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Can Açaí Mitigate Drug Trafficking and Climate Change?

Joaquin Gastelbondo, Project Manager at CorpoCampo says that Amazonian communities earn money in three primary ways: harvesting cash crops like coca, logging (sometimes illegally), and hunting and fishing. 

“In regions like Putumayo, the illegal coca crop has become the most profitable option,” says Gastelbondo.

For these reasons, Gastelbondo explains that newer generations consider migrating to cities for more promising economic opportunities while simultaneously, opportunists outside the Amazon are taking advantage of natural resources like the illegal coca crop.

CorpoCampo, in partnership with the Amazon Conservation team, has an alternative solution and it starts with açaí. As part of an initiative called Amazon Gathers for the Future, the organizations are equipping and training local Amazonians–including Indigenous and rural individuals–on how to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to harvest açaí fruit.

(CorpoCampo employee working with local Amazonian)

Amazon Gatherers for the Future aims to establish a data-driven management system for a more productive, efficient, and sustainable wild açaí harvest overall. This solution economically empowers local communities and upskills rural workers. 

"The initiative is also an effective climate solution seeking to protect thousands of hectares of primary forest by building forest management plans to harvest Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs), such as acaí fruit. Shifting the economic focus over forest areas towards a more sustainable model and valuing their conservation,” says Gastelbondo.

NTFPs are vital in the Amazon to combat deforestation and the disruption it brings to natural ecosystems. The Amazon used to be hailed as the largest greenhouse gas absorber, but the benefits are slimming down due to deforestation and alternative uses of the land.

Business Insider reports that the global market for açaí is expected to reach nearly $2.1 billion by the end of 2025. Gastelbondo acknowledges that while harvesting açaí may benefit locals, there is a learning curve they must address in real time.

“Rural inhabitants might not have expertise using technology and certain tools. We start with the basics. We are using free apps so [locals] can learn to understand GIS on their cell phones. With the help of tools we also teach them more efficient ways to harvest,” says Gastelbondo. 

This model is adaptable and replicable to other contexts where communities also rely on non-timber products,” Gastelbondo said in his pitch during Solve Challenge Finals.

(Children holding açaí)

In addition to improving harvest performance, Amazon Gathers for the Future is committed to making the harvest healthier and safer. The U.S. Department of Labor cites fruit harvesting as one of the worst forms of child labor in Columbia. Amazon Gathers for the Future is combatting this by developing harvesting machines. Harvesting machines are in the prototype stage. The end goal is for these devices to attach and climb açaí trees–sometimes taller than 80 feet–and to use them to gather fruit at the top. 

“The machine will record data from real time harvesting to be fed to a centralized system that will compile data related to production indicators, palm characteristics, and location. This will enable a team to monitor and cross-study the information, through big data analysis, with environmental variables provided by the meteorological data–humidity, temperature, precipitation levels–available and provided by other sources,” explains Gastelbondo. This will provide scientists working with CorpoCampo and the Amazon Conservation team additional data to evaluate the climate crisis. Data will also be made available to research centers and individuals studying climate change.

Currently, Amazon Gathers for the Future is working with six Indigenous communities all part of the Inga ethnic group within Putumayo, Columbia. These Indigenous communities have a total population of 3,468 and occupy 69,216 hectares of land. CorpoCampo supports more than 1,300 families within the açaí value chain, and has trained more than 300 people on sustainable harvesting and GIS upskilling.

If you’re eager to support Indigenous communities or combat the climate crisis, learn more about Solver team solutions and how to support our work.

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