The increase in açaí palm cultivation to supply global demand for the “superfood” has led to the loss of biodiversity and changes in vegetation in the floodplain forests along the Amazon River in Brazil’s Pará state.
Brazil’s açaí exports have risen by more than 14,000% over the past decade, with the state of Pará accounting for 95% of national production.
In areas where there should be roughly 70 plant species per hectare, there are now virtual monocultures of açaí, with as many as 1,000 palm tree clusters per hectare.
But more sustainable ways of cultivating the lucrative fruit are being trialed, helping to preserve the biodiversity of the floodplain forests, increase yields for farming families, and develop better-quality fruit.
Açaí has always been part of the Amazonian diet. Locals consume the round, purple fruit, which grows in bunches on the Euterpe oleracea palm tree, almost daily. In the mid-1990s, it became a sensation in the gyms of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Rich in antioxidants and fiber, and with high energy content, açaí quickly won over consumers in southeastern Brazil with its reputation for nutritional benefits.
Thanks to globalization, it didn’t take long for the Amazonian fruit to make it to the international market. According to FIEPA, the federation of industries in the Amazonian state of Pará, açaí exports have increased by 14,380% over the past 10 years. A decade ago, little more than 40 tons were sold abroad. Last year, this number jumped to 5,937 tons. In 2019 and 2020, the sector grew by 51%.
Pará is the largest domestic consumer and also the largest exporter of the fruit (in the form of frozen pulp). On its own, it accounts for 95% of the national production of açaí. And to meet domestic and global demand, the planted area, both on dry land and through floodplain management, has expanded from 77,600 to 188,000 hectares (192,000 to 465,000 acres) in 10 years.
The rapid growth of the industry, however, has had serious impacts on the lowland forests where açaí is grown, according to a recently published study in the journal Biological Conservation. The study authors, led by Pará biologist Madson Freitas, analyzed 47 lowland areas around estuarine forests along the Amazon River in Pará, where açai palms are cultivated.
The research shows that cutting native trees to expand açaí plantations caused a reduction in the number of species and functions in this riparian Amazonian ecosystem, where forests grow along the banks of muddy rivers that regularly flood. “We noticed the absence of typical lowland tree species in environments with monoculture, especially shade plants, which help in nutrient cycling and harbor fauna species such as birds and insects,” Freitas said.
The açai palm is a plant accustomed to a lot of sunlight and water, he said, since it grows in wet plains that experience flooding every six hours. Its roots are superficial and need plenty of nutrients, guaranteed precisely by the diversity of species in the forest and by the ebb and flow of the river, which brings organic material to the land.
“By removing the vegetation around the açai palms, the riparian people are impacting the forest’s productivity,” Freitas said. “And without it, for example, there is also a decrease in the number of pollinating insects that are essential to açaí production, as shown by another study from 2018.”
What’s clear to the researchers is how increasingly intensified cultivation to meet market demand has led to a structural change in the vegetation of the lowland forest.
“Producers have come to ignore the local biodiversity. Other plants in the floodplain have been disappearing and this compromises the functionality of the forest as a whole,” said Ima Vieira, a co-author of the recent paper and ecologist who studies the Amazon’s resilience to deforestation.
“In some areas you have practically a monoculture of açaí, when normally there would be as many as 70 different species of trees and palms per hectare in these areas,” she said.
“Before the açaí boom, there was always domestic production to meet local demand. Until that point, this symbol of the Amazonian food tradition had little impact, but once it grew in fame and demand, the situation changed.”
Quantity does not increase productivity
A 2013 instruction from the Pará state environmental department determines the maximum number of açaí palms that may be harvested per unit of area to ensure production that’s continuous and “does not compromise the population of species in floodplain forests.” Under this instruction, small farmers are limited to harvesting a maximum of 200 palms and cultivating a maximum of 400 clusters (sets of plants) per hectare.
But this isn’t what happens in reality. The study led by Freitas found as many as 1,000 clusters per hectare on some properties.
Due to a lack of guidance, many farmers believe that growing more açaí palms will translate into a larger harvest at the end of the season. “When part of the forest is preserved, the environmental services work properly and the volume and quality of the fruit are higher,” Freitas said.
In his first published study, in 2015, Freitas showed that managing more than 400 clusters per hectare reduces floodplain species diversity by at least 60%. His latest study thus recommends a revision of the 2013 instruction and the development of a forest recovery program to replant native species. It also calls for stronger oversight of the açaí industry and for the government, farmers and experts to discuss regulations once again.
A sustainable alternative
In some parts of the Amazon, the sustainable management that the article proposes is already a reality. One initiative that bets on this alternative is the Reference Center for the Management of Native Açai Palms, known as Manejaí and developed by EMBRAPA, the state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation.
Created in 2016, the project promotes training for riverside farmers in low-impact açaí farming techniques. Manejaí has trained up to 500 people in more than 10 communities.
“Sustainable management is the most viable and correct way,” said Teofro Lacerda, coordinator of Manejaí and resident of a riverside community in Pará. “With it, we were able to increase productivity and obtain better-quality fruit.
“People need to value this product more, because its management takes a lot of work,” he added. “And companies that buy it also need to make a social commitment to our communities.”
During the açaí harvest, which takes place from June to September, Lacerda said he can reap 5,600 kilograms (nearly 12,400 pounds) of the fruit per hectare. Data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply indicate that the typical yield is around 4,500 kg (9,900 lb) of fruit per hectare in unmanaged açaí groves.
Vieira agreed on the need to improve management practices, but added that the issue of sustainability must consider that farming families who live along riverbanks account for almost all açaí production in the estuary’s floodplains.
“From an economic and social point of view, there’s no question that increased demand has greatly improved the lives of riverside dwellers. This is why we need to be careful with public policy,” Vieira said.
“Attempting to reconcile forest conservation and local development by intensifying the production of non-timber forest products in the Amazon may result in unsuccessful actions due to limited understanding of the complexity of the factors that affect this production.”
Freitas, M. A. B., Magalhães, J. L. L., Carmona, C. P., Arroyo-Rodríguez, V., Vieira, I. C. G., & Tabarelli, M. (2021). Intensification of açaí palm management largely impoverishes tree assemblages in the Amazon estuarine forest. Biological Conservation, 261, 109251. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109251
Campbell, A. J., Carvalheiro, L. G., Maués, M. M., Jaffé, R., Giannini, T. C., Freitas, M. A. B., … Menezes, C. (2018). Anthropogenic disturbance of tropical forests threatens pollination services to açaí palm in the Amazon river delta. Journal of Applied Ecology, 55(4), 1725-1736. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.13086
Freitas, M. A. B., Vieira, I. C. G., Albernaz, A. L. K. M., Magalhães, J. L. L., & Lees, A. C. (2015). Floristic impoverishment of Amazonian floodplain forests managed for açaí fruit production. Forest Ecology and Management, 351, 20-27. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2015.05.008
Banner image of açaí fruits by Wenderson Nunes.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on Sept. 30, 2021.