A wealth of hidden, unfamiliar fruits could help protect Colombia's embattled rainforests by luring peasants and settlers away from coca farming.
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.
Workers ripping out coca plants in a field by the town of Turbo, Colombia – Photo: ZUMA
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.