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Purple Blood

The human and environmental cost of Acai intensive monoculture in the Amazon

"If nature were a bank, they would have already saved it"
Eduardo Galeano


Açaí, the fruit of the açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea), is the protagonist of one of the most recent cases of foods that are considered “superfoods” becoming a threat to the environ- ment. In recent years it has become a worldwide phenomenon encouraged by marketing thatuses some scientific studies that indicate beneficial properties for health, especially as an antioxidant, blood pressure regulator and effective for weight loss. The fruit is processed into pulp for supply to food product manufacturers or retailers, sold as frozen pulp, juice, or an ingredient in various products from beverages, including grain alcohol, smoothies, foods, cosmetics and supplements. In the West it is commonly sold in “açaí bowls”, a combination of frozen açaí puree or açaí powder with other ingredients, such as nut milk, fruit juice, fruit, nuts, oatmeal, and swe- eteners. The greater demand, as it is considered healthy food in diets, has had as an immediate consequence the increase of monocultures of the açaí palm to satisfy the global demand for the “superfood”, leading to a rapid loss of biodiversity and a change in vegetation inthe forests of the floodplains along the Amazon River estuary in the Brazilian state ofPará which is the largest national consumer and also the largest world exporter of açaí.

According to a study of 47 plots of forest in the Amazon estuary, the team of the Depart-ment of Botany of the Federal University of Pernambuco (Brazil) led by Madson Freitas,whom I interviewed for this work, demonstrated that the felling of trees natives to allowthe rapid growth of crops of this palm is causing, in this region of Brazil, significant da- mage to ecosystems by reducing the number of species present and the biological diversi- ty in these forests that grow on the margins of muddy rivers. In areas where there should be around 70 plant species per hectare, there are now vir- tual monocultures of açaí, with as many as 1,000 palm clusters per hectare. Current legal regulations in Brazil [world’s largest producer] on açaí intensification donot protect the integrity and biodiversity of the forest. In Parà, to meet the growing world demand, the extension of these crops has increased from 77,000 to 188,000 hectares in the last 10 years (increase of 14,000%). Accordingto data provided by the Federation of Industries of the State of Pará (FIEPA), in a decadethe tons of açaí sold abroad have increased from 40 to about 6,000 tons last year. This increase in the worldwide demand for açaí and the low collection costs have encou- raged foreign companies to monopolize the export of the product, obtaining enormousprofits from this traffic, contributing to establishing a form of economic and environmental neocolonialism.

Unfortunately, the açaí is not only contributing to environmental problems but has a con-siderable human cost for the local populations, the Ribeirinhos, who live mainly from the collection of açaí and fishing. In fact, açaí represents an important economic opportunity for the Ribeirinhos but the re-ality is different: the families earn very little from this backbreaking work which subjectsthem to physical risks. Increasingly frequent mutilations, disabilities and deaths have occurred caused by falls while climbing the very tall and often fragile palm trees to pick the berries while trying to keep up with big businesses, in vain.
The fruit decomposes very quickly and must be eaten the same day or processed and fro- zen to be exported within a couple of days. The transport times and the negligible econo-mic means do not allow the Ribeirinhos to be competitive with the exporting companies. In many of the humblest families, children between the ages of 8 and 9 work in the har-vest because they are quick and, weighing little, have no difficulty climbing the tallestpalm trees in the forest.

The increase in child labor is therefore another tragic consequence of the increase in de- mand for this “superfood” which is causing dramatic consequences for the future of thepopulation of the coast who are also fighting against water pollution and consequent fishpoisoning unloaded by the increasingly numerous extractive industries present in the area. ​The phenomenon of the açaí palm in Brazil is yet another example of how en- vironmental and economic neocolonialism is causing irreversible damage tothe ecosystem at a high human cost to the local population, significantly con- tributing to climate change of which the Amazon forest is a determining factor.



THIS WORK IS PART OF A LONGTERM ONGOING PROJECT CALLED "IN THE NAME OF WELLNESS" that has been granted from the PULITZER CENTER on crisis reporting. ​The entire project is supported by the PULITZER CENTER and is produced in partnership with the PULITZER CENTER. "IN THE NAME OF WELLNESS" investigates the phenomenon of environmental neocolonialism, its mechanism and its consequences on the ecosystems and local population to support the market for a diet that is defined as healthy in Western countries. It's an exploration of the growth of these superfood crops and how it is affecting climate and agriculture in those regions. How these superfood crops contribute to Latin America’s environmental neocolonialism? In recent years the demand for these resources is always increasing, pushing Western investors towards a greater exploitation that risks irreversibly ruining the environmental balance of those areas and of the entire planet. The stories might be "food for thought" for people who focus on their own personal wellness -- and who now realize the planet might have a wellness issue with that popular diet! The goal is to raise awareness on this global emergency through different stories in various countries that are living the same situation, trying st the same time to give light to examples of realities that are promoting a different model of agricolture fairer for the people who cultivate their land and respectful for the ecosystem.​ The exploitation of the resources of some continents to the detriment of its inhabitants is unfortunately a theme that has historically been repeated throughout history.
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