This Tiny Berry Could Help Save the Amazon
In 2014, açaí production in the Amazon was worth more than $125 million, with the fruit being sold locally and sent to Rio de Janeiro. It’s part of a drive to promote non-timber products and reduce deforestation of the rainforest.
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the açaí (ah-sigh-ee) berry is an exotic superfruit filled with age-defying antioxidants and disease-preventing pigments. Championed by celebrities and health food stores, it's available in sachets, smoothies, capsules, and pills for up to £30 a jar. It was also one of the ingredients in Starbucks' secret "Pink Drink," a craze that swept Instagram earlier this month.
But as demand for the blueberry-like fruit continues to rise, for those in the Amazon, where açaí grows, it's still a key part of their diet and an important local product.
"It's definitely essential," says Romulo Morreira Lopes, 36, an açaí farmer in the Brazilian state of Amazonas.
He manages a small açaí plantation of 1,600 trees in the rural community of Pau Rosa, around 20 miles outside of Manaus.
Almost all of the açaí grown here is consumed in the city or by locals, while most of the açaí that is exported comes from Lopes' nearby home state of Pará.
Lopes is stunned at the number of açaí products now available and says it remains a typical food for many locals. Experts say there are some areas deep inside the Amazon where açaí is still considered a staple food because of its high nutritional value.
"It has two functions: it feeds and it nourishes," Lopes says.
Native to the Amazon region, the açaí fruit is a hard, deep purple berry that grows on tendril-like branches in clusters at the top of 25-metre palm trees.
Because the trees are so high and there are no branches, açaí pickers have to shimmy up the slender trunks to break off the bunches and harvest the fruit.
The secret then, says Lopes, is to soak them in lukewarm water.
"Then they soften and you can work with them," he explains. "We mix it with a bit of sugar or without, and add tapioca flour."
The pulp is blended and eaten as a thick slush, which is neither sweet nor savoury, but fruity with a chalky, dark chocolate overtone.
"Some make 40 litres a bag but I make 18 litres," says Lopes. "My açaí is thick."
In Rio and elsewhere in Brazil, açaí is served frozen as a kind of sorbet and mixed with syrup of guarana (a caffeine-laden fruit also from the Amazon) along with any number of ice cream parlour toppings. Popular with surfers and Rio's body conscious, it is sold on the famous Ipanema beach or available from the city's many juice bars.
But the concentrated pulp of açaí has also been used for jams, liquors, juices, and even cosmetics.
As well as the berry, it is also possible to eat the palm heart of the açaí tree. And its health benefits stack up. Açaí has high levels of pigments known as anthocyanins that act as antioxidants and help blood circulation. Traditionally seen as a source of iron, it also has energy-boosting qualities and is full of fibre, vitamin E, and potassium.
In two harvests a year, the farm where Lopes works will yield up to 250 bags of açaí, normally gathered by just a couple of workers who receive R$15 (around £3 or US$4.40) a bag.
It is a source of income important not only to the local economy but to the fragile environment as well. Of the four species of açaí found in the Amazon, two are commercially exploited and in 2014, açaí production was worth more than R$422 million (£84.5 million, US$125 million). More than half came from Pará with R$102,800 from Amazonas.
It has followed a drive to promote non-timber products from the Amazon to help reduce deforestation and a reliance on wood exports.
"It is a fruit of great economic potential," says Afonso Rabelo, forest engineer. "In the eastern Amazon, açaí features as the most promising species for sustainable management of non-timber forest products."
He says around 60 percent of the açaí produced in Pará was consumed regionally while 15 percent was exported to Europe and the US.
"The two species together are largely responsible for the creation of employment and income for the populations in rural and urban areas of small towns in the Amazon," Rabelo adds.
There are plans to increase açaí production in Pará as part of the Pro-Açaí Programme launched this year by the agricultural development secretary Hildegardo Nunes, which will expand açaí plantations by 50,000 hectares by 2020. In a press statement, Nunes said: "Demand continues to grow and local production can no longer meet the increased consumption to a satisfactory level, which has even led the price to increase."
The state government said the expansion would create up to 15,000 new jobs directly and indirectly associated with the açaí industry in the region.
Nunes continued: "The açaí chain allows rapid incorporation of income for family farmers," said Hildegardo Nunes, secretary for agricultural development. There is a clear social advancement for the communities, especially those on the riverside, where there is extraction and management of açaí due to the increased demand for the fruit."
But like so many products in the Amazon, cultivation has been hit by climate change. Lopes says a late summer had delayed the second harvest this year and the yield wasn't forecast to be so good.
"Last year was very hot, I'd never seen a summer as hot," he explains. "We went almost two months without rain. And you need as much rain as sun. It really delays production."
Lopes says no one knew what next year's summer would bring, and adds that all farmers can do is help the sun to cultivate the fruit.
"But there's also white açaí. Have you seen it?" he says. "Its juice is like pineapple juice. It's green."
Stand by for a new superfruit trend.