- The municipality of Feijó in Acre state is the first in Brazil to receive a certification of origin for its açaí berries, raising hopes that the economy centered around the fruit will grow in value.
- A success the world over, açaí is a multimillion-dollar product that has shown how developing an Amazonian bioeconomy can keep the rainforest standing.
- Local communities and experts say they hope that training, research and support for production will help to consolidate the production chain to benefit producers and grow the local economy.
The town of Feijó in the far west of Brazil is known as “The Land of Açaí.” The fruit is so deeply intertwined with the local culture that Feijó’s biggest cultural festival carries its name, drawing hundreds of people to honor the berries of the Euterpe precatoria palm, native to this part of the Amazon and a focal point of both the local culture and the town’s history.
Local growers call açaí pulp “purple gold,” a nod to the fruit’s nickname as the “jewel of the rainforest.” Today, they’re celebrating a victory: the açaí grown in Feijó has been officially recognized as among Brazil’s finest agricultural produce.
In September this year, the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI), a government agency, awarded the açaí grown in this region a geographical identification of origin. This GI tag is similar to how sparkling wines from only a certain region of France can be labeled Champagne, and is the first ever bestowed on Brazilian açaí. Another renowned açaí-producing region, the Bailique Archipelago at the mouth of the Amazon River, has received Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification and is in the process of applying for a GI label.
While FSC certification guarantees that the Bailique açaí berries are extracted from the forest under responsible, sustainable management practices, the GI label in Feijó recognizes the product’s characteristics based on its place of origin, which lends it its singular reputation and identity. Products with this label have unique qualities due to natural resources like the soil, vegetation, climate, and distinctive cultivation techniques.
The açaí pulp produced in Feijó, in the state of Acre, is known for its thickness and flavor. Along the BR-364 highway leading to the town, signs announcing “Açaí de Feijó” begin to multiply as the town draws closer.
The certification was the result of efforts by the Acre office of the government’s small-business support agency, SEBRAE, working with the state government, producers, farmers and local associations. The process began in 2021 with a study of local data and the organization of the economic structure between açaí producers.
“We carried out a full analysis of the territory according to INPI’s standards, put together a dossier, trained producers so they were prepared and able to submit the documents to INPI, and on September 12, the GI tag was awarded to Feijó’s açaí,” Fabry Saavedra, the technical adviser at SEBRAE’s Acre office, told Mongabay.
Açaí from Feijó is now one of the 108 Brazilian products to be recognized with a GI label from INPI — 14 of them are from the Amazon.
Receiving the label isn’t the end of the story, however, but only the beginning. From now on, the producers and other stakeholders in this market must adhere to set technical requirements to maintain product quality and consolidate their açaí not only on the national market, but overseas as well.
“We have now entered phase three, which involves training sessions, taking the product to trade shows, participating in business roundtables and competitions. In other words, we are now marketing the product,” Saavedra said.
A historical profile
One of the documents required in the application for the GI label was a dossier verifying açaí’s importance to the Feijó region. It was prepared by the cultural historian Irineida Nobre, head of the state office on intangible cultural heritage research.
The dossier explains how the fruit plays a role in the municipality’s identity — the color purple, for instance, dominates signage on public buildings, transportation services and other things. Feijó, it’s apparent, takes its role as the “land of açaí” rather seriously.
“It is a record of the community’s relationship with the activity, and that specific product,” Nobre said. “We had to visit the communities to understand why Feijó açaí was so famous. We gathered a lot of information during interviews and conversations, and found the answers to those questions.”
Nobre said açaí production in Feijó is based on the traditions of the region’s Indigenous peoples, as is the case with many other extractive activities across Acre.
“I have to acknowledge the origins,” she said. “Our traditions come from the original populations here. Açaí’s presence is so strong in the city that taxi lanes, for example, are painted in purple, and purple paint here is also the most expensive.”
Nobre said the next step will be to officially recognize the Açaí Festival, held annually in Feijó since 1999, as part of Acre state’s intangible cultural heritage. Over the years, the festival has gained in popularity and is now one of the most visited traditional festivals in the region.
This year the festival ran from Aug. 18-20 and drew in 53,000 people, according to organizers. Local entrepreneurs exhibited their products, bringing in revenue for the local economy.
“The festival is so well-established that we can say the Açaí Festival should be the first one in Acre to be registered as state intangible cultural heritage,” Nobre said. “It has been held for 23 years now with no interruptions — not even during the pandemic — and each event was well-documented, so we have a great deal of historical material to put this project together.”
Feijó wasn’t always Brazil’s açaí capital. Until the late 1990s, the main açaí-harvesting region of Acre was the Juruá Valley, straddling the municipalities of Cruzeiro do Sul, Mâncio Lima, Rodrigues Alves, Porto Walter and Rodrigues Alves. It was only in 2002 that Feijó began producing more of the fruit.
In 2022, Amazonian açaí production grew by 8.8% to 247,000 metric tons, according to data from IBGE, the Brazilian government’s statistics agency. That year’s harvest was valued at 830.1 million reais ($169.4 million) — up 7.7% [over the previous year].
Two years ago, stakeholders throughout the Feijó açaí production chain organized themselves into AçaíCoop Feijó, a cooperative of some 60 producers, harvesters and processors. The association played a major role in the GI labeling success.
Co-op president José Jevanis de Lima Nascimento told Mongabay that the association is in an adjustment phase and still has no physical headquarters. The current focus is to organize the system to reach new markets, find investors, and establish real control over production, he said.
“We are still in the conversation phase, but we have received invitations to export, to send packaged açaí pulp to China, for example, but we need incentives from the private sector and public agencies as well,” Nascimento said. “We are expecting the largest harvest in 10 years in 2024 and we need to organize ourselves to be ready.”
The açaí palm is native to the region, and harvesting of the berries is still done manually. Climbing the palm tree with a sharp knife in hand, the best harvesters can pick three to five bunches of berries per climb.
The bunches are then placed on a tarp to keep them from touching the ground. Nascimento said there are two harvests a year in Feijó, with most of the berries during the February-March season.
“One harvest is collected along the banks of the Envira and Jurupari rivers. The other is on high land, along the highway,” he said. “This second harvest runs from June until the start of October. The two harvests complement one another. This is why Feijó is special, because we have these two different harvests.”
Daniel Papa, a forestry engineer and coordinator of the TED Acre Bioeconomy Project, which analyzes important production chains in family farming, said the açaí groves in the Feijó region are mostly native forest, but this is changing.
“Recently — I’d say over the last decade, as the fruit became more valuable on the national and international market — the gatherers began planting seedlings from the forest close to their homes, in their backyards. We call this process domestication. And this is the future of açaí: it will continue to be gathered in the forest, but more and more, people will plant it to be able to have more production that is closer to home,” Papa said.
Today, Embrapa, the agriculture ministry’s research arm, is helping producers with this domestication process through a study focused on planting methods: how far apart to space the plants, how to prepare seedlings, what sort of fertilizer to use, and how to prevent pests and disease. The results of the study are expected to come out in 2024.
The açaí palm that’s native to this region, Euterpe precatoria, is a distinct species from the more common and better-known Euterpe oleracea, which produces bigger berries. But cultivation of the former, known as açaí-solteiro, must be encouraged, according to Papa, because it’s “better-adapted to Acre’s soil and climate. We need to encourage people to plant this species, even if they have to wait eight years.”
He added agroforestry practices can help with cultivation. One method is to plant E. precatoria together with banana and with other fruit trees with shorter growth cycles. That way, farmers have an ongoing source of revenue from these other crops while they wait for the açaí to begin bearing fruit.
Recognition and conservation
Nascimento, the co-op president, said receiving the GI label was the crowning jewel after years of work on the part of producers and other stakeholders in Acre. In recent years, communities whose livelihoods center around açaí production have received training to boost their output.
“The main objective is to add value. We have to invest in structure and training. We now have printed technical guides and are creating standards for producers, gatherers and processors so they can follow guidelines and stick to the GI standard,” Nascimento said. “We have the best açaí in the region, we have a very high-quality product, and we also have to adhere to the same standards when we train our people. The GI label is the payback for all the work we’ve been doing.”
Nascimento said another important factor is the effect the certification will have on environmental issues in the city. Feijó ranks high among the municipalities for rates of deforestation and wildfires, and the açaí sector could help change this scenario.
Nascimento summarized their main concern as “cattle will eat all the açaí” — a reference to how clearing of land for cattle pasture has driven deforestation in other parts of the Amazon. “Because deforesters destroy part of the forest where a large part of our product is found. This is why we fight to protect the forest,” he said.
Julia Gomes has been working with açaí for ten years. She owns land with native forest and also runs a processing facility for the fruit. Her flagship product is açaí wine, but she also makes other derivatives like liquor and coconut candy. She said the GI label should give Feijó’s açaí a higher profile and open up new business opportunities.
“I think we’ll be able to reach new markets, which will increase demand and add value to the product. But first, we need a structured headquarters so the product can only be sold by those who are legally authorized to sell it,” she said.
Adevilson Paiva da Silva has been producing açaí for about 15 years and lives on the lower branch of the Envira River, with about 300 hectares (740 acres) of land. “First, you need to have a big boat to transport the açaí. Because if you don’t, you have to pay someone to do it, and then you’re already at a loss. Second, you have to have product to sell. With a good harvest, a guy can make a good profit,” he said.
Structuring the production scheme
Judson Valentin from the Acre Center for Agroforestry Research told Mongabay that the GI label is a huge achievement, as was the label for the cassava flour. But he also pointed out the need to organize the market so that the development benefits local producers and Feijó’s economy.
“This is an example of how important a vector social-biodiversity chain — the bioeconomy — can be. There are thousands of [forest harvesters] in Acre who earn part of their income from açaí,” he said.
But Valentin said it’s also important to remain attentive to the challenges — especially of not letting profits go to large business owners instead of the people who work in the forest.
“Ideally, we should have programs, both in tech innovation and public policy, that manage to support these populations so they can add value to the product through biodiversity, the bioeconomy — an inclusive bioeconomy that includes the people in the market — and so they can increase their incomes and have the opportunity to improve their quality of life through the sustainable use of natural resources,” he said.
Márcio Bayma, an analyst and economist at Embrapa, the agricultural research institute, said the GI label is a quality seal must be taken advantage of to reach specific markets.
“In my view it is essential that, at this stage, the producers linked to the GI are engaged to strengthen their associations and cooperatives, because this is the only way they will achieve higher levels of community and economic development. They need credit to build an agroindustry so they can have access to markets. They will need to add value to their product and be the main actors in this arrangement,” he said.
Bayma added that for this sort of model to work, there needs to be a continual flow of use and means for giving back. “The forest offers its products and the harvesters benefit from them. At the same time, they take care of the forest.”
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