Amazonian fruits have been known for centuries. When the first colonizers arrived in Brazil, the Indians were already familiar with several species – such as abiu, biriba, peach palm, cocono, and umari. But since the Portuguese preferred to cultivate European and Asian fruits, the Brazilian native species were relegated to a secondary position.
The good news is that many of these species are now being rediscovered in Brazil, and attracting the attention of the world.
Following the success of cupuaçu (pronounced coo-poo-ah-soo) and açaí (pronounced ah-sah-ee), the latter being currently the native fruit with the highest penetration in the international market, tasty species are now coming up, such as the bacuri.
It used to be fruit of choice of famous Brazilian diplomat Baron of Rio Branco, and is among the main bets for conquering importers. But the bacuri is but one of 220 existing native fruit species in the Amazon, which account for 44% of the 500 Brazilian plant varieties that yield edible fruits. In the world, there are 3,000 species of tropical fruits.
"The bacuri is one fruit with a great chance of entering the foreign market due to its flavor, which is almost always very sweet, and to its pleasant aroma," says researcher José Urano de Carvalho, of Embrapa Eastern Amazon (a division of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), who specializes on tropical fruit culture.
The researcher’s claim is backed by the increasing consultations from importers, distributors and fruit farmers, and by the growing demand in the international market for exotic, beneficial-to-health products.
The list of native products with a potential for production, according to Urano, includes other regional fruits such as abiu, araçá, buriti, camu-camu, cocono, uxi, piquia, tucuma, taperebá, umari, sorva, mari-mari, pajurá, muruci (murici, in the Northeast), murumuru, South American sapote and peach palm.
According to the researcher, nowadays there is a wide appeal for fruits containing substances or bioactive elements that may act in the human body to prevent diseases. According to him, the camu-camu is another example of an Amazonian fruit widely sought after by the international market.
"Interest in the camu-camu is linked to its high concentration of vitamin C," he explains. There are also fruits unknown in Brazil, such as the borojo, which are already being exported.
"These fruits are often used as raw material for the formulation of mixes (combinations of fruit juices). One of the best-selling mixes in the international market involves açaí and guaraná," he says.
Near the end of 2006, Mintel, a British market research and analysis group, identified for 2007 a global trend toward Amazonian products. According to information disclosed by the group, consumers will grow increasingly interested in unique ingredients and aromas, especially in terms of Indian resources from the tropical forest.
The great problem in the production of native fruits is their pronounced seasonality. The açaí crop concentrates in the second half of the year, especially in the months of August, September and October.
"This is a big problem. Açaí, particularly in the northern Brazilian state of Pará, is a food for a considerable share of the population, as it is consumed in the main meal of the day, accompanied by cassava flour and fish or shrimp," he explains.
When it comes to riverside populations, açaí is their lunch, and often their dinner and breakfast as well. During the off-season, the price of the product increases a lot. The standard measure for commercialization is the 14.2 kilograms can.
During the harvest, a can is sold in Belém do Pará (capital of Pará) for 7 reais (US$ 3.45). This month, which is in the off-season, the price already reached 100 reais (approximately US$ 50).
The bacuri, which is still entirely harvested by hand, "ripens and falls" in the period from January through April. The cupuaçu is harvested from December through June. The peach palm and the piquia are also bore during the first half of the year.
"In fact, approximately 80% of the Amazonian native species bear fruit in the first half of the year. There are few fruits bore in the second half, such as açaí, mamey and abiu," he says.
Despite the hindrances, native species are beginning to enter the official statistics for fruits. "The expansion of fruit culture was one of the most important changes in agriculture in the Amazon in the last 10 years," he claims.
Presently, fruit culture is the fourth major economic activity in the Amazon, after iron ore, wood and cattle raising, as it includes species from other regions in Brazil and from other countries, such as orange, passion fruit, acerola and soursop.
According to data provided by the Brazilian Fruit Institute (Ibraf), the GDP from regional fruit culture in 2005 (the most recent datum available) was 380 million reais (US$ 187 million), of which more than 80% concentrated in the state of Pará.
With the exceptions of açaí and cupuaçu, Amazonian fruits are still inexpressive in that ranking, and have zero visibility in the "other fruits" item of the export basket.
Brazil is the world’s third largest fruit producer, after China and India. Still according to data from Ibraf, of the best-performing Brazilian agricultural products in the last four years, fruits ranked fifth in the export ranking, with a 91% increase in sales, after alcohol/sugar, meats, coffee and grains.
Presently, the Brazilian fruit production is 41.1 million tons. Highlights among exported fruits are banana, melon, mango, lemon, coconut, grape, orange, pineapple, cashew nut, and Brazil nut.
Part of the solution for meeting the national and international market demand involves investing in new areas for sustainable planting, and encouraging the establishment of agricultural industries. Foreign investors are increasingly common in the Amazon.
One of the solutions found by producers to grow and gain visibility is to join each other by means of cooperatives. The first one to appear in the region was the Mixed Cooperative of Tomé-Açu (Camta), established in 1931 in the municipality of Tomé-Açu, in the state of Pará.
The first families of Japanese immigrants arrived at the state in the late 1920s. Now, the cooperative is a model of community work and environmental integration. Counting on 124 members, it works with 14 different species of tropical fruits, some of which are exported in the form of 100% frozen natural pulp.
"The flagship of Camta is açaí, with an yearly production of 450 tons," says Francisco Wataru Sakaguchi, director-president at Camta. The cooperative exports açaí and passion fruit to Japan, the United States and the European Union.
"We offer to our associates, in addition to guaranteeing the purchase of fruit, funding for production increase, technical assistance, commercialization of black pepper and cocoa," Sakaguchi explains.
In recent years, Camta started to invest in fruit mixes, capitalizing on the global demand for functional foods – known as nutraceutics or superfoods, those containing substances that are beneficial to health. "It is a global trend," Sakaguchi assures.
One of the main suppliers of açaí and cupuaçu to Camta is 59-year-old farmer Shigeru Hiramizu, who migrated to Brazil with his parents in 1964. In 2006, Hiramizu sold to the cooperative 120,000 kilograms of cupuaçu and 44,000 kilograms of açaí.
"I deliver approximately 70% of my production to the cooperative. After being transformed into pulp, my production is exported to the United States and Japan," says the farmer, who also cultivates black pepper and palm oil in his property.
Another associate at Camta who is satisfied with fruit culture is Alberto Keichi Oppata. His family has been in the region for 70 years. Oppata produces mostly cupuaçu, acerola, passion fruit and cocoa. Working in his property are three permanent employees and 15 temporary, hired during harvest time.
Oppata implemented an innovative method for fruit planting. "We work on a consortium system. In the same area, we plant cocoa, passion fruit, black pepper, mahogany, and açaí," says Oppata.
In between one culture and another, spaces are left of three to five meters. "In addition to ensuring a better utilization of the planted area, the consortium system allows for a better control of noxious weeds," he explains.
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