To Singaporeans, the Amazon rainforest is elusive: 18,210km and a pipe dream away. Yet, surprisingly, it has found its way across the globe into the heartlands of this island city in an unsuspecting fruit – açaí (ah-sigh-ee).

Amazon Rainforest

The Açaí Origin Story

95% of all açaí originates from the Pará state, in the Brazilian North Region and forests of South America. The açaí berry bears a strong resemblance to its berry counterparts, but is hard and unpalatable when raw. After harvesting, the fruit must be crushed within 24 hours to preserve the richness of its flavour, and consumed within 72 hours. For that reason – sorry to disappoint – it is impossible to taste traditional açaí outside its producer states. The açaí ubiquitous in every mall is whipped into puree for exports, which have risen by 14,380% over the past decade.

Theoretically, as açaí is a non-timber forest product (NTFP), it does not require the cutting down of trees, and can therefore be a sustainable alternative to productive activities which threaten the resilience of the rainforest, like cattle-farming. The widespread popularity of açaí is an exception, however.


The Dark Side of Açaí Harvest

A young peconheiros harvesting acai

Image by Ana Mendes for The Washing Post

Under the booming economic prosperity of açaí, the shade of the dense Amazonian canopy reveals a dark side that threatens the sustainability of the rainforest ecosystem, humans and nature alike. As the açaí fruit grows 60ft aboveground on thin açaí palm, those who make the climb – ‘peconheiros’ – are often children armed with only a serrated blade and swatches of burlap to protect their bare feet. The routine is deadly. Some sustain knife injuries, cuts or snake bites. Others may never return.

For the risks these peconheiros face, the returns are relatively unsubstantial. A full basket of açaí berries rakes up to USD$3.00 at best, a low margin of profitability for a fruit that has travelled so far and wide to lands these families can only dream of. The lack of laws and governmental regulation to protect the families along the snaking river tributaries offers no reconciliation to the routine risks they face daily. Yet, many continue to accept the risk to sustain their livelihoods. 

The intensified cultivation of açaí to meet market demand has threatened the Amazon’s resilience to deforestation. A scientific study on the cultivation of açaí plantations revealed a reduction of lowland tree species in environments with açaí monoculture, especially shade plants, which aid in nutrient cycling and the harbouring of fauna species. Normally, 70 different species of trees and palms per hectare thrive within these areas. Within these monocultures, there has been a reduction in the number of pollinating insects essential to açaí pollination.


Promoting Sustainable Açaí Cultivation

Several initiatives have been belted out in the promotion of sustainable açaí cultivation, such as The Reference Centre for the Management of Native Açai Palms (Manejaí) developed by EMBRAPA in 2016, a state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. The project promotes training for riverside farmers in low-impact açaí farming techniques, with an outreach of 500 people in more than ten communities throughout Southern America.

Another organisation, Amazon Conservation, has also been working closely with communities in and around the 420,000-acre Santa Rosa del Abuná conservation area to improve the locals’ capacity to sustainably manage the Amazonian rainforest and the risky business of açai harvesting. In 2019, the organisation provided 100 new climbing safety harnesses to five Santa Rosa communities.

Individual Action in Heartland Singapore

A bowl of açai topped with strawberries and granola

When we consume a bowl of açaí, we consume a part of the Amazon rainforest. Alongside millions of açaí connoisseurs, this intrinsic connection means the açaí bowl is no longer a decision that solely impacts the number of compliments you receive from posting it on social media; it is one that impacts the very communities that enabled the açaí bowl so conveniently purchased at the local surf shack, and the entire ecosystem at large.

In short: yes, your decision to buy that açaí bowl does impact the rainforest! As a consumer of this beloved fruit, support açaí-based businesses that promote sustainable conservation and harvesting of the berries. Singapore-based açaí supplier Selva works with local businesses to supply sustainably sourced açaí pulp for bowls and smoothies, directly empowering local communities who harvest açaí berries in the Amazon. Separately, you can bring your own takeaway containers to reduce plastic waste from single-use plastics.

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Açaí has been a lifeline to local and indigenous communities for thousands of centuries. So, next time you get your açaí fix, pause to verify the source of your açaí with a simple Google Search or over-the-counter inquiry, and take a moment to feel the pulse of the Amazon with every bite.