In the Amazon city of Iquitos, Peru, people eat camu camu (Myrciaria dubia) with salt when it is still green. When the fruit matures, its sweet and sour yellow pulp is used to prepare juices and local desserts. When it’s in season, it is consumed everywhere for cheap. “People who eat it never get colds,” says Mario Pinedo, researcher for Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon. “It has over 20 times more vitamin C than most citrus fruits.” By the late nineties its knockout vitamin content helped camu camu exports soar. Almost as quickly, they plummeted: while in 2007 the value of camu camu exports reached USD 4.5 million, by 2008 —a year later— exports amounted to less than USD 2 million. It´s the story of a “super food” that´s still taking off.
Camu camu abounds on the banks of rivers and lakes around the regions of Loreto and Ucayali. Well-managed, it provides an attractive way for local communities to make money from the native forest. Years before it was discovered as an attractive commodity, it was informally harvested from canoes paddled by local farmers who used it for desserts and juices. It was also commonly believed to help prevent illness. By the mid-nineties, camu camu began to be sold in Japan as a “super food” and cure-all, by Agroindustrial del Peru. “Agroindustrial started it all,” explains Pinedo. Other companies piled in. In the United States and Europe the market penetration of the fruit was much lower, despite its marketing as a super food.
While over the decade to 2007 the value of camu camu exports grew, the rise was very bumpy.
Many of the smaller producers who jumped on the opportunity that came from Japan were ultimately unable to meet the demands of the new market. Some of the blame lies with changes in the relations between Peru and Japan (among other things, because of the connections with Japan of Peru’s former president Alberto Fujimori) and the recession of 2008, but Pinedo maintains that the problem was essentially home-grown. Without adequate infrastructure and logistics to meet the demand, the integrity of the supply chain was compromised. In 2007 –the same year camu camu exports reached their peak—Pinedo visited a camu camu trade fair where he found products adulterated with colorants and artificial flavorings. “The market exploded and so did the informality. I think it was a matter of time for the Japanese market. They invested too much to risk getting additives and colorants.” With export demand so heavily concentrated in one country´s market, retrenchment hit camu camu producers hard.
While camu camu sales surged, in Peru there was no legislation to regulate farming in natural floodplains. It was a problem that according to Miguel Tang, Director of Green Economy at the Association of Amazonians for the Amazon (AMPA) —a Peruvian non-profit organization— caused the commercial informality described by Pinedo. “They were no man’s lands, without any specific legal status, so people began cutting out camu camu branches carelessly”. Regulating whether camu camu was harvested at the right times was impossible without a clear legal framework. This lack of farming coordination messed up harvesting times in relation to the market. “Why did some producers add colorants?”, he asks. “Because they had no choice but to harvest before the floods, when the fruit was too green. They had to sell it like that.” Cause and effect: camu camu dies when it is cut right before water levels rise. According to Tang, this had a significant impact on production.
From the distribution side, for Gino Samaniego, administrator at Ecoandino Industria Orgánica, the mistake made by many exporters was that they were unable to find a market niche and keep it. “For many buyers it was too easy to leave camu camu.” According to Samaniego, the simultaneous rise in acerola or barbados cherry, Malpighia emarginata, worsened the situation for camu camu. Acerola is also very high in Vitamin C, it is more easily cultivated and, in general, is more widely known than camu camu. Samaniego is convinced that there are still new markets to tap. In fact, he refused to use the word “crisis.” “Camu camu sells steadily in most supermarkets in Peru. Now, it´s gaining ground in South Korea,” he explains. In the United States, Ecoandino sells from 500 kilos to a ton of processed camu camu per week. “Camu camu is down but alive. Now we just have to diversify the way we sell it.”
Nowadays, the biggest exporter of camu camu is still Agroindustrial del Perú; the early mover. With its own plantations in Pucallpa, Ucayali, and direct connections to various companies in Japan, it has doubled down and integrated its supply chain, from production to distribution of camu camu products. In Japan, Amazon Camu Camu, which distributes camu camu derivates, is also owned by Takayuki Suzuki, Agroindustrial´s founder.
While Agroindustrial del Peru exports mostly camu camu products, Ecoandino Industria Orgánica —located in Lima—has opted for diversification, offering a variety of “super foods.” Aside from camu camu, Ecoandino also sells coffee, cacao, quinoa and lesser known products like arracacha and lucuma.
There are healthy signs that the export market has also diversified from its early days. From 2012 to 2016, Japan, through Agroindustial del Perú, has remained as the main importer of camu camu pulp, concentrating about 44% of all sales. Italy is second with 22.19%, followed by the United States with 12.1%.
While Pinedo and Linares described the evolution of camu camu as a “crisis,” they are also hopeful. Pinedo sees a lot of potential for growth at home: “We should have developed the domestic market before thinking of exporting.” In fact, several companies are now focused on these national markets, which are particularly well-suited for small producers. Frutama, in Peru, connects indigenous producers of camu camu pulp to global markets.
Tang is also enthusiastic about the opportunities in Peru´s larger markets. “We need a marketing strategy to promote camu camu as a substitution to passion fruit and other citric fruits.” He is also hopeful about local efforts that are pushing for legislation that protects community-managed lands to harvest camu camu.
In Colombia, where some camu camu is also found, Selva Nevada works with the Association of Women of Tarapacá (ASMUCOTAR) to make and sell ice cream with Amazonian products in some of Colombia´s biggest cities.
In retrospective, the fall of camu camu has some important lessons about the challenges of developing markets in places like Iquitos. Depending only on overly concentrated markets can generate harmful bottle necks. Maintaining integrity and a reputation for quality is key. And growing at the right pace so that farmers´ capacities and buyers´ expectations align. But the product´s potential is undeniable, not just for its commercial attractiveness as a “super food”, but also because of what it could mean to Loreto´s ecosystem: adding value to the forest with a renewable product. Not timber, not cattle. Despite the bumps in the road, camu camu is still worth keeping an eye on.