This palm tree nearly went extinct. Now its super-berries are helping to save it
A lush tropical forest that stretched more than 2,500 miles along Brazil's coastline, and inland to Paraguay and Argentina, the Atlantic Forest once covered 12% of Brazil's land area. But in the 16th century, Portuguese colonizers began replacing forest with sugar cane, and later, coffee plantations. Since then, agriculture and urban expansion have accelerated deforestation and today, just 7% of the original forest remains.
The juçara palm is threatened not only by deforestation, but also by its own tastiness. The tree's palm heart -- a soft fruit in the trunk -- is a nutritious delicacy. Most palms can regrow from their shoots but the juçara cannot, so when the palm heart is removed, the tree dies.
Historically, indigenous communities used the tree for food and timber, but small-scale harvesting of this slow-growing palm didn't threaten its survival. That changed in the 1960s when commercial exploitation caused rapid decline and the tree became endangered.
Now, a Brazil-based startup says it has found a solution. Juçaí harvests the tree's berries, rather than its palm hearts, so the tree can remain standing -- producing fruit every year and helping the forest to flourish.
Founded in 2015, Juçaí works with a network of local farmers and buys juçara berries for its products, including smoothies and sorbets, says Bruno Corrêa, the company's general manager.
"The idea from the start was to build a range of products that was not only good quality and nutritious, but also that created a positive, virtuous circle to preserve the tree," he says.
Farming can help save the forest
The Atlantic Forest is protected by law, says Rafael Bitante, forest restoration manager for the SOS Mata Atlântica, a non-governmental organization that supports reforestation initiatives. However, weak enforcement has led to illegal exploitation of the juçara palm, he says.
That's where Juçaí comes in. Through farming cooperatives, the company works with nearly 900 families in Espirito Santo State, and its reach is extending south into Parana State. Farmers plant new trees, or nurture existing ones, while Juçaí oversees logistics and provides the equipment needed to turn the berries into pulp and separate out the seeds -- which are then planted.
Illegal cutting in the forest is still an issue, but harvesting berries offers a comparable income and is a "clear and straightforward" option for farmers, says Corrêa. The tree's economic value incentivizes farmers to preserve it, he says, and that benefits the whole ecosystem.
"The tree is important not only in terms of forest coverage and how it protects the soil but also for the fauna, especially birds," he says, adding that farmers leave a third of the berries on the tree during each harvest, to support wildlife.
Others have also seen the value of the living tree. Açaí Barbacuá, a family-run business, and EcoNativa, an organic farming cooperative, have created networks for local famers to harvest and sell juçara berry pulp.
These juçara projects are a form of "agroforestry." This approach to land management mixes nature and agriculture, by establishing farms on forest fringes and planting crop-yielding trees on farms and in gardens, says Laury Cullen, a forest engineer with Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas, an environmental research organization in Brazil.
Combined with reforested "corridors," agroforestry zones can provide "stepping-stones" that help wildlife like butterflies and birds move between fragmented sections of the remaining forest, says Cullen.
Agroforestry also benefits communities, says Cullen. In Sao Paulo State, where he works, farmers grow coffee trees beneath the shade of the forest canopy. According to Cullen, biodiversity and canopy coverage have increased, while farmers' incomes have grown by 26%.
Bitante says the type of sustainable farming Juçaí promotes benefits the environment and the economy. "It is essential to strengthen the link between the maintenance of biodiversity and society, valuing the standing forest and guaranteeing the protection of this beautiful biome."
Juçaí hopes that creating a strong market for the juçara berry can help build a better future for the farmers and, in turn, the forest.
Just like the açai berry, the superfood is finding a fan base among the wellness crowd, says Corrêa. Juçara berries are high in energy-dense fatty acids and packed with antioxidants in the form of polyphenols, known for promoting heart health. A 2020 study on the effect of juçara and açai consumption in healthy adults found that after four weeks, levels of antioxidant enzymes and "good" cholesterol increased.
Certified organic and vegan, Juçaí currently sells its products in both supermarkets and specialized health food stores in Brazil, Chile and Canada, and hopes to expand into other markets. "People are increasingly aware of what they eat, both from a nutrition perspective as well from a sustainable one," says Corrêa.
Since its launch, Juçaí has been responsible for keeping around 31,000 juçara palm trees standing, Corrêa says. For Juçaí, preserving the Atlantic Forest and its biodiversity is what drives the business.
"Juçara is the iconic tree of the Atlantic Forest," he says. "The product only exists because of that sustainability mission."
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