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Hail Berry

The latest in a long line of exotic "craze crops" to hit american shores, the amazonian superfruit açai is revered as everythind from an ice cream flavor to the fountain of youth.

Author Edward Lewine Illustration Kako

But how good is this health trend for the amazon and its people?

THE RIVERBOATS EMERGE, ONE BY ONE, FROM THE PREDAWN JUNGLE.

THEY’RE BEAT UP AND CRUSTED WITH MUD, HAVING TRAVELED HUNDREDS OF MILES DOWNRIVER FROM DEEP IN THE AMAZON BASIN. AS THE SCOWS TIE UP TO THE WHARVES AT THE VER-O-PESO, A SPRAWLING MARKETPLACE IN BELÉM, THE CITY AT THE MOUTH OF THE MIGHTY RIVER, CROWDS OF PRODUCE BUYERS ASSEMBLE ON THE DOCKS. THEY ARE HERE TO BID ON THE BOATS’ PRECIOUS CARGO: BRIMMING RATTAN BUSHELS OF AÇAI BERRIES, PICKED FRESH FROM PALM TREES IN THE DISTANT RAIN FOREST. THE BERRIES ARE AS BLACK AS THE INKY AMAZON NIGHT. THEY ARE ALSO ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT REGIONAL EXPORTS TO COME ALONG IN DECADES.

Just a year ago, the açai would have been unloaded under the harsh work lights and carted to the main market, where it would be sold alongside the pigs, chickens, lizards and a mindboggling variety of spices, herbs and otherworldly fruits and vegetables. These days, though, the magic berries are brought to something called the Açai Fair, a new sector of the Ver-o-Peso kept separate from the other goods. It’s a sign of the times. Every few years another “superfruit” comes along- from mango and blueberries to goji berries, guava, lychee and yuzu-and is said to replenish the body, fight aging, promote weight loss and cure cancer. Now it’s açai’s moment. Take a hike, pomegranate; shove off, mangosteen; beat it, noni. A proven source of antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber-the holy trinity of current nutritional obsessions-açai is the “craze crop” du jour.

Saunter down to the local health food purveyor or, increasingly, your corner convenience store, and you’ll see shelves laden with a dizzying array of açai-based offerings. The New York Times reports that 53 new açai (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) products were unveiled in 2008, up from just four in 2004. Sales in the United States rose more than 100 percent, to around $107 million, between 2007 and 2008.

For all its popularity, this berry is still really just a fad in the States, designed to tickle jaded palates in trend-obsessed provinces like Orange County and Manhattan. In the rain forest, though, it is a staple food that’s been crucial to the local diet for centuries, its trees a vital renewable resource. Some experts fear that increased worldwide demand for the berries will soon drive up prices, putting them out of reach for those who rely on them most -with devastating results for the local diet.

And environmentalists fret about the impact of increased cultivation on already overtaxed ecosystems.

So, can you enjoy your açai smoothie without feeling guilty? In trying to do the right thing, are you actually inadvertently causing harm?

“I wouldn’t go as far as to say the açai craze has been bad for the Amazon,” says Christiane Ehringhaus, a German who has spent nine years in Amazonian Brazil doing research for the Center for International Forestry Research, or CIFOR. “But as with everything in the world, there are trade-offs.”

THE SUN HAS COME up over the Ver-o-Peso, and stevedores pause in their labors to visit the brightly colored food stalls. They crowd the counters, gulping guaraná juice and slurping savory bowls of açai. The açai palm grows throughout the Amazon, which covers around 40 percent of South America. The slender palms can reach 100 feet tall, and they thrive especially along the banks of the river itself and in the vast estuary region where northern Brazil meets the Atlantic. As a result, açai is easy to harvest, and people in the countryside of Amazonas have always considered it a miracle fruit. In the 1970s, as large populations left the jungle to find work in cities, they took their love for açai with them.

“Açai provides a significant proportion of the caloric base of the regional diet,” says Eduardo Brondizio, an anthropologist at Indiana University. “People eat it raw and unsweetened, mixed with flour to accompany a protein. It’s also important culturally. For a lot of these people, it isn’t a meal without açai.”

In the 1990s, Brazilians in the big southern cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo discovered açai and began consuming it for its reputed health benefits. Several years ago, the trend spread to the United States. Brondizio estimates that demand for açai has increased more than tenfold since the 1980s, leading to a vast expansion of açai harvesting.

Meanwhile, the rising price of the berries has been a nightmare for the Brazilian urban poor, who rely upon açai for basic nutrition. Though the cost has remained unchanged in the cities, observers say distributors are increasingly diluting the product.

“The açai sold in many places has become colored water,” Brondizio says. “Sellers add corn starch, flour, cooked beets and ice cream emulsifiers.”

Traditionally, açai hasn’t so much been farmed as harvested from wild or semiwild forests. The palms are plentiful. (No danger of açai extinction-yet.) Most of the harvesting is done on forested plots smaller than a square mile, which are managed and worked by the plots’ owners or tenant farmers. Workers collect the berries and sell them to middlemen, who ship them out of the region.

“Açai might represent a third of the income for the family for the year,” notes Jamie Cotta, an American who has been doing research on forest management in Brazil for the World Agroforestry Centre since April.

“They’ll make less than two dollars a day. They aren’t destitute, but in most cases they would be suffering from malnutrition without the work.”

“As demand for açai has grown,” says Brondizio, who wrote The Amazonian Caboclo and the Açai Palm: Forest Farmers in the Global Market, “it has begun to be produced throughout the Amazon. Now açai is the most important crop for the entire rain forest.”

Ryan Black, the American founder and CEO of Sambazon-a California company that jumped on the açai bandwagon about 10 years ago and today accounts for around 40 percent of U.S. imports-insists açai is a winwin business, giving Amazonians an incentive to preserve their forests and the money to improve their lives.

“It’s a sustainable crop that provides economic growth,” he claims. “And the more we sell, the better it is for the environment.”

Though that seems too good to be true, Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez, an associate professor of anthropology at Columbia University, agrees. He says the açai boom has indeed expanded the forest as locals plant trees in formerly deforested areas. “There’s actually a process of reforestation going on,” Pinedo-Vasquez says.

Nonetheless, other experts worry that açai palms are being planted at the expense of other species, and the rain forest of tomorrow will lack the biodiversity of the original Amazon. The long-term effects could be serious. “This is much less terrible than chopping down whole forests,” Christiane Ehringhaus concedes, “but the market is a powerful thing, and it is transforming the rain forest in a big way.”

Perhaps, but Black insists açai has helped pump tens of millions of dollars into what has always been a dirt-poor region, perhaps forestalling more environmentally damaging activities like cattle ranching.

“One of my growers has a satellite dish and flat-screen TV in his little Amazon chug-chug boat,” Black says. “These guys are rich.”

In fact, the majority of the harvesters have yet to share in the hefty profits the wholesalers and middlemen enjoy, though they have become increasingly dependent on açai for their livelihoods.

“Each year, the farmers become more economically vulnerable,” Cotta says. “What happens if the açai craze goes bust?”

That is troubling. The nature of cureall crazes is that they tend to peter out eventually, debunked by science or displaced by the next exotic panacea. (Remember echinacea and ginseng?) Although the açai craze has been a boon for the Amazon on balance, observers such as Ehringhaus say the hard part-protecting the rain forest and making sure the financial bounty trickles down to harvesters-is really yet to come.

“It would be a shame if Americans stopped buying açai,” Ehringhaus says. “But it would be nice to find a better trade-off.”

Contributing writer EDWARD LEWINE is still convinced that ginseng increases his stamina.

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