food / travel

Exotic Amazon Fruit Lures Farmers Away From Coca Cultivation

A wealth of hidden, unfamiliar fruits could help protect Colombia's embattled rainforests by luring peasants and settlers away from coca farming.

A coconut plantation in  Bogota, Colombia
A coconut plantation in Bogota, Colombia
María Paula Rubiano

GUAVIARE — When Flaviano Mahecha arrived here 23 years ago, in the southern Colombian department of Guaviare, he set about doing what so many settlers had done before him: scraping the leaves of coca bushes planted on the remains of destroyed Amazon forest.

With a brother-in-law, he borrowed money to buy all the tools needed to complete this initial phase of the drug production process. But on the day before the scraping work was to begin, army planes flew over and fumigated the area. Suddenly, Mahecha had nothing to show for efforts but 13 million pesos (about 3,800 euros) of debt.

"That was my cue that I needed to find another source of income," he says. "I started talking to local farmers and said, maybe if we looked beyond the end of our noses, we might see that coca brought us nothing but trouble."

It took a decade for them to start making money from fruits like dark açaí or yellow araza.

It was a hard sell. A raspachín (coca scraper) can earn up to 30 euros a day, six times what someone can expect to make tending livestock or growing other types of crops. For several years, Mahecho traveled the department seeking backing for his plans, eventually convincing 412 families from 39 villages to join him and form ASOPROCEGUA, an association of Guaviare farmers, in 2001. That was also the year Mahecha's brother-in-law — the one he'd brought to Guaviare with the hope of getting rich on coca — was brutally murdered.

ASOPROCEGUA members decided to sell wood, livestock and forest fruits that, at the time, were only eaten by natives. Wood and animals yielded an immediate income. But it took a decade for them to start making money from fruits like dark açaí or yellow araza.

Mahecha recalls how in 2006, with help from the European Union, the Amazonian Institute of Scientific Research (SINCHI for short) did field studies on small forest plots (of between 8 and 20 hectares) owned by peasant families. The unused patches of Amazon forest turned out to be veritable cornucopias, teeming with things like camu camu berries, naranjillas (little oranges) and other species with nutritional, medicinal or cosmetic properties. To date, SINCHI has identified at least 20 valuable Amazonian species in this area

Arguably the most significant implication of their discovery, according to Luz Marina Mantilla, the head of SINCHI, is that the fruit trees can help block the deforestation of the Amazon, which constitutes over 60% of all deforestation occurring in Colombia. If a peasant knows he can earn 1,000 pesos (around 0.3 euros) for every kilogram of açaí picked off a tree, he'll be far less inclined to cut it down, Mantilla explains. Instead he'll want more trees.

That's where ASOPROCEGUA comes in. In partnership with Selva Nevada ice creams, the association last year sent 60 tons of açaí to Bogotá, where people are able to savor the product in prominent eateries like Wok, Harry's, 80 sillas and Di Lucca. Mahecha says the cooperative sells one ton of açaí for approximately 2,300 euros.

Visión Amazonia, an ambitious government and international program to stop deforestation in the Colombian Amazon by 2020, is allocating some of its $100-million budget to promoting the açaí and the Moriche and Milpesos palm fruits. But before it starts spending, it might recall the history of previous, failed substitution programs.

In the 1990s, as the government sprayed glyphosate over the rainforest to destroy coca plants, it was also receiving aid for a program known as Plan Verde (Green Plan), which involved "ecological restoration, reforestation with commercial and environmental goals, and agroforestry" in Amazonian regions. Documents from that era show that the Ministry of Environment was working on turning forest fruit into cash crops as early as 1992. Things didn't work out as planned, however, in part because there was no big market yet for such produce.

When it comes to production and sales, decent infrastructure is vital.

Peasants let fruit rot on the hillsides, while aerial spraying continued "mercilessly," Mahecha recalls. Glyphosate, a controversial herbicide, certainly does destroy coca plants. But the chemical also kills whatever else is around it, forcing local peasants to burn their poisoned farmland and opt for livestock farming.

More recently, however, people in the area — particularly women and indigenous residents — have found a new way to make a living: entering local lands to pick edible fruits. The women of the ASMUCOTAR association in the district of Tarapacá have been picking camu camu berries by the Putumayo river for the past 12 years. Members of the Nukak Makú tribe also enter ASOPROCEGUA lands to pick açaí. Typically the fruits are then sold to enterprising middlemen like Fernando Carvajal, an engineer who started Selva Viva, a company that distributes 10 Amazonian fruits nationwide.

Now, word of the project and the products it produces is spreading worldwide, and not just because of global concerns over the Amazon. Market forces are also at work. These fruits, in other words, are in greater and greater demand. The Brazilian company Petruz Fruity, for example, sells 150 tons of açaí products annually — worth $5 million.

Visión Amazonia has already signed agreements with four farming associations for the "sustainable" production of forest fruits in return for providing marketing and technical assistance. But the state must improve local infrastructure, says Alejandro Álvarez, head of Selva Nevada ice creams. When it comes to production and sales, decent infrastructure is vital.

For now, Flaviano Mahecha has his work cut out. On his 12 hectares, he alternates between açaí, yucca, banana, and cattle, fish and poultry farming. His objective — just as it was like 20 years ago — is to wean locals away from coca farming and curb deforestation. That, and to have his association produce 1,000 tons of fruit by 2021.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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