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Açaí: a nutrient-rich staple with export potential

Açaí fruit contain more antioxidants than pomegranates or blueberries. (Sambazon)
Açaí fruit contain more antioxidants than pomegranates or blueberries.

Until the turn of the millennium, the purple berry-like fruit of the açaí palm, an important staple for the ribeirinhos (riverine communities) of the eastern Amazon, was little known outside Brazil. Less than a decade later, business is booming for a US-based company, Sambazon, which has introduced açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) as the latest 'superfood' to be sold across the US and beyond. But rather than extracting resources with little benefit to local people, the company's business is built around its name, Sambazon: Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon.

Established in 2001, Sambazon operates to organic and fair-trade standards, and has around 650,000 hectares of biodiverse agroforesty groves certified for environmental stewardship in Amapá and Pará States. Working with communities in the floodplain forests of the Amazon estuary, the açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea), with its roots buried deep in mineral-rich mud and irrigated twice a day by tidal waters, requires little maintenance. The palm also thrives in the shade of other rainforest species, including rubber and Brazil nut, so mixed groves mimic natural forest.

Flavour and nutrition

The fruit is packed with more antioxidants than blueberries or pomegranates, and has an essential fatty acid profile similar to olive oil. However, the fruits are highly perishable, and must be processed within 48 hours of picking if they are not to lose their unique flavour and nutritional value.

Açaí is an important source of food in the Amazon, but little known outside Brazil until 10 years ago. (Sambazon)
Açaí is an important source of food in the Amazon, but little known outside Brazil until 10 years ago.

Ninety per cent of harvested açaí is consumed by the ribeirinhos, often eaten with cassava or poured over meat as a sauce; for some communities it contributes more than 40 per cent of their diet. Around eight per cent is transported to local markets for juice or ice cream making, whilst only two per cent is actually exported - the majority by Sambazon, now the world's leading supplier.

Over 1,500 agroforestry farms, varying in size from 5-200 ha, now supply Sambazon with açaí. Some farmers sell direct, but many join grower groups under a co-ordinator, who is responsible for transporting the fruit and paying the growers. Sambazon also has its own boat to make collections. Harvest lasts for about 60-90 days in any given area, from July through to December, with the ribeirinhos climbing the palms to cut off ripe bundles of fruit.

Raising the standard

Although the company initially relied on local cottage processing facilities for pulping the berries, in 2005 it established its own processing factory at Santana, Amapá. Sambazon sustainability officer, Travis Baumgardner, reports that this has allowed the company to expand production, have more control over supply and to better enforce food-safety standards. In 2008, 17,000 tons of fruit were processed, although the factory is not yet working to full capacity.

For the growers, the benefit of supplying to Sambazon is that they are paid a premium for their fruit. To comply with organic guidelines required for the various export markets in the US, Europe and elsewhere, each grower unit must be registered and annual audits for quality and quantity are conducted. GPS mapping allows traceability so that the company knows where growers are located, how much they will produce and when.

Sambazon works hard to establish trust and to provide training and information to the harvesting communities. "In the past this was a very informal marketing system," states Baumgardner, "but through Sambazon and others exporting açaí, these growers are able to become part of an organic production chain and this model for the harvesting and supply of Açai fruits has become a reference point for quality."

Diversification is key

Açaí fruit drinks are being marketed as the latest, health-boosting superfood in the United States. (Sambazon)
Açaí fruit drinks are being marketed as the latest, health-boosting superfood in the United States.

To promote sustainable management of the forests, Sambazon works with various private and public sector organisations, and is supported by the Nature Conservancy and the Peabiru Institute, amongst others, in the Sustainable Amazon Partnership (SAP). Activities include: setting up bio-social indicators for the açaí trade to ensure that it has a positive impact on the communities and their environment; supporting local women in making açaí seed jewellery to supplement their income; and protecting biodiversity by demonstrating the use of other non-timber forest products (NTFPs).

"The biggest challenge now is to diversify," says Baumgardner. "By processing other sustainable non-timber forest products, we can strengthen our relationship with the communities, provide additional income and work the factory at full capacity." Camu camu berry, which is high in vitamin C, and buriti oil are just two other NTFPs which could come online in the future.

But, he also cautions that you have to know what the market wants. "There are many projects in the Amazon that are working to give communities access to export markets for NTFPs. But as a company we know that we have to focus on what we do best and then develop partnerships to ensure sustainability."

Date published: July 2009


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