What happens when a fruit that was once enjoyed locally by the people of the Amazon suddenly becomes a hip and healthy superfood for the fitness- and health-conscious crowd in Rio de Janeiro and across the United States? For one thing, demand for the fruit grows dramatically.

Such is the case for the once little-known purple fruit of the acai palm tree, farmed as a staple food for generations by the river people of the Amazon. In the last two decades, a frozen slush of the fruit has become popular internationally because of acai’s nutritional ingredients. It contains high levels of vitamin C, monounsaturated fats, fiber, and antioxidants. The drink has garnered rave reviews from such celebrities as Sting, Andre Agassi, and supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Last year, the Wall Street Journal even heralded acai as “the hip new taste.”

One might imagine that the boom would lead to overfarming or deforestation of the fragile Amazon rainforest. Yet that has not been the case, thanks to earlier farming lessons learned in the Amazon and the implementation of sustainable agro-forestry techniques.

Learning from the past
In the mid-1980s, demand for another part of the acai tree—the heart of palm-- an ivory-colored, fibrous substance found inside the trunk and used in salads in urban South America—caused entire groves of the acai trees to be destroyed.

The interest in and demand for acai is now so great, believes Baumgardner, that if the local farmers weren’t monitored by FASE, they would probably chop down all other trees to farm the fruit on a monoculture basis, posing a threat to regional biodiversity.

Instead, the acai fruit is harvested slowly by hand, the way it’s been done for generations. Because the area is in the flooded tidal forest, there is no mechanized way to harvest acai. Instead, local couples perform the work. The man climbs the tree trunk, about 30 feet high, chops off an acai branch full of ripe berries, and brings it down to the woman, usually his wife, who picks the fruit off the branch and fills up baskets. Once the baskets are full, someone in the family will use a canoe or motorboat to take the baskets to a drop-off point for manufacturing in the nearest village. Picked acai needs to be processed within 24 hours or the fruit oxidizes and loses its nutritional value.

Throughout the process, FASE’s forest engineers and ecologists ensure that the families are farming their plots sustainably, following a strict set of regulations. For example, 20-30% of tree and plant species other than acai must be maintained in the acai grove to secure biodiversity; trunks older than nine years are cut down to encourage younger sprouts; and taller trees of other species are trimmed to give the acai trees better light.

In addition, not all the acai is harvested. About 30 percent of the fruit falls to the ground or is eaten by birds and other animals, which helps guarantee biodiversity. Of the picked acai, each family keeps about a third to eat and use as fertilizer for small vegetable and herb gardens located close to their homes. Families are also encouraged to introduce other native fruit-tree species with commercial value, such as cupuaçu and tapereba, together with the acai.

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