By Carlos Meneses
Igarape-Miri, Brazil, Aug 7 (EFE).- Acai (pronounced ah-sah-EE) is currently a very fashionable food and the world capital for the berry from the acai palm tree is Igarape-Miri, a city in the Brazilian Amazon where, until recently, residents lived in fear of organized criminal groups attracted by the lucrative business revolving around the aphrodisiac fruit.
About 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Belem, where the Amazon Summit will be held this week, Igarape-Miri – located in the state of Para – is a faithful portrait of other urban centers in the Amazon jungle and rainforest with fertile land, a vulnerable and economically unequal population and deficient infrastructure.
“Welcome to Igarape-Miri, the world capital of acai” reads a sign at the entrance to town, the origins of which date back to the 18th century and which takes its name from the same-named river flowing through it, which in the indigenous Tupi language means “little road of canoes.”
Nowadays, the town is the world’s largest producer of this berry, which is a key item in the diet of Para residents. They eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the rest of the world discovered it two decades ago, acknowledging its almost supernatural properties.
Here, there are some 4,000 small and mid-level producers, with the latest official data indicating that they harvest around 400,000 tons of acai per year. In 2021, agricultural production amounted to 1.6 billion reais ($330 million).
Eleven processing plants have been established in the area, thus making it possible, for example, to start selling acai ice cream to Saudi Arabia.
Marco Noda, 42, is one of those thousands of farmers. His neighbors know him as El Japones (“the Japanese”). His father, the son of Japanese immigrants, was one of the pioneers in spotting and capitalizing on the lucrative “opportunity” in acai.
“At that time (the 1990s), there were no plantations, it was collected in the jungle,” but his father “decided to bet on acai and started with 18 hectares (45 acres),” Noda told EFE.
Due to the acai industry, a significant amount of money circulates in Igarape-Miri, but the social reality is different. Half of its 63,000 inhabitants are poor, according to official estimates.
The largely neglected city has an air of abandonment, except for the many acai shops, which are identified by red signs. There’s one on practically every corner.
Locals consulted by EFE commented that insecurity has also been a serious problem in Igarape-Miri and accused the mayor himself, Roberto Pina, of exercising power as a “cacique,” or strongman.
The high poverty rate, along with the thriving acai industry, spurred organized crime to set its sights on Igarape-Miri as yet another spot for its expansion throughout the Amazon region, which serves as a strategic drug trafficking route.
Seventy-year-old Antonio Francisco Pinheiro, an agronomist by profession, belongs to a consortium of 100 hectares (250 acres) of acai palm trees mixed with cacao, orange and cupuacu crops. One day, he received a message demanding a large sum of money if he wanted to avoid being kidnapped.
The message had a Rio de Janeiro telephone code and the sender was “CV,” the acronym for Comando Vermelho (Red Command), one of Brazil’s most powerful organized criminal groups which started up in Rio and dominates drug trafficking in Para.
CV established a cell in Igarape-Miri and began extorting local acai businessmen, setting up checkpoints in some spots, according to residents. They also clashed with other gangs for control of the area, with a series of brutal tit-for-tat murders.
“We were experiencing shocks – with assaults, kidnappings and violence – until the regional government took measures and alleviated the situation,” said Pinheiro, adding that some of his fellow businessmen “had to pay 100,000 reais” (some $20,500) for their freedom after being kidnapped.
In June, Brazilian authorities arrested three women and five men – two of whom were already in custody for other crimes – for extorting a dozen acai merchants and businessmen, who today breathe much easier.
Now, they are hoping that Igarape-Miri will definitively turn its back on crime with the Peace Factories project, an integrated program by the Para government designed to improve living conditions in the state’s most precarious cities with new sports and cultural facilities, along with providing technical training courses.
“We need projects that bring the youth out of (their) marginalized (situation),” said Pinheiro.