any ailment. “Lose weight with açaí!” “Açaí can cure Alzheimer’s disease!” “Açaí stops aging!” There are click-bait links to açaí miracle weight-loss pills, sometimes claiming to be approved by Dr. Oz and Oprah, appearing on Facebook with scientific claims that haven’t been proven or have been debunked, leading to some backlash against the fruit. What is true is that açaí fruit is 90 percent seed and 10 percent edible skin and in that skin there are 16 types of antioxidant compounds, all of the essential amino acids, and a protein profile similar to an egg. It won’t burn your body fat or cure your cancer, but some açaí in your diet is probably a good thing.

As the fruit has moved from the rural poor to the urban rich, prices have increased and there have been fears that those that counted on it for nutrition would be eating less of it, but that hasn’t really happened. Over the past two decades, açai prices have increased from R$3 per kilo to R$6 per kilo, though high inflation in Brazil during this period has meant an increase of nearly everything. The açaí boom has created better lives for many farmers in the state of Pará. In wooden stilt houses there are now flat screen TVs. The ribeirinhos aren’t wealthy by Western standards, but their lives have undoubtedly improved.

“Locals in the forest, the poorest of the poor, are the ones who have benefited tremendously from the surge in açai, and their health development index (HDI), household income, and economic freedom and livelihoods have all increased,” says Ryan Black, the founder and CEO of the California-based açaí brand Sambazon. “You will hear no complaints from these people and, to the contrary, praises.”

Most berries are still harvested traditionally – by scaling wild palms with feet protected by a strap called a peconha, made from bark strips or leaves – but some ribeirinhos can now hire others to do it for them. While many subsistence farmers would need to lug their crop to the market in the past, now buyers come direct to them.

In 1999, Black, who first discovered açaí when he went to Brazil as a surfer, borrowed money from his stepfather and bought a container of pulp, selling it from juice bar to juice bar. He started with nine fruits, but his marketing budget was limited so he concentrated his focus on the one product with most potential. From the beginning, Sambazon only worked directly with locals. They were Fair Trade, organic, vegan and non-GMO from Day 1. They began with a pilot program of 30 farmers and their families and a local NGO. They developed a sustainable agroforesty plan and began operations. Fifteen years later these 30 families now number more than 2,500, and with each family there’s an average of 8-10 people, amounting to an estimated 20 to 25 thousand people that cover an area of two million acres of the Brazilian Amazon.

While the açaí industry has had an overwhelmingly positive affect on the region, there are still ways it can improve. As many açaí brands lack any form of certification, particularly in Brazil, there’s no telling as to how the fruit is being harvested and if the ribeirinhos are being paid a fair price.

“It has been and remains a tremendous amount of work to have traceability and a chain of custody for a wild-harvested fruit,” says Black. “Without this chain of custody, there is no chance for fair trade and really organic certification.”

Black says he used to dream in the beginning that all açai should be Sambazon açai. “What I really meant,” he says, “was that all açai should be harvested sustainably in a fair trade and organic agroforestry program so that every unit of product that is bought and sold is creating a positive chain reaction not only for the health that the product gives the end consumer, but the social and environmental benefit the product gives to the forest and to the people who are involved in the cultivation.”