Can Açaí Berries Save the Amazon?

sambazon acai
Image courtesy Sambazon

Sambazon is synonymous with açaí. Now, the brand that’s committed to rainforest conservation and sustainability, has just reached a milestone.

It’s been two decades since Ryan Black brought açaí from Brazil to the U.S. for the first time. The berry, popular on the hot beaches of Rio where he found himself for the Y2K millennium celebration, was virtually unheard of in the U.S. Black set out to change that. Along with his brother, Jeremy, and some friends, he founded Sambazon in 2000. The brand is now synonymous with açaí. Sambazon, which stands for Sustaining and Managing the Brazilian Amazon, announced it has provided $1 million to the açaí growing communities of the Amazon to date. 

Funding forest conservation

The funds were self-sponsored and via EcoCert’s Fair for Life Fair Trade Fund and have supported a number of projects including efforts across education, healthcare, infrastructure, and other community projects. It’s also supported the communities with training and assistance in best harvesting practices for açaí to keep the forest healthy.

“We are honored to have reached the $1 million milestone and will continue our commitment to making a difference for açaí growers and improving their communities,” Jeremy Black says. “From supporting education, healthcare, and community projects, our investments are making a difference in the lives of thousands of açaí family farmers.”

Image courtesy Chennawit Yulue on Pexels

The cumulative efforts have seen school renovations, including the Açaituba Early Childhood School, which houses 100 students at any given time, was determined as the neediest community through the Fair Trade Funds socioeconomic analysis.  

Sambazon helped to build a medical station in the Igarapé Amazonas in Macapá which is estimated to benefit 200 local families, giving them access to basic health services.

“When we started nobody even knew what açaí was, so for us to now have brought millions and millions of dollars into the local grower communities, donated over $1M to help improve their lives and protect hundreds of thousands of acres of the Amazon, it’s really amazing,” Ryan says.

Sambazon has been championing change in the Amazon for two decades, and the urgency is only increasing in recent years; the world’s largest rainforest has become a leading emissions producer as Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has relaxed protections. For Sambazon, protecting this fragile ecosystem has always been at the core of the business.

“When we first went to Brazil and were introduced to açaí, we made it our mission to show the world this incredible superfood,” Ryan says. “After meeting more of the local community and spending time in Brazil, we quickly realized that we couldn’t create Sambazon without creating a responsible supply chain and giving back to the community and the Amazon.”

What is açaí ?

The fat-rich palm berry is the most abundant fruit in the Amazon—and one of the hardest to get. It grows high up in the palm trees that harvesters must climb carefully to cut down. It’s sustained the regional populations for millennia, containing some of the highest levels of essential fatty acids of any food. As a result, açaí goes bad quickly. It’s why it’s most often sold frozen, like ice cream. 

“Açaí is a superfood that is really embedded in nature and the earth, which is why it’s popular among surfing and yoga communities,” says Jeremy. Its superfood status made it very much a near-overnight success in the U.S.; in the early 2000s as Americans were getting healthier, açaí was a revelation. It promised all of the benefits of superfoods, but without the chalky unpleasantness of green powders or protein shakes. If any food busted the myth that healthy food tasted terrible, it was açaí.

Image courtesy Sambazon

By 2008, the company had raised more than $12 million. The brand was already a smoothie bar staple, with some smoothie bars completely dedicated to the berry. Açaí was also a mainstay at festivals including Coachella.

Açaí was indeed a hit, but for the brand, it was always meant as an entry point to a bigger conversation about sustainability. “Aside from its health benefits, we’ve worked to share our message that açaí also makes the Amazon more valuable standing than cut down, and each purchase helps the grower communities,” says Jeremy. “By creating a purpose-driven brand with a product that so many Americans know and love, we’re also spreading a message about the importance of social and environmental responsibility.” 

Seeding Change

The brand was at the center of the 2021 documentary, Seeding Change, directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Richard Yelland. The Black brothers executive produced and funded the film, which also spotlights other sustainably-minded brands. “It’s about a generation of social entrepreneurs who have built successful companies with foundations in social and environmental responsibility,” says Ryan. 

Alongside the Sambazon family, the film features other brands in the space, like the member-based online supermarket, Thrive Market, Dr. Bronner’s, Numi Tea, and OuterKnown.

“Many of the brands behind this documentary have been at the forefront of this movement to reshape capitalism away from rampant negative impact that destroys the world, and supply chains that make the world a better place,” Gunnar Lovelace, Thrive Market’s founder, said about the film last year. 

The film delves into the inner workings of values-driven brands. It’s also dotted with wisdom from surfer Rob Machado and environmentalist Paul Hawken. It tackles the tough question about whether or not commerce is helping or hurting our chances of reversing climate change. 

“I think this is one of the most important questions of our time,” says Lovelace. “The jury is fundamentally still out on whether we as a species can harness the incredible creative power we have to be good stewards of the earth. As a species, we are deeply self-motivated and buying things as consumers, represents that deep self-interest and biological pressure,” he says.

Ryan agrees. “These issues are never simple. People need to make money to feed their families and have normal lives. Even honest politicians are conflicted by these forces. Beef, for example, has historically been the largest income generator in the Amazon (a recent study named açaí as second), but also one of the most destructive,” he explains. “Alternatively, finding solutions to making money while protecting the environment and supporting communities is what social entrepreneurship is all about,” he says.  

While Sambazon empowers açaí growers to keep the forest intact—it’s more valuable when kept alive and thriving and continually producing more açaí along with other crops—the outer edges of the Amazon and other forests across the globe are shrinking drastically. In Indonesia it’s for palm oil. In Central America, it’s for coffee. In Canada, it’s for toilet paper. And in Brazil, the Amazon is razed predominantly for cattle. Brazil is home to the second-largest cattle herd on the planet.

Sambazon is empowering its grower partners to care for their land and their communities. But it’s not just bringing salvation to the rainforest; it’s also empowering consumers. 

“Today, more consumers understand that we need to find a solution to help the planet,” says Ryan. “Açaí was a great starting point for a larger conversation that Americans are much more receptive to today in terms of organic agriculture, fair trade, and sustainability,” he says.

“We’re looking forward to finding new ways to create change for decades to come.”

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