The açai (ass-eye-ee) is a tropical palm that grows mostly in swamps and floodplains. This palm can be as tall as 30 meters (about 90 feet) and produces a small, round, black-purple, and very hard fruit, known as açai berry, which contains a seed that occupies almost three-quarters of the fruit.
For many rural villagers of the Brazilian Amazon, açai berries -when ripe- are a very important item in their diet (42%). Açai berries are so tough that stepping on them will not squish them. They must be boiled and pounded with mallets to extract a thick purple pulp which can be so thick that it can be eaten by spoonful with farinha (mandioc flour), by spoonful and when mixed with water and sugar it makes a refreshing drink.
Some local villagers collect açai berries from the forest or from small, cultivated areas. The first challenge, though, is to climb the palm trees to reach the fruit.
Here we show a video of how açai fruit is traditionally harvested. This local man takes a length of vine he finds in the forest, makes a small loop and puts it around his feet. It isn't tied on, just looped and used for friction against the smooth palm. And up he goes with a machete in his teeth!
Now--watch what it's like to be the one climbing an açai palm! We put a GoPro on the head of one of the local guys in Sacado village where I was making my palm-climbing attempt.
Once cut, the bunches of açai berries are piled in the forest and then put onto the canoe for transport back to the village. They are very heavy: up to 40-50 lbs a bundle!
However, in the USA, açai has become a popular fruit, producing a demand that results in agribusiness that can have detrimental effects on rainforest conservation. In New Mexico, açai can only be find in thin, overly sweet, expensive juices.
On Houseboat Amazon we were lucky because after all of this hardwork, the local people shared the prepared açai with us! So delicious!
Açai leaves are also used to make baskets and roofs for homes, while seeds are often ground for livestock food.