Brazilian ‘wonder berry’ offers farmers and the Amazon a future

Ana Ionova
Nelson Galvão leans against the trunk of a towering açaí palm in a region of the Brazilian Amazon dominated by cattle ranching. As deforestation inches closer, he worries about its future climate impacts.
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In Brazil, cattle ranchers, timber merchants and land grabbers are felling the Amazon jungle faster than ever before. “They cut, cut, cut,” complains a local farmer, Nelson Galvão, and in his view, that’s what accounts for the worst drought in a century that hit the Amazon this year, and the flash floods that followed.

Mr. Galvão is working hard to make a living without destroying the forest; he cultivates açaí palms, which yield a tart berry native to his local rainforest that has become a globally coveted superfood among the health-conscious.

Why We Wrote This

Can farmers and the Amazon coexist? The açaí palm, bearing a fruit prized worldwide, shows how it can be done.

He is onto a good thing. Brazilian açaí exports are leaping by 50% a year, and the world market for the fruit is worth about $720 million.

But deforestation, and the resulting climate change, is threatening that business; experts say the rainforest runs the risk of turning into a savanna, and that would be the end of açaí.

“It all worries me, of course,” says another local farmer. “But we are doing our part. We’re planting trees.”

Squinting into the late afternoon sun, Nelson Galvão leans against the trunk of a towering açaí palm. About 20 feet above his head, nestled into the crown of the palm, clusters of deep-purple berries weigh down the tree’s slender branches.

“Açaí has been good to us,” Mr. Galvão says. “If you know how to care for it right, it brings in a good income. It’s our family’s survival.”

For the last two decades, Mr. Galvão has been cultivating açaí, a tart berry native to the Amazon rainforest that has become a global health food sensation and a business worth nearly a billion dollars a year. About 2,000 açaí palms grow on his lot here, some 70 miles from the Amazon capital of Manaus, yielding enough pulp each harvest to earn him about $2,150, the equivalent of a minimum wage.

Why We Wrote This

Can farmers and the Amazon coexist? The açaí palm, bearing a fruit prized worldwide, shows how it can be done.

Mr. Galvão is working hard to make a living without destroying the forest. Instead of toppling trees, he restores the land by planting banana, pineapple, and cupuaçu – a close relative of cacao – in the gaps between his palms.

Ana Ionova
Luis Carlos Gomes, an açaí grower, holds a handful of the berries from his plantation in Autazes, in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Mr. Gomes has been cultivating the Amazon fruit for more than a decade, and says demand has exploded as açaí has won global popularity.

“Growing up, I saw my parents clearing big pieces of land, clearing everything,” Mr. Galvão says. “Now I know that, if we just destroy without restoring, all this will come to an end.”

Many of Mr. Galvão’s neighbors have chosen a different path though. The emerald jungle canopy here is fast giving way to cattle pasture, as in much of the Brazilian Amazon, and Mr. Galvão is feeling the impact.

Açaí palms usually thrive in this sun-drenched corner of the Amazon, where flood plains swell during the rainy season to form a maze of land and water. This year, though, his trees yielded less as Brazil was hit by its worst drought in almost a century. Then this part of the Amazon was struck by devastating flash floods.

“We see these weather disasters and we really worry. We wonder about future harvests,” he says. “But the cattle ranchers – they are not worried. They cut, cut, cut. They deforest everything. And we, the small growers, are the ones who end up paying the price.”  

A “wonder berry” spreads

Mr. Galvão is not alone in his concerns for the future. The Brazilian Amazon is being razed and burned at a dizzying pace, with deforestation hitting its highest level in 15 years, despite government vows to curb the destruction. Scientists warn the rainforest is nearing a tipping point when it will turn into a savanna, with grave consequences for the climate. And açaí – along with other native species – could disappear from swaths of the Amazon by 2050, researchers warn.

Ana Ionova
Luis Carlos Gomes climbs an açaí palm in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Mr. Gomes experienced the açaí boom firsthand. As he was growing up, the fruit had been a lunch staple rather than a business opportunity. Now, 12 years later, demand for the berry has grown exponentially.

“Some areas where açaí palms grow today will no longer be suitable in a future climate scenario,” says Pedro Eisenlohr, professor at the State University of Mato Grosso and co-author of a recent study forecasting climate change in the Amazon.

“This poses a huge problem for the families” living in such vulnerable areas, Professor Eisenlohr says, “because they are counting on açaí for their survival. And it might not be there in the future because of climate change.”

Full of fiber, açaí was a staple food in the Amazon long before it turned into a globally coveted superfood. For generations, Indigenous and traditional people harvested and ate the berries that grow on native palms near rivers at the edge of the jungle.

The popularity of this “wonder berry” spread to gyms and surf shacks across Brazil in the 1990s. Before long, açaí made a name for itself abroad too and quickly amassed a loyal following, making its way into smoothies and protein bars in cities like Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo. Exports have grown more than a hundredfold in the past 10 years.

And the growth has shown no signs of slowing. Last year, exports jumped by 50% from the year before, and globally, the açaí market is now worth about $720 million annually, says Renata Guerreiro, project coordinator at the Terroá Institute, a nonprofit focused on sustainable development in the Amazon.

“It is a real force within the Amazon’s bio-economy,” says Ms. Guerreiro, whose organization runs an initiative promoting sustainable production of açaí. “And it carries enormous potential.”

Marc Vasconcellos/The Enterprise/USA Today Network/Reuters
Felicia Soares makes an açaí bowl at Press It Juicery in North Easton, Massachusetts, on Oct. 5, 2021.

The surge in demand for the nutrient-packed berry has been welcome news in the Amazon, promising a path to prosperity for small-scale growers. Although some have sounded the alarm over the unbridled growth, fearing growers may raze virgin forest to make space for more açaí, the berry has proved a sustainable source of income for most growers, often cultivated within the forest.

A rare bright spot

Luis Carlos Gomes experienced the açaí boom firsthand. When he was growing up, the fruit was a lunch staple rather than a business opportunity. When he started planting the berry 12 years ago, he was one of few growers in Autazes excited about its potential. But soon that changed.

“Before, there was no market for açaí,” Mr. Gomes says. “People only picked it for their families to eat. But, all of a sudden, our açaí started selling and selling. And other people got excited about planting it too.”

Mr. Gomes, one of the largest producers in the Autazes region, is making big plans for the future too. He hopes to start an açaí producers’ association, and he wants to plant more açaí on his 14-hectare lot, expanding from 8,000 palms to about 10,000.

“Out there in other countries, açaí has become well known and much loved by people,” he says proudly. “We hope the demand will only grow.”

Today, some 120,000 families live from açaí production across Brazil, cultivating about 1.6 million metric tons of fruit per year, Ms. Guerreiro says. Further benefits could be gained if Brazilian companies processed more of the fruit locally.

The industry has come in for criticism due to allegations about the use of child labor, but as the destruction of the Amazon advances, açaí has emerged as a rare bright spot in the fight to save the rainforest. Projects promoting the sustainable cultivation of the berry aim to make preserving the forest more lucrative than razing it. In already deforested areas, planting more açaí is also helping restore degraded forests while providing local people with an income.

“Açaí is really important for the generation of sustainable income in the Amazon,” Ms. Guerreiro says. “And it’s also a key to preservation, as long as it is grown in a way that minimizes impact ... and its expansion is done in a sustainable way.”

Now that climate change is threatening the açaí palms, environmentalists worry that some growers, unable to make a living from the forest standing, will move to raze it, turning the land into pasture.

Mr. Gomes also worries about what climate change might mean for his açaí trees. Still, for now, he says the future is bright.

“The droughts, the floods – it all worries me, of course,” he says, steadying a ladder as his son climbs up a palm in search of the very last berries of the harvest. “But we are doing our part. We are planting trees. And we’re putting our faith in açaí.”

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