Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 31 Number 1
Fall 2008

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Eduardo Brondizio
Eduardo Brondizio
Photo courtesy of Indiana University

To view more images of acai farming in the Amazon, view the slide show. slide graphic

Tree Fruit to Free Market -- How a tiny purple berry is changing the future for Amazon farmers

by Jennifer Piurek

When Eduardo Brondizio sips an açaí beverage, he doesn’t think about the taste (berry-like with a hint of chocolate and clove) or the intense antioxidant boost (about 10 times the antioxidants of grapes and about twice that of blueberries). He doesn’t even inhale the aromatic bouquet of the açaí--the fruit of an Amazonian palm tree pronounced ah-sigh-yee--or ponder the fruit’s health benefits (açaí enthusiasts claim the fruit does everything from increasing mental clarity and enhancing sleep to slowing the aging process).

Instead, Brondizio thinks about the farmers. A professor of anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington and a Brazil native, Brondizio studies the lifestyles of farmers in the Amazon. He’s interested in how açaí’s global market expansion will affect the forest farmers who grow and supply the fruit, as well as the prospects for integrating development and conservation in the Amazon.

Media reports have interpreted the açaí boom as a positive development for farmers in the Amazon. However, despite the thriving local economy, says Brondizio, few changes are taking place to improve precarious cities, schools, and health centers in one of the most economically deprived regions of Brazil.

"The question is, when the locals have the knowledge and technology and the market demands very high prices for the product, why do they continue to live a pattern of regional and local underdevelopment?" Brondizio asks. "Why are the benefits of a globalizing economy not reinvested locally and regionally? These are questions that reflect the paradoxes of globalization and rural development throughout the world."

He tackles such questions in his new book The Amazonian Caboclo and the Açaí Palm: Forest Farmers in the Global Market. The publication of Brondizio’s book was celebrated in June with a symposium titled "A Nova Amazonia: Forest Farmers, Commodity Markets, and Growing Cities" at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, organized in collaboration with the New York Botanical Garden.

The book, based on 20 years of fieldwork and research, traces the roots of historical Caboclo populations of the Amazonian floodplains and açaí’s journey from rural staple to trendy food and beauty product-additive, with particular attention to the development of commodity chains that support increased demand for the fruit.

As he delves into how events have unfolded in the Amazon in response to the increasing global market for açaí, Brondizio also touches on a long history of global demand for Amazonian forest products and what a new level of demand means for future forests and farmers in the region.

Humble beginnings

For thousands of years, açaí has been an indigenous staple in the Amazon jungle. Slowly, over the past 40 years, it has become a staple food in regional urban centers; over the past 20 years, açaí-based drinks have made their way from rural areas to the cities of Brazil. After an açaí beverage appeared on a Brazilian soap opera in the mid-1990s, it became a must-have product.

"From then, it kind of exploded in popularity in the cities with the youth culture and the surfers," Brondizio says. "Soon it became industrialized, and soon enough, it was global."

Because he was in the area conducting research before açaí gained national and international popularity, Brondizio was able to observe what happened in the lives of rural families and the region before and after the product became globally significant.

The most important species of açaí palm grows naturally in floodplain forests in the eastern part of the Amazon and is managed and planted by riverine farmers using locally developed techniques. açaí palm is culturally intertwined with daily life in this region; it is a core part of regional identity and as intrinsic a food source as wheat is in America.

The açaí farmers Brondizio calls "forest farmers" are widely referred to as "extractivists"--a term he says illustrates the historical, economic, and mostly pejorative identity given to açaí producers.

The term extractivist is problematic, Brondizio says, because it labels the farmers as people who are merely withdrawing the fruits without adding any other value to the process. The term disregards the ability of farmers to create intensive production forests.

When tangible changes are made to land--say, land goes from forest to soybean crops--the farmers who plant and tend the crops are recognized for their economic role and their asserted ownership of the land. In general, Brondizio says, forest land is perceived as unproductive. açaí farmers who produce in forested areas are perceived as not transforming the land, so they are not recognized for their contribution and in many cases don’t have legal claim to the land.

"It’s important to reframe the issue in a way that recognizes their economic contributions and incredible forest management techniques by referring to them as producers," says Brondizio. "In this way, we can better recognize the economic potential of standing forests. In fact, contrary to large portions of the Amazon, the forest farmer’s land has been transformed--without deforestation--in a productive way."

Brondizio recognizes that families in the region are benefiting from açaí’s popularity in important ways, but he questions the long-term economic and social sustainability of this production system. With the global expansion of the market, the largest share of the economy moves to those processing the fruit industrially and adding value through commercialization. With production expanding nationally and even internationally, the value of the raw product to producers tends to decline in spite of a growing and expanding market. Forest farmers in the Amazon end up giving away resources of incredible value for a minimal return.

"That’s also the case of coffee and many other global commodities," says Brondizio, gesturing to the Starbucks coffee cup before him. "We paid $2 for this, and the farmer who produced it is probably struggling to make a living. That’s the paradox that has been very little addressed when discussing the expansion of agricultural and forest-based economies and prospects for sustainable development. In situations where you have structural conditions of inequality, cultural stereotypes, and lack of local organization and incentives, how do you transfer value locally?"

Over time, Brondizio says, the production side gets a smaller and smaller return while manufacturers amass value by manipulating the symbolic meaning of the product we consume. In other words, the Snapple fruit drink producer who packages and markets their pink drink will make far more than the forest farmer who provided the raw product.

Sustainable stereotypes

The region of Brazil in which açaí forest farmers dwell is considered very deprived, Brondizio says. Some marketers stereotype the limited existence of these farmers. A romanticized image of sustainability makes us feel like we’re helping açaí farmers by purchasing that juice at the bagel shop or that face mask with açaí extract at the grocery store.

"There are two predominant stereotypes still guiding development policies in the region," says Brondizio. "There’s the backwoods, primitive, lazy image of opportunistic extractivists, and the romantic, ‘noble savage’ vision of those who live in harmony with the forest, consume what they need, and go when the fruit is ready and just wait for it to fall."

Magazines from The Economist to the popular press--and in many cases academic publications--portray these farmers in a completely passive role, he says. "As an economic system expands, people come from outside with the mindset that they will help these people get into the market, help them to produce, give them the tools they need,  become a kind of savior--without recognizing that the farmers made such a large economy possible in the first place."

Unrecognized for their historical contribution to the regional economy, their knowledge of forest management and products, and their ability to produce and participate in markets of all kinds, farmers are marginalized--for example, they may not receive bank credit to increase production and develop processing industries. Short-term indicators, such as increased cash flow during production peaks of açaí fruit, may seem to indicate positive outcomes for farmers, but they mask the overall dependency of families on government aid programs, says Brondizio.

To make real changes, he says, important structural issues must be addressed: improving access to education and health, extending credit lines to small farmers, and creating policies aimed at developing a transformative economy for the Amazon, expanding value-added tax benefits and employment opportunities at the local level.

"Economic pulses come and go. The issue is bringing lasting investments in social services and the economic ability of the region to compete and overcome the odds of markets," Brondizio says.

Brondizio says ethnographic research and surveys improve our understanding of commodity chains, global markets, and national development programs during different time periods, without losing sight of the people and their environment.

"We can understand a problem from a very local to a more regional perspective and understand how human behavior and perception varies over space and time," he says. "It’s a way not to let history fall through cracks.  People forget that each region has a long history of social and environmental interaction that shapes where we are today and where we are going. Coming to grips with the history of the human environment, human economic and social relationships, helps us to rethink current notions of development and economic relationships.

"I just read a newspaper article about açaí," he continues, "that said something like ‘now they have a chance to learn how to produce this fruit rationally and participate in global markets for sustainable products.’ But global markets have been shaping this region for 400 years. We see the same problems now that they had then."

A family farm legacy

Brondizio’s interest in the livelihood of farm families and dynamics of global markets is personal. Both of his great grandfathers were coffee farmers in Brazil who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, which led his family to migrate to the edge of the city, then move to the city permanently during the industrial expansion of Brazil.

"As a result, my parents grew up in the city, but never lost that connection to rural areas. The story of transformation of rural communities and families when they migrate and how individual families deal with the changing conditions of society is very interesting to me."

Most of Brondizio’s research relates to the lives and livelihoods of rural people in native communities and colonist-migrant families (in the Amazon, Brazil, and Latin America) whose lives have been influenced by agrarian reform or development plans and markets. He pays attention to the trajectory of families, the landscapes, and the forests in which they live.

At IU Bloomington, Brondizio carries out his work as a member of several multidisciplinary research groups. An "environmental anthropologist," he is also associate director of the Anthropological Center for Training and Research on Global Environmental Change and a faculty associate in the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change.

"I feel privileged to be part of a holistic department and large faculty-student groups at Indiana University, which has achieved an international reputation for studies focusing on social-environmental issues, and, more recently, food studies," he says.

Brondizio’s current projects include a larger study of booms in forest products markets since WWII; the formation of new rural communities and the transformation of old ones in areas of global commodity expansion; the emergence of multi-sited household networks between rural and urban areas as an adaptation to these processes; and the way small farmers adapt to climate change in the Amazon.

Brondizio hopes he can call attention to the way society creates and informs social identity for the farmers while inspiring discussions that can lead to better outcomes, or even better policies.

Still, his role remains that of the critical observer, something he and his wife and long-time colleague, Andrea D. Siqueira (who is also associate director of the IU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies), make clear to the farmers they have come to know well.

"At the very beginning, we took the stand that our role is not to implement social policy, but hopefully to influence the way these populations are seen in policy and development programs and the understanding of local livelihoods and environmental knowledge" he says. "Progressively, we have seen a growing attention to our work as a contribution to rethinking rural development and sustainability in the Amazon."

During their latest fieldwork in the Amazon in July 2008, Brondizio and Siqueira found that one of the best ways they can share their research locally and regionally is by organizing meetings and seminars involving families, communities, and local leaders, as well as academic institutions, to present their results and debate their findings.

"Farmers know these problems, their consequences, and possible solutions from within," he says. "At the end, we always end up learning from them."

Jennifer Piurek is assistant managing editor in the IU Office of University Communications in Bloomington.


For more on Eduardo Brondizio’s book, The Amazonian Caboclo and the Açaí Palm: Forest Farmers in the Global Market, see