By Molly Fincher, World Ark writer
Photos by Phillip Davis
While the demands of agriculture sometimes clash with natural ecosystems, the prized açai berry makes it possible for farmers in the Bolivian Amazon to strike a symbiotic balance with the rainforest.
THE RED ROAD TO PRIMERO DE MAYO, a village hidden in the middle of the Bolivian rainforest, winds through a vista once dominated by forest but now reduced to empty fields. Cattle graze under the few remaining trees stubbornly holding their ground. The jungle’s raw edge lines the horizon. Moving nearer to the village, the forest creeps closer and closer to the road until it looms overhead on either side. The last house at the end of one of Primero de Mayo’s few dusty streets stands right against the tangled wall of the forest.
This is the home of Edwin Paz Vasquez and Daina Cordero. A long table sits out front, at the ready for the many community meetings held there. Paz is one of the leaders of an association of farmers in Primero de Mayo. Member farmers hope to invigorate the community’s economy while also nurturing the surrounding rainforest. Making money and protecting the environment at the same time may sound like an unlikely combination, but the farmers here have a secret ingredient growing wild in the jungle: açai.
Paz and fellow açai harvesters are learning how to harvest the fruit and process it into pulp, a sought-after product that commands good prices. With help from Heifer International, the farmers’ association is building a sustainable harvesting and processing operation that keeps profits in their own pockets.
Gathering the deep purple, almost black fruit is not for the faint of heart. Every year from April to July, açai seekers grab their burlap sacks, harnesses and a handful of coca leaves in the morning and ride their motorcycles into the jungle in search of this elusive rainforest fruit. They go in pairs, leaving Primero de Mayo behind and heading down a long stretch of unmarked dirt road, the jungle rising high on either side. After a while, they stop their motorcycles in a spot on the side of the road that appears to be like any other. But then they disappear into the seemingly impenetrable wall of plant life; there is a small opening in the wall, and a footpath leads into the forest.
Ducking into the cave-like opening is a sudden and jarring transition between the bright, hot sunlight of the outside world and the dark quiet of the deep woods. The footpath disappears immediately under the leaves carpeting the forest floor, and the fl ora is so thick that the bright portal to the outside world disappears only a few steps in. All that’s left is a close, disorienting tangle of plant life that looks, to an outsider, very much the same in every direction. Experience allows the berry hunters to navigate the forest easily, and they plunge into the trees with confidence.
Açai hides in the canopy, so that seekers must identify the tree by its characteristic root pattern rather than looking for the fruit itself in the tree. Once an açai tree is identified, closer inspection of the roots may reveal ripe fruit that has fallen from above. Ripe açai is richly pigmented and about the size (and hardness) of a marble. To make sure it’s ripe, one can briskly knock a berry against his or her thumbnail; if the fruit leaves a purple stain, it’s time to scale the tall, branchless trunk to get at the treasure in the canopy: long, full bunches of palm fronds bursting with açai berries.
The biggest change I've seen with the project is this idea, this knowledge of the people here, that they do have the capacity to have a business and for it to be successful, and we don't have to be, as people say, poor farmers.Edwin Paz Vasquez
Once açai harvesters make it up the tree and cut off the frond, they use the stem to protect their hands as they slide swiftly down the trunk. The pair of harvesters work together to remove the berries from the palm fronds and pack them up in a sack, and then it’s off to find the next tree.
“It’s scary,” admits Luiz Burgas with a sheepish grin. Burgas and his wife, Mercedes Parada, have been harvesting açai for about five years. “When you go in, you remember God, and you know he’s the one who takes care of all of us. But always you go up with a little bit of fear. It’s risky; you’re risking your life going up so high. Sometimes there’s wind, and the wind sways the tree and that’s when you feel some fear.”
For Parada, the family’s bubbly commander-in-chief, seizing the opportunity that açai presents was second nature. That’s just how she lives. “There isn’t any work that I shy away from. For me, it’s just normal. Whether it’s men’s work or women’s work, it’s all just normal to me,” she said.
She cheerfully went on to detail everything she and Burgas do to piece together a year-round living in Primero de Mayo for themselves and their four children. Regular work is rare in the area. Before açai season, they harvest Brazil nuts from January until April. Parada runs a small store, and Burgas sometimes clears land for other farmers.
Parada is always on the lookout for more work. “They call me to wash clothes, or they call me to go clean a house or to go out to the fi eld to the farm plot,” she said. Her apparently indefatigable high spirits are both infectious and somewhat incongruous with what is clearly a hard life, and a harder past. She credits her work ethic to a childhood in which she was obligated by her stepmother to work preparing and selling bread every moment she wasn’t in school—at times her day began at 4 a.m. and ended at 1 or 2 the next morning.
Even though that environment drove her to leave home at the age of 14, her perspective, looking back, is surprisingly even-handed. “I also appreciate my stepmother, who was so harsh,” she said, “but thanks to her I learned to work.”
Before the Heifer project, Burgas and Parada made money from açai by selling the fresh fruit to a trader from Brazil for about 25 bolivianos, or $3.61, per can. The trader would then load up all of the açai from the area and truck it to Brazil, where she sold it for a profit. Last year, Edwin Paz Vasquez invited them into the Heifer Bolivia-initiated association of açai farmers, which collectively owns the newly formed açai processing company, Pulpas Abuná: Frutas de la Amazonia. Together, the members of the association pool their resources in order to cut out the middle man and keep the açai profits in the community.
It works like this: the company buys fresh açai from its members and then processes and packages the açai into açai pulp, which they can then sell at a higher price than the fresh fruit. Members of the association make 20 percent more selling açai to the company than they would selling to traders, and they also share the profi ts the company makes from selling the processed açai pulp. Since 1957, Heifer Bolivia has worked in communities ranging from the Andean highlands to the Amazonian lowlands, helping thousands kick-start their farming businesses through training, equipment, livestock and diversified crops such as açai, chocolate and coffee.
In Primero de Mayo, the processing plant has been running for more than two years, and members of the association are poised to expand the business after the project concludes. Next steps include acquiring more cold storage so they can ramp up production and completing the process of getting their food safety registration. According to Orlando Malgarajo, an independent consultant Heifer hired to evaluate the effectiveness of the project, “They are on the path for good growth.”
The extra income came in the nick of time for Parada’s family. More than anything, she wants her daughters to have the best education possible. Now that the oldest is in secondary school, fees are higher and Parada and Burgas are using the money from their açai enterprises to pay for their children’s studies. The eldest children know how to harvest açai and Brazil nuts, and sometimes they go with Burgas on these missions.
But ultimately, Parada envisions a different life for her children. She encourages her daughters first and foremost to focus on their studies, and she hopes to teach them by example the importance of hard work.
“You know that nobody’s going to give you anything,” she said. “You need to give your hands for work or for service in order to get something back.”
Though gathering açai is a daring enterprise in and of itself, getting one’s hands on the fruit is only half the battle.
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Though gathering açai is a daring enterprise in and of itself, getting one’s hands on the fruit is only half the battle.
The açai harvesters of Primero de Mayo no longer sell raw fruit. Instead, they process the açai to significantly boost profits. The bright white processing plant with its purple and orange accents stands out against the rusty color palette of Primero de Mayo’s dirt road and tin roofs.
Heifer International helped the association renovate the old building and equip it with the machinery needed to smash açai fruits into marketable, juicy pulp. The Friends of Nature Foundation, a local organization dedicated to protecting Bolivian biodiversity, is also a partner in the project.
Edwin Paz Vasquez manages the operation of the plant, checks the quality of the final product and handles the accounting. These are all new skills for Paz, which he learned by going to training set up by Heifer and the Friends of Nature Foundation. “I like what I do, and it’s also something I’m learning for my life. I didn’t go to the university, but I’m having the opportunity to learn the accounting–and I like it! And I’m finding that it’s not anything so difficult,” he said.
Paz is enthusiastic not just about the benefits the association and company generate for members, but for the community as a whole. The plant created jobs, and most of the operators are women. His eldest daughter, Danitza Cordero, has a job at the plant and has noticed a change in the women with whom she works.
You need to give your hands for work or for service in order to get something back.Mercedes Parada
“They speak, and they make decisions based on what they think, they don’t just sit back,” Cordero said. “It’s different. Before, it was whatever the men thought, and that was how they made decisions. There was no interest in what the women thought.” And it’s not just the women who are thinking bigger, Paz said. “The biggest change I’ve seen with the project is this idea, this knowledge of the people here, that they do have the capacity to have a business and for it to be successful, and we don’t have to be, as people say, poor farmers.”
A PERFECT SETTING
Neither Paz nor his wife grew up in Primero de Mayo. Their marriage came after a week-long whirlwind romance that ended with Paz adopting Cordero’s three children as his own.
“Our relationship was a bit crazy,” Paz said, laughing. “We got married so fast, it was love at first sight for me. When I asked her to marry me, she didn’t even believe it, and she wasn’t so sure about getting married … and I got down on one knee and begged her, ‘Marry me!’ And she did.”
Life calmed when the family came to live in Primero de Mayo. According to Cordero, “We came on an adventure.” They traveled to the village to visit some of Cordero’s family, but Paz liked living in the rainforest so much that they ended up staying.
“I like the environment, I like the freedom,” Paz said, comparing the remote village to life in cities. Living so close to the forest, he enjoys “the calm, the freshness. The air you breathe is softer.”
Conserving the rainforest is fundamental to his vision for their community. “I wouldn’t ever want someone to take in machinery and knock it down. And I wouldn’t ever want them to mechanize things in the forest because I think it is richer, it is more profitable, there is more wealth and there is more beauty as it is,” he said.
“When we conserve the forest,” he continued, “we’re preserving the lungs of the world. That’s what gives us oxygen, and it gives us food … that’s what allows us to breathe and have more tranquility and better air. And that’s what the pulping plant does. It preserves this wealth.”