Acai has won the world over the last few decades. The production of this typical fruit from the Amazon region has soared, generating millions of dollars for producers and generating employment and income for many riverside families.
But all that demand is taking a toll on the Amazon, according to a new study led by Brazilian scientists.
The research pointed out that the cultivation of açaí is leading to a significant loss of biodiversity.
Symbol trees of the Amazon, such as the samaúma and jatobá, are disappearing from the landscape and giving way to fields of monoculture of the fruit.
The process is so intense that it has even earned the name of scientists in the area: it is the “açaização” of the Amazon.
“Over the last 20 years, areas of the forest where açaí was cultivated side by side with other species were completely taken over by the fruit palm trees”, says biologist from Pará Madson Freitas, lead author of the study, to BBC News Brasil.
Authorities say they have created rules to protect Amazonian biodiversity, and producers say they follow the rules and deny that they harm the forest.
But scientists say the cultivation of açaí is causing profound changes in the Amazon that could destabilize the entire ecosystem.
The açaí boom
Açaí has always been part of the diet of the population in the north of the country, where it is traditionally consumed with flour and fish.
The small dark fruit is rich in antioxidants and fiber and has a high energy value, and today it can be found in the form of frozen pulp in several cities in Brazil and also in countries such as the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
Brazil concentrates about 85% of the world production of açaí, with an average of 1.5 million tons between 2015 and 2020.
In 2020, national production was 1.7 million tons, almost 5% more than the previous year, according to the National Supply Company (Conab), linked to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply. Compared to 2015, the increase was 38%.
The state of Pará alone is responsible for 95% of this total. There are about 212 thousand hectares dedicated to the cultivation of the fruit on dry land or floodplain areas, according to Conab.
According to the Federation of Industries of the State of Pará (Fiepa), between 2011 and 2020, açaí exports in Brazil increased by almost 15,000%.
From around 40 tonnes in 2011, the country reached 5,363 tonnes in 2020, a record.
Even so, most of the fruit produced stays in the national territory: less than 1% of what was harvested in 2020 was exported.
Pará was responsible for 94% of shipments, generating around US$ 13.2 million (R$ 68.7 million). In all, the state went from a production of 756.4 thousand tons in 2010 to 1.3 million in 2019.
Cultivation threatens biodiversity, say scientists
That’s why scientists chose Pará to analyze the impact of açaí cultivation on the Amazon.
The study, published in the academic journal Biological Conservation, analyzed 47 areas in the mouth of the Amazon River in the state.
The research began in 2013 and covered areas mapped in a stretch of 376,000 km² in the eastern Amazon, where the largest açaí production and harvesting center in Brazil is located.
The region is covered by upland and estuarine forests and mangroves along the banks of the Pará, Guamá and Tocantins rivers, and lowland areas on Ilha do Marajó, near Belém.
The first sign of a problem was the absence noticed by the researchers of tree species typical of the floodplain in areas where there are açaí monocultures.
Many of these plants provide shade for other species and provide shelter for local fauna, such as birds and insects, as well as helping to recycle nutrients from the Amazon ecosystem.
Biologist Madson Freitas, a researcher at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), says that many of these species were cut down by farmers and riverside dwellers who grow açaí.
They are removed to make room for planting the açaí trees and letting the sun shine on the fruit’s feet — the shade can slow its growth.
The researchers claim that increased management to meet market demand has led to a significant change in the floodplain forest.
The study points out that, in areas where there are more than 600 açaí clumps per hectare, the functional richness has dropped by about 50%. This is a measure used in scientific circles to calculate the amount of space filled by species in a community.
In other words, this space occupied by the other species has plummeted by half since this area began to be explored for the cultivation of açaí.
There are regions identified by the research where there should, in theory, be around 70 species of plants per hectare, but in their place the scientists found practically a monoculture of the fruit, with up to 1,000 clumps per hectare.
“Large and tall trees like the samaúma, popularly known as the queen of the forest, and others like jatobá and cedar, are disappearing in this region”, says the biologist.
Freitas explains that each species has a specific function in the gears of the forest, and the absence of some can destabilize the system.
“All plants are important, both in terms of diversity and the ecosystem services provided by each one of them”, he says.
Taller plants, such as samaúma, for example, provide shade and recycle nutrients from the soil. Without them, the soil becomes more acidic.
“Açaí tolerates acidity, but other plants do not. This means that, after being cut down, these plants will hardly be able to grow again in that place”, says the researcher.
Tall trees are also shelter for the hives of typical bee species. These insects pollinate several species, including açaí.
“It is even contradictory, because, with the beehives, the açaí itself becomes more productive”, he says. “In areas where there is monoculture of açaí and almost no other species, the bunches produce 30% less fruit than in areas where there is more diversity.”
Scientists say the loss of diversity and the benefits it generates makes the entire socio-ecological system more vulnerable, “as with any local economy sustained by a monoculture of one commodity. International.”
‘Açaization’ of the Amazon
The increase in the cultivation of açaí, especially in Pará, to cope with the increase in demand in recent decades, was such that researchers and biologists have already dubbed the phenomenon of “açaização” in the Amazon.
Most of the production, especially in the floodplain regions, is in the hands of riverside dwellers and farming families.
The fruit is sold locally and shipped to the rest of Brazil and abroad in the form of pulp, from which various products are made.
Currently, there are 118 industries in Pará dedicated to the processing of açaí. Some have their own cultivation, but all still depend on the production of the riverside people to maintain their supply.
The president of the Union of Fruit and Derivatives Industries of the State of Pará (Sindfrutas), Reinaldo Mesquita, says that açaí has changed the lives of many people from Pará. Each company directly or indirectly generates employment for around 5,000 families, according to his calculations.
“In addition to employees and farmers, there are truck drivers, boatmen and porters who benefit from the partnership.”
Initially, the exploitation of açaí was exclusively extractive. However, since the 1990s, management of native açaí groves and crops in floodplains and terra firme has been implemented.
According to Freitas, this change in the form of culture changed the local ecosystem. He says that, even if there are programs to encourage the sustainable production of açaí, the rules are not always respected in the region.
“On some islands, we couldn’t see any other plant besides the açaí trees”, he says.
“In islands where there is greater inspection, such as the island of Combú, characterized as an area of environmental protection, there is greater diversity of species.”
Producers deny environmental impact
The main regulation in force, instituted in 2013 by the government of Pará, regulates the production of palm hearts and açaí by riverside dwellers, family farms and community producers.
The legislation determines that producers must adopt “training and management techniques appropriate to the sustainability of the species” and establishes the extraction of a maximum of 200 stems (as açaí stems are called) and the management of up to 400 clumps per hectare.
Producers say that all rules are respected and deny any change in the local ecosystem or the felling of species for the cultivation of açaí.
“In the past, the native plants of the region were cut down to plant palm hearts, but since the main product became açaí, this no longer happens”, says Mesquita.
The industries, which buy açaí from the riverside people and resell it outside the state, also guarantee that the cultivation is carried out in accordance with the rules.
Many claim to encourage the use of low-impact techniques to reconcile sustainable extractivism and maintenance of the communities’ family income.
Sambazon, the company responsible for 50% of Brazilian exports, told BBC News Brasil that it works to ensure that all the açaí used by the brand “is harvested in a totally wild way” and “using low-impact techniques, such as manual harvesting and without “.
The company also said that no part of the açaí it sells is grown on plantations or in a monoculture format, but is harvested in traditionally managed forests in Pará and Amapá, and that all workers involved receive training to maintain “fair and organic practices”.
Other major brands that sell açaí in Brazil and abroad, such as Frooty and Oakberry, did not respond to the contacts made by the report.
Scientists who have analyzed the environmental impact of growing the fruit recognize its importance for the maintenance of the riverside people’s income, as well as for the local culture.
But they advocate that the current regulations be revised, in order to further reduce the maximum allowed extraction. According to the article, the current legislation “is not sufficient to guarantee the persistence of diverse estuarine flora, locally or at the landscape level”.
The researchers also ask that a forest recovery program be developed with the replanting of native species, to preserve even the cultivation of açaí itself.
“This unique culture is part of the Amazonian legacy and deserves to be preserved, serving as an example of sustainable use of the rainforest”, say the authors.
The inspection of the Brazilian Amazon is a shared responsibility between the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) and the other entities of the federation: states, municipalities and the Federal District.
To the report, however, Ibama stated that, in the case of the açaí culture, inspection is entirely in the hands of the state government. The Secretary of Environment and Sustainability of Pará (Semas), in turn, stated that “it is aware of the difficulties and challenges of the forms of production in Pará, which result from several factors, among them, the technical and technological precariousness of the production chains , for example, which can directly impact the potential of biodiversity”.
In a statement, Semas also said that it coordinates strategic projects, such as the Amazônia Agora State Plan, whose mission is to reforest 5.5 million hectares by the year 2030.
“Semas also informs that it supports the Strategic Plan for the Development of Priority Production Chains in the state, among which are açaí, which aims to structure and diversify the main production chains in Pará”, states the statement sent to the report. by the Secretariat.