Bringing Back the Atlantic Forest’s Juçara Palm

In Brazil’s São Paulo state, an agroforestry program is betting on the next “superfood” to support economic development alongside conservation.

HARVESTING THE FRUITS of the juçara palm, known as the “mother of Atlantic Forest” is not an easy task. Traditionally, harvesters have climbed the long tree trunk, often some 15 meters high, to reach the dark purple fruit called coquinho (small nuts, in Portuguese), which are very similar to the açaí berries from the Amazon region.

The juçara palm is known as “mother of the Atlantic Forest” because of its vast importance to fauna — it serves as food for around 70 species of birds and mammals. Photo by Mateus Figueiredo.

From up in the branches, they throw down bunches of coquinho, which can weigh up to five kilos each. On the ground, others use nets and tarpaulins to cushion the fall and prevent damage to the fruit. While some still practice this tiring and dangerous method, it is not as common as it used to be — many farmers now have machines to do the work, or use a long stick with a machete at the end to reach the fruit.

Whatever method they use, those who rely on the tree for their livelihood have confronted steep juçara declines throughout southeastern Brazil’s fragmented Atlantic Forest, which has itself been decimated by clearing for logging and agriculture. But today, many of these harvesters are part of a burgeoning agroforestry effort to bring the juçara back.

BEFORE JUCARA PALMS were targeted for their fruit, there was a significant industry around harvesting the heart of palm from the tree trunks. But getting this tasty food, which is rich in fiber and low in calories and has conquered both the national and international markets, means killing the plant — the palm has a single stalk, which does not regrow.

As the heart of palm became popular in the twentieth century, the industry began to pose a real threat to the trees. In places like Vale do Ribeira, a region in south São Paulo state, low farming productivity led many to turn to the extraction of native palm hearts. Farmers were harvesting not only from mature palms but young ones, limiting the species’ ability to propagate. The trees were then cut for logging and charcoal production.

Much wealth was generated from the trees in the 1960s several canning industries were built in large part around the heart of palm, which became a popular alternative to canned asparagus. Throughout the 1970s, however, as the trees became scarcer, many companies went bankrupt or moved to the north to explore the potential in açai berries.

By the 1980s, the Brazilian government had imposed serious restrictions on felling the palms. Still, some rural populations had few other options for generating income. “Many extractors walked more than five hours inside conservation parks and forests looking for the juçara palm because the occurrence of this tree became increasingly scarce,” says Artur Dalton Lima, an agroforestry expert with Cooperfloresta, a cooperative of community forest producers.

In the early 1990s, Brazil’s Environment Ministry placed juçara palm on the list of threatened species. In 2008, the federal government upgraded its status to endangered, officially banning all heart of palm harvesting. Still, the extraction of palm hearts continued.

THE JUCARA PALM is known as “mother of the Atlantic Forest” because of its vast importance to fauna — it serves as food for around 70 species of birds and mammals. That’s why Florestal Foundation, a program of the São Paulo government, started a reforestation program with local community cooperation in 2020. “Juçara has an important ecological role in the forest food chain, ecosystem succession process, and maintaining the Atlantic Forest,’’ says Carolina Kors, environmental specialist of the repopulation project.

Basically, the program is attempting to build a circular economy. Farmers harvest juçara fruits from their own yards and make a pulp that looks like ice cream, during which process the seeds are extracted. Florestal Foundation purchases these seeds and distributes them in the Atlantic Forest as part of a repopulation project.

Today, more than 100 communities in São Paulo cultivate juçara trees in backyards and agroforestry plots. Photo courtesy of Florestal Foundation.

A drone distributes palm seeds over Carlos Botelho State Park, which protects a portion of the Atlantic Forest. Within the next 10 years, researchers hope to seed juçara across 48,000 hectares. Photo courtesy of Florestal Foundation.

This program was a long-time in the making. “We realized in 1997 that açai berries have developed a lot in north Brazil due to the consumption of the fruit,” says Gilberto Ohta, director of Vale do Ribeira Coopercentral, a family farming cooperative that brings together more than 1,500 farmers. “So, we copied this strategy and started to harvest the juçara fruits to make the pulp. It is a product that generates economic viability for us.”

Today, more than 100 communities in São Paulo cultivate juçara trees in backyards and agroforestry spaces, outside of natural reserves in the Atlantic Forest. These farmers have other crops as well, such as banana and a palm heart called “pupunha.” Pupunha comes from another type of palm, but the extraction is legal because it does not kill the plant, which can regrow.

According to Ohta, because coquinho from juçara is a very new product, Forestal Foundation’s seed trade is an important part of the effort to transform the fruit into an economically viable product.

In 2020, the foundation’s repopulation effort got a boost when they tested seed dispersal in a forest reserve using a helicopter. According to scientists involved with the effort, 200,000 new seedlings were generated as a result, one per square meter of the sown area. Since then, the foundation has been employing two drones to disperse the seeds, a more affordable option. “In 2021, we discovered some agricultural drone companies with technology that could adapt to throw 3.5 kilograms of seeds per takeoff,” explains Kors.

Last year, the goal was to repopulate 600 hectares of the Atlantic Forest in 17 natural parks across the state with 30 tons of seeds. Within 10 years, researchers hope to seed juçara palms across 48,000 hectares.

THOSE LEADING THE juçara restoration effort hope the fruit gains in popularity, much as the açaí berry has. Known as the “superfruit” of the Amazon, açaí injects over $1.5 billion annually into northern Brazil’s Pará state, which is responsible for 95 percent of national production. Of the total, 60 percent is sold within Pará, 35 percent to other regions of the country, and 5 percent is exported abroad, mainly to the United States.

While Pará residents usually eat açaí as a meal with shrimp, meat, and other proteins, in other parts of Brazil the pulp is a kind of dessert, commonly consumed with fruits and seeds. In the US, berries are marketed as a health and wellness product because of açaí’s high load of antioxidants, healthy fats, and low sugar content.

What many people do not know is that juçara fruits’ nutritional value even surpasses that of açaí, Juçara, for example, is richer in potassium, iron, and zinc. It is also four times higher in anthocyanins, antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory and antidiabetic properties, and that can also improve blood circulation and protect the body against the accumulation of fatty plaques. Given its high nutritional value, several municipalities in São Paulo have incorporated the fruit into school menus.

In general, juçara product is still sold on a small scale, but the communities of Vale do Ribeira are looking to develop a juçara production chain. “With the fruit harvest, there is a financial return much greater than the extraction of palm hearts, because there is the pulp trade and selling seeds for the repopulation of the species,” says Lima.

In addition to generating income for family farmers, it will maintain the native palm tree of the Atlantic Forest, a biome that has been reduced to 12 percent of its original size. “Thinking about the environmental issue, prioritizing conservation, it is essential to work with the fruits. It is a regenerative economy, circular economy,” adds Otha.

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