Small-Scale Açaí Forest Management in the Eastern Amazon: Is It Sustainable?

Traditional growers scale the açaí palms to harvest by hand

Traditional growers scale açaí palms to harvest by hand.
Photo: Leonora Pepper

Introduction

Leonora Pepper, former CIBS intern and current graduate student at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has just returned from conducting field work among small communities in the estuary of the mighty Amazon River near Belém, Pará.  She studied, along with a team of Brazilian colleagues and researchers from Belém, how members of  local riverine communities are finding creative patterns of managing the açaí palm.

As the world confronts climate change, environmental degradation, and marginalization of traditional populations, what Leonora is studying is both exciting and on the cutting edge of current development thinking.  Her field work indicates that it may be possible to sustainably manage forests, providing a good living to local populations and first-rate natural products for domestic and international markets, while also minimizing damage to the rain forest  itself.

We, at CIBS, are very proud of Leonora’s contributions to our understanding of what is now happening in Amazonia and what creative and responsible Brazilians, from the local communities to the universities, presently propose. We are grateful to our Brazilian friends in Belém who have helped her and us, for over twenty years, deepen our knowledge of the Amazon.  Leonora offers the following report and photographs following her recent return from Pará:

AÇAÍ IN THE AMAZON ESTUARY

Leonora Pepper

Açaí is a wonder crop, and not just because of its antioxidants. In the US the “açaí berry” (in fact it’s a drupe, not a berry) has been marketed as a super food from the depths of the Amazonian jungle. It is indeed nutritious enough to make it a longstanding dietary staple for the population of the eastern Amazon. But its real wonder lies in the way its cultivation has shaped the economic, social and ecological landscapes on a regional scale.

The açaí palm is just one of the many native plant species grown in the floodplain forests of the Amazon estuary. Traditional açaí cultivation is organic by definition. This abundant, calorie-rich crop is valued highly enough to provide the chief source of income to the rural population on a regional scale[1]. These facts together offer powerful motivation to farmers and other stakeholders to keep large areas of forest standing. Given the specters of deforestation, global warming and climate change, this is a wonderful thing.

THE CHANGING MARKET

Today, traditional açaí producers face growing competition as production expands to upland areas and beyond the

Riverside houses and a supply outpost in front of an açaí grove. Photo: Leonora Pepper

Riverside houses and a supply outpost in front of an açaí grove.
Photo: Leonora Pepper

region. Demand for açaí continues to increase, as does the number of processing plants in Pará state where the lion’s share of açaí is grown. Large landowners in upland areas can produce a bigger crop and are more geographically accessible to local açaí factories. With these economies of scale, many buyers don’t mind that quality doesn’t match that of the traditionally grown island açaí.

MY WORK

There is a longstanding saying in Pará state, “Quem veio no Pará parou; tomou açaí, ficou” (loosely translated, those who come to Pará state and taste açaí never leave). I’m not convinced there isn’t some truth to it—at least to the idea that açaí can get under your skin and keep you coming back. I studied abroad in Belém, Pará’s capital, in 2008 and since then have been finding reasons to return. I had a chance to put down deeper roots in 2015 with a Fulbright research grant. I had the great honor to work with Dr. Lívia Navegantes of the Federal University of Pará and with João Meirelles and Manoel Potiguar at Peabiru Institute. Under their auspices, I spent nine months studying traditional açaí production and how it fits within the now-global açaí market.

CERTIFICATION

The harvest, ready for transport

The açaí harvest, ready for transport.
Photo: Leonora Pepper

One focus of my research was to look at certification as a tool for setting apart small-scale, island-grown açaí from any old açaí. Fair trade and organic certification could allow small-scale producers to reach buyers willing to pay a premium for higher quality açaí grown using socially and environmentally sound forest management practices.

Early on in my research, the president of a local cooperative mentioned that certification is a knowledge gap the cooperative wants to fill as it looks to break into the export market. Responding to this conversation, I began investigating options for certification that would be appropriate for traditional agroextractive açaí production. In Brazil, many certification programs are geared toward more conventional, large-scale agricultural production, but alternatives are emerging.

Certification is a relatively unexplored option for river farmers as of yet. It may be one of the best tools with which to confront changes in the growing market and, ultimately, to stay in the race.

The Amazon estuary (google maps)

The Amazon Estuary. Source: Google Maps

 

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS:

Divergence

Will traditional production diverge from the emerging big ag trend, or will small-scale producers continue to compete on the same fronts as scaled-up agribusinesses?

Specialization

As the popularity of açaí persists and grows, importers should, in time, realize that not all açaí is of equal quality. Will we see an emergence of specialty açaí products, as we’ve seen with coffee and chocolate? Will we have the option of choosing single-origin, certified fair trade, specialty varietal, wildlife friendly, direct-from-the-farmer’s-cooperative açaí products from our market shelves?

Continuity

Will açaí cultivation continue to represent an ecologically sound production model for floodplain farmers of the Amazon estuary? Will it endure as an economically viable occupation for a large part of the rural population? Can we hope, for the sake of rural development and the forested landscape of the eastern Amazon, that the boom will continue without the bust?

 

River boat near Curralinho, Marajó Island

River boat near Curralinho, Marajó Island, Pará, Brazil
Photo: Leonora Pepper

 


[1] Brondizio, Eduardo S. 2008. The Amazonian Caboclo and the Açaí Palm: Forest Farmers in the Global Market. Edited by Charles M. Peters. Bronx, New York: The New York Botanical Garden Press.

 

 

 

 

 
 

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