Açai (Euterpe oleracea) is a small black fruit that hangs from tall palms of the lowland regions in the Amazon. In the archipelago of Bailique, in the northeastern part of the Brazilian Amazon, farmers harvest the fruit by binding their feet together to form a stirrup that grips against the trunk of the tree as they climb up. They hop their way to the top –12 meters above the ground — and then jump from palm to palm with a machete around their waist to cut each bunch. That´s how they’ve harvested açai for years.
Açai has become very popular in Brazil. Because of its nutritional properties, it is also gradually more easily recognized in the rest of Latin America. But while commercial expansion can sometimes become a double-edged sword for producers from biodiverse areas who don’t benefit directly, in Bailique, this fruit is part of a unique project of community empowerment.
While many projects for sustainable economic growth start through the development of a commercial supply chain, Bailique –with the Community Protocol Project (CPP)– took a different route. The CPP was proposed to the communities of Bailique in 2013 by the Brazilian non-profit Grupo de Trabalho Amazônico (Amazon Working Group), made up of a network of Amazonian institutions. The leaders of the communities decided to participate as a way to facilitate their own processes of local organization. Now, harvesting açai is an important part of the initiative that involves most of the communities from the archipielago.
Three years after that initial dialogue, in 2016, the people from Bailique established their first community protocol. This tool is recognized by Brazilian legislation as a binding document and it´s designed to facilitate community management for the responsible use of natural resources. It is an organizational work strategy, developed collectively between local leaders and technical advisors. It emphasizes process over end product, but in the case of Bailique and the açai harvesters, it managed to, literally, bear fruit in record time.
Roberta Ramos, one of the consultants from Grupo de Trabalho Amazônico, facilitates the implementation of the protocol. She explains that it is designed as a proactive measure to improve the living conditions for these communities. Its objective is to prepare its members to map out their own government system, define procedures for better decision making and establish documented criteria for the use of natural resources. “It is not an imposition,” says Ramos while explaining that protocols are designed so that each community can determine their processes.
Thirty six out of 51 communities participated. With workshops, assemblies, and informal meetings, they eventually formed the Association of Traditional Communities of Bailique, as the representative body of their communities for specific decisions regarding their natural resources. “It was hard to work with the government, so we just worked directly with the communities,” says Ramos about her experience with ATCB.
The communities of Bailique are very poor, so using their renewable resources well could bring about significant social and environmental improvements. “Bailique lacks all sort of services, health care, electricity, potable water,” says Ramos. This affects their entire economy: even though fishing is a stable source of income, without electricity for refrigeration, the fish can’t always be adequately stored.
Bailique also produces essential oils and medicinal plants used by the same communities. However, the income from those products is not enough. “There has never been an effective system for commerce.”
The protocol helped the development of a market for açai, wild-harvested and abundant. It was the smart option. Producers and community leaders identified the risks and benefits from harvesting the fruits instead of cutting down trees for timber.
This was all done from within. Now, the chronology speaks for itself. The process ended in December 2014. Aiming to sell their acai at the 2016 olympics, by May 2016, the ATCB contacted Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a nonprofit conformed of representatives of diverse sectors from society that develops protocols to implement and evaluate socially and environmentally conscious practices for forest management.
FSC emphasizes forest management according to ten principles promoting welfare and security for producers, the development of a sustainable economy and the conservation of biodiversity. According to Ramos, this is a complex, and sometimes drawn-out, process that includes an evaluation and follow up, a defined strategy and well documented results from producers.
In Bailique, however, all that took less than a year. By December 2016, açai was labeled. How? Thanks to the organization by the same community of harvesters. “By June 2016 Imaflora [the entity directly responsible for evaluating FSC certification] was invited to witness one of the meetings by Protocolo Comunitario de Bailique. By December, all these communities had already met the certification requirements”, says Junia Karst Caminha Ruggiero, from Imaflora, a Brazilian certifying body.
According to Rugiero “that demonstrated their capacity to organize and adapt to implement the principles held by FSC.” That efficiency –unprecedented in situations like this one– demonstrated the potential of these protocols to “empower communities and promote the sustainable management of these resources”.
Although this process has the principal aim of generating income for producers, for Ramos its most important component is being part of a broader strategy to eventually start a new and different educational system in Bailique: five percent out of everything that’s earned finances “The School of the Bailique Family,” which aside from implementing the national curriculum, will also emphasize skills appropriate to life in the forest.
The development of community protocols could be seen, above all, as a tool for dialogue. When the certifiers identified problems with the security of harvesters climbing the trees, the community was ready for a dialogue on equal terms. Helmets? They made it harder for climbers to move their heads. Belts to hold on to the trunks? Made it impossible to jump from tree to tree without climbing down again. Sheaths for the machetes?
They reached an agreement. The machetes had to be inside sheaths that protected harvesters from the blade. Helmets and belts, on the other hand were optional; their use did not correspond with the reality and experiences of the acai producers from Bailique. They also set a limit to the height of each tree —12 meters— for security and to provide shade to other plants. It was a fruitful dialogue: the community Imaflora and FSC found was organized, knew what they needed and what they could produce.
For Geova Alvez, president of the Bailique Association, “The certification was important because it brought knowledge, self-worth and opportunities to improve life in a structured and complete way.” The protocol also helped members identify the threat against their territory from cattle ranchers. With it, Bailique communities have educated themselves about their territorial rights and are more prepared to exercise their rights and pressure government authorities.
Bailique’s açai reverses the usual relationship between community organizing and the market. In this case, the community work lead, after arduous work, to the commercial option. Participants organized and then identified effective strategies to generate income and protect their territories. “The protocol puts together science and traditional knowledge,” says Ramos. And it is, indeed, about joining forces: between science and traditional knowledge and between conservation and community organizing.
And they are looking for buyers.