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At the mouth of the Amazon, sustainable açaí leaves a sweet taste for communities

  • Residents of the Bailique Archipelago, which lies at the mouth of the Amazon River, established a community protocol to promote their traditional açaí cultivation and strengthen their cultural identity.
  • In 2016, the açaí collected by Amazonbai, the local cooperative composed of more than 2,000 people, became the world’s first and only açaí production chain to gain Forest Stewardship Council certification.
  • A key challenge to this sustainable livelihood is the increasing saltwater intrusion into the islands’ water sources, the result of both climatic factors and human interference in the regional landscape.

Inside a forest of many greens, the trees touch one another, loaded with a dense freshness. Josilene Ferreira Lopes is threshing bunches of açaí berries over a tarp spread on the ground to the sound of the saracura bird (Aramides saracura), which means it’s high tide, a time of day that locals call the lançante. The faces of her family members, gathered for another day of harvest, are lit up by the atmosphere still hot from the sun.

“I have three daughters, and two of my sons-in-law pick açaí here,” says Josilene’s husband, Manoel Miracy dos Santos Filho, better known as Miro. “I do too, and I have a son who’s picking really well. So we all work together. We raise different plants here to keep the forest healthy and diverse and at the same time, we raise the açaí seedlings. We take care of the small plants and end up making nurseries on everyone’s property.”

Miro and Josilene are plant extractivists — part of a long tradition of rural peoples in Brazil whose livelihood centers around the sustainable harvest of forest products. Miro is also a community leader in Arraiol, the most organized community in the Bailique Archipelago, the clutch of islands at the mouth of the mighty Amazon River in the state of Amapá.

Some 10,000 people live in 51 communities on these islands, and they’re in the process of reclaiming their territory. The first step was a series of discussions among the communities to seek solutions to the common problems they face: Saltwater contamination of their freshwater sources; erosion caused by growing herds of domestic buffalo; construction of hydroelectric dams upstream; and the redirection of the Araguari River into the Amazon, from its previous course running parallel to the larger river and straight out to sea. These are just some of the environmental impacts they face as a result of human intervention in the region.

In 2013, farmers, fishers and plant extractivists on the islands sat down to establish a community protocol, aimed at bolstering their social and cultural identity as a tool for practicing self-management. The path they chose was to invest in the açaí production chain.

“We are talking about the victory of financial autonomy in regions that have always been exploited,” says forestry engineer Amiraldo de Lima Picanço, president of the Bailique Plant Extractivist Producers Cooperative. “[It’s] about activism and resistance to the climate and social changes underway. About food safety and awareness of the fact that work must happen from the inside out. It’s all in the community.”

A riverbank home with an açaí farm integrated with other native Amazonian plants. Image by Maurício de Paiva.

The world’s first açaí certification

The first concrete outcome of the community protocol was the creation of Amazonbai, a cooperative that brings together 36 different communities.

“At the time, four production chains were defined, including fisheries, vegetable oils and medicinal plants. The açaí chain was the most important because it generated the most income, job training, good practices, and minimum-impact management,” Picanço says.

With 128 cooperatives in a system that includes more than 2,000 people from all of Bailique’s communities, Amazonbai has been widely recognized. In 2016, its açaí industry became the first — and as of today, the only one — to earn Forest Stewardship Council certification. Today, it holds an FSC forestry management label, custodial chain label, and ecosystem services procedure label. It also holds a vegan certificate, the Amapá state seal, and is in the process of earning organic certification.

The next step — geographic identification of origin, similar to how sparkling wines from only a certain region of France can be labeled Champagne — will happen with the help of Nutex, the Center for Sustainable Territorial Development at Amapá State University (UEAP). Gabriel Araújo da Silva, a professor at UEAP and general coordinator of the university’s Inclusive Community Economies project, is working on a chemical assessment of the Bailique açaí berries and putting together the data needed to file the origin identification request with INPI, the Brazilian National Institute of Industrial Property.

The designation will certify that the product originates from a limited area and is linked with the specific geographical origin because of the qualities or characteristics it holds that are due to that origin.

Josilene Ferreira Lopes holding a bunch of açaí berries during the harvest in Arraiol, a community in the Bailique Archipelago. Image by Maurício de Paiva.

“We took 600 açaí samples from Bailique, from islands in the state of Pará and other regions in the state of Amapá,” Silva says. “We found that the chemical profile of the açaí from Bailique is different. The composition of anthocyanin changes and the phenolic content is higher” — properties that, according to Silva, give the açaí berry its high antioxidant content and its reputation as a “superfood.”

Bailique communities cultivate 2,970 hectares (7,340 acres) of certified açaí farms. Josilene and Miro’s property produces 8-10 metric tons of the fruit per year.

“This is what I do: I separate some for us to eat, and then sell the rest of the açaí from my certified plantation to the cooperative. It’s about 90% of my production,” Miro says. He adds that Amazonbai pays 25 reais ($4.90) per can, each holding about 14.5 kilograms (32 pounds) of fresh fruit, plus a 5 reais ($1) bonus at the end of the entire operation.

One of the guidelines in the community protocol centers on educating the younger generation. A group of apprentices participates in the collective family workdays during the açaí cultivation and harvest. These teens and children rotate their studies between school and community life. “We are focusing on education by donating 5% of all the co-op’s production to the family school project. We fought hard to make this happen,” Miro says.

Part of Amazonbai’s foundational structure is local development through improvement of education in rural areas. To do so, a fund was created to promote financial self-sufficiency for the family schools in the regions where the cooperative works. These are schools maintained by the families in the communities to help stem the outmigration of young people. Five percent of the açaí sales by can goes into operating these schools. The project is carried out by the Bailique Traditional Communities Association (ACTB) in partnership with Amazonbai. On the islands, the fund manager is the Bailique Plant Extractivist Family School Association (AEFAB).

Those who climb açaí palms to pick the berries are called peconheiras, like this woman in the community of Arraiol. Image by Maurício de Paiva.

The açaí market

The açaí industry globally is worth more than 720 million reais ($140 million) per year, according to Brazil’s National Supply Company. The largest producer, Brazil, accounts for more than 1.5 million metric tons of the fruit per year, and there’s been a 39% increase in Brazilian açaí production over the past six years.

It’s an industry that benefits around 150,000 families living from plant extractivism and family farmers in nearly 200 community projects throughout the Brazilian Amazon, including cooperatives and associations. Those who believe in maintaining an economy based on keeping the forest standing end up preserving the environment and creating development for traditional populations, thus revealing a path toward the future.

Amazonbai’s processing center was inaugurated in December 2021 at the port of Matapi in the Amapá state capital, Macapá. According to Picanço, the president of the plant extractivists’ co-op, “Each month, we process 36 metric tons of açaí, or 480 metric tons per year, producing a total of 20,000 liters [5,300 gallons] of pulp during the harvest season and between harvests.”

Working with Amazonbai is Mariana Chaubet, an environmental manager from the Instituto Interelos, a nonprofit that helps rural communities scale up sustainable production chains. She says the main challenge with açaí was, and continues to be, sales and access to markets with greater added value.

“We expected the management-certified açaí to have greater market value, but it didn’t really work out as we had hoped,” she says. “So in 2020 we developed studies to understand and position the cooperative’s brand on the market. And then, in 2021, Amazonbai carried out strategic planning for the next 10 years in order to direct all cooperative activities.”

Picanço says the competition is stiff. “We ended up competing with other companies, mega corporations that don’t have the same certifications that Amazonbai has. The key is to consolidate added value for our product. This has always been the greatest challenge. We need to create channels to reach retail chains and niche markets, as well as diversify production. We recently evaluated the feasibility of manufacturing freeze-dried açaí and sorbet,” he says.

Map of the Bailique Archipelago, where the white stars denote certified areas.

Açaí orchards at risk near the coast

In the Amazon, the concept of natural assets is deeply entwined with that of cultural assets. The landscape is also an asset — an inheritance resulting from the management practices of traditional populations. But with the destruction of the rainforest intensifying, and saltwater intrusion into the Amazon River increasing, the communities face major challenges.

A still-unpublished study by UEAP’s Center for Sustainable Territorial Development together with Amazonbai raises the possibility that the higher level of phenolics in Bailique’s açaí berries could be related to the salinity of the water on the islands. It found genetic variations in the samples from the islands that differ somewhat from other açaí palms (Euterpe oleracea), suggesting the Bailique trees have evolved in unique ways. Essentially, over time, the combination of human management and evolution has spawned agroforests in the Amazon.

Silva, the UEAP professor, says the issue of salinity levels in the islands is an important aspect in the quality of the berries. “The natural salinization process during the forest’s entire formation period created the forest we have today. However, the abrupt salinization that is underway right now could be damaging because the saltwater flooding has always lasted for just a week, carrying in nutrients for the soil, and then receding. Last year, the flooding lasted four months in some places. Seawater has come in as far as Vila Progresso, something we’ve never seen happen before,” he says.

Among the factors leading to this imbalance are the reduced outflow of the Araguari River and the resulting inflow of seawater into the archipelago. These phenomena are caused by a combination of climate change and human interference, including the construction of hydroelectric dams upstream on the Araguari, and buffalo ranching.

GeoSAT, a Spain-based company working with UEAP researchers, has been producing satellite images of Amapá’s entire estuary region since 1999. “We will analyze how much salt has entered Bailique in recent decades and how it has affected açaí foliage,” Silva says. “The question is, will the salinization kill our açaí or not? We need to understand whether the uncontrolled phenomenon will influence our production or not. If so, we will develop more resistant varieties. If not, we will incentivize maintenance of the current management practices used by the communities.”

According to a report from the U.N.’s Science Panel for the Amazon (SPA), the formulation of forest conservation strategies is a priority for the maintenance and restoration of the remaining 83% of undisturbed Amazon Rainforest and the biological and cultural diversity living in it. Mechanisms include enforcement both inside and outside protected areas; integrating conservation units and agroecological systems in sustainable supply chains; providing incentives for the restoration of degraded regions; engaging with local communities; and coming up with new forms of environmental and resource management.

Banner image of açaí threshing on a family farm. The fruit symbolizes the mega biodiversity of the Amazon. Image by Maurício de Paiva.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Oct. 27, 2022.

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