Close to the home Emerson Miranda and Viviane Vieira Lopes share with their children grows a dense forest dotted with 400 endangered juçara palm trees, many of which are more than 50 years old. The couple works together to harvest the palm’s fruit. First, they hang a net under the crown of the palm. Next, they hoist a ladder up against the slender trunk. Emerson carefully climbs up to the thick bunches of blueberry-like fruit, hoping they’re ripe. Every bunch harvested means one palm stays standing.  

“Saving the juçara from extinction, generating income for family farmers.” This is the mantra that carries Emerson through his day.

Historically, farmers have chopped down juçara for the tasty heart-of-palm contained inside the trunk, a practice that kills the tree. Like many species in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, the juçara palm was decimated throughout the 20th century to meet growing demand. While the government officially banned its harvesting in 2008, much is still sold illegally by disguising it as the common peach or açaí palm.

Emerson harvests fruit using a ladder and seat belt. (Photo: Asteroide)

Emerson and Viviane are experimenting with a different approach. Their property, Rancho Fundo, is the first in the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo approved to sustainably harvest the fruit of the juçara palm, a relative of the popular açaí “superfruit.” He and Viviane cling to an ambitious dream: Help the juçara regain its rightful place within the degraded Atlantic Forest by shifting farmers from destroying the palm for its heart to conserving it for its fruit.

“We want to show it is possible to generate income with standing forests,” Emerson said.

Teamwork: The couple harvests and processes fruit together. (Vídeo: Asteroide)

A Family Farm Returned to Nature

The juçara palm was added to Brazil’s list of threatened species in the early 1990s, and it’s still there.

It was back then that Emerson’s father, Apolônio Miranda, fulfilled his dream of owning a plot of land where he could spend time with his family. It took him a year to convince his surfer son to visit the property. “I arrived and saw all those palm trees,” Emerson said. “I thought they were coconut palms. My initial passion for juçara is because of its tropical feeling. It reminds me of the beach.”

While Apolônio’s property grew some juçara, it had been converted from dense forest to a large conventional farm, with banana plantations, orange groves and 13,000 coffee trees dominating the landscape. Emerson felt it was all wrong. “We weren’t farmers, so I said: ‘Dad, let’s return this land to nature, and let the juçara palms thrive,’” he recalled. Apolônio gave his approval: “Do what you think is best.”

For two decades, the plan of “returning the land to nature” meant not interfering at all. Emerson wouldn’t even allow visitors to pick fruit from the many trees on the property. It turns out, though, that juçara palm regeneration can be accelerated when people take an active role. Planting seedlings and managing them the right way makes the palms mature faster, bearing fruit in a third of the usual time. “If I hadn’t been so strict, today we could have 30,000 juçara palms here,” Emerson said sadly.

Palm trees can reach 20 meters in height (Photo: Asteroide).

Planting seedlings has a higher survival rate than sowing seeds (Photo: Asteroide).

Pioneering the Way Toward Sustainable Juçara Production

Emerson and Viviane’s hands-off approach began to change in 2013, when the Espírito Santo Livestock Farming and Forestry Defense Institute (IDAF) approved a regulation outlining how farmers can harvest the juçara fruit sustainably. Emerson and Viviane approached the Biomes Project - Atlantic Forest run by the Espírito Santo Institute for Research, Technical Assistance and Agricultural Extension (INCAPER), which offered a training course on managing native species, including the juçara palm. The couple learned how to manage the juçara and adapted their property to obtain authorization to sustainably harvest it.

Emerson and Viviane also worked with Reflorestar. Part of Initiative 20x20, a country-led alliance to protect and restore 50 million hectares of degraded land across Latin America and the Caribbean, Reflorestar is a state-run program that provides payments to farmers who protect and restore degraded lands for ecological and economic use. WRI Brasil is a partner and contributes though its Pro-Restaura and VERENA projects, demonstrating the economic benefits of forest restoration in Espírito Santo, engaging with farmers, and attracting investment to accelerate and increase the scale of forest and landscape restoration in the state.

Reflorestar paid Emerson and his family $3,650.00 (BRL 20,000.00 ) over five years because they had “returned the land to nature.” With the first three installments, Emerson and Viviane invested in taking their juçara farm to the next level: They purchased a fruit pulp extractor, an industrial blender, freezers and baggers, which they now use to transform juçara fruit into a delicious purple pulp.

The net stops fruit from slipping away, making it easier to clean (Photo: Asteroid).

Building a Market for Açaí’s Lesser-known Relative

The juçara palm produces fruit every year, but getting its “purple gold” has its intricacies. It is only by getting close to the fruit that Emerson can judge if it’s ready. It’s a regular occurrence for him to set up the net and climb the ladder all the way to the top only to find that the fruit still needs to ripen. He then must take down all the gear and move to the next palm.

Once harvested, the fruit must be processed quickly so it doesn’t go bad (see gallery). Emerson and Viviane transformed a house next to their home into a processing plant, where they store buckets of clean fruit. From there, the fruit pulp is extracted, blended, liquefied, packaged and frozen. The seeds, once dried, can be planted or sold.

The Atlantic Forest’s purple treasure

From harvest to freezing, the work of processing the juçara fruit is hands-on. The entire process must be carried out in a few hours to prevent fruit from spoiling.

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Harvest. Emerson climbs the tree with safety equipment. Only close to the bunches is it possible to identify whether the fruit is ready for harvest.

Developing the market for sustainable juçara fruit has also been tricky, since it is much less established than the açaí palm in the Amazon. But the economic incentives are there. While a raw heart of palm sells for between $0.90 to $1.80 (5-10 BRL), Emerson and Viviane sell a kilogram of processed juçara pulp for $5.50 (30 BRL). “If the heart-of-palm extractors knew that, they would certainly get on board,” said Emerson. “Why would they settle for 10 reais when they could make 60?”

Emerson estimated that he gets an average yield of around 5 kilograms of fruit per bunch, totaling around 3 tons per harvest. Processed and sold at $5.50 per kilogram, there certainly is potential for considerable income.

So far, one company manufactures chocolate truffles using Emerson and Viviane’s juçara pulp. Emerson and Viviane also produce “chup-chup” (a juice popsicle) and mixed pulps that they sell on their property and to local businesses. “We have juçara with yellow mombin, with mango, strawberry and jackfruit,” explained Viviane.

The couple hopes to eventually access markets like Brazil’s National School Meal Program or major retail chains, after they complete construction on their processing facilities and improve access for cars on their steep land.

Emerson sees huge potential given the fruit’s versatility. “You can make juçara jam, cakes,” he said. “We know it also has potential for savory dishes, the way açaí is served in the North of Brazil.”

At the first sip or spoonful, the pulp’s flavor is reminiscent of açaí. But don’t make the mistake of calling it açaí in front of Emerson. "Açaí, no! This is juçara!” he said. “Many people who don’t like açaí really enjoy juçara. They say it has a less earthy flavor. And it has up to 4 times more anthocyanin, a highly sought-after antioxidant with anti-aging properties.”

Saving the Juçara to Save the Atlantic Forest

To toucans, parrots, guans and thrushes, though, the difference between açaí and juçara seems of little importance. They are among the dozens of bird species, rodents and monkeys that gorge on the fruits of both palms. Juçara plays a strategic role in the Atlantic Forest’s ecology. Its fruit provides a food source during winter months when most other fruits are unavailable.

Animals are also responsible for spreading juçara seeds through their droppings, guaranteeing that the genes of different specimens are mixed and matched, a diversity vital to the species’ future. “Wherever you find juçara, you find life in abundance,” Emerson said.

The state requires that at least one bunch of fruit is left on the palm to sustain the natural life cycle in the forest. Forest fragmentation is both the cause and consequence of cutting down juçara palms: It leads to the loss of genetic diversity, a decline in seed dispersion and an increase in the vulnerability of the juçara. Getting more farmers onboard with sustainably harvesting juçara’s fruit, as opposed to chopping it down for heart-of-palm, can help ensure the species’ resurgence and long-term survival.

Dozens of species feed on juçara fruits (Photo: Luiz Ribenboim).

Seedlings produced at the Rancho Fundo site are distributed throughout the region (Video: Asteroid).

Scaling Up: Barriers and Opportunities

Of course, scaling up the sustainable juçara market will require overcoming some institutional, financial and cultural hurdles.

The current juçara market reflects the complexities of trading non-timber forest products in Brazil. “We need to create demand,” said Fabiana Gomes Ruas, coordinator of the Biomes Project. “Organizations like INCAPER have developed important studies about the chemical, nutritional characteristics of juçara, not to mention genetic research of native juçara populations. But more effort is required to leverage the chain, with projects focused on marketing and on diversifying juçara products,” she explained.

The family wants to make the juçara a mainstay at the beach (Photo: Asteroide).

Through its involvement in restoration projects throughout the country, WRI Brasil has learned that public programs and policies, including technical assistance and rural extension services, are crucial to training cooperatives and associations that run agroindustries. They are important for building capacity and establishing bridges between small farmers that restore land and the market, incentivizing restoration in biomes as diverse as the Amazon, the Caatinga and the Atlantic Forest. If many farming families restore their land together, the impact on the landscape – and on juçara’s future – would be massive.

Emerson and Viviane are doing their part. In 2019, they supplied 400 juçara seedlings per month to the National Institute of the Atlantic Forest (Inma) in Santa Teresa for distribution to local farmers. Through the Biomes Project, they have strengthened ties with public and private nurseries interested in building partnerships with the first farm authorized to collect and sell juçara seeds in Espírito Santo.

They’re also experimenting with new ways of growing juçara that can boost production while improving landscapes. The couple established an agroforestry system on 4 hectares of land, where young palms grow alongside crops like cocoa, citrus and avocados as well as native trees that spring up naturally. The technique diversifies the farm’s crops and provides much-needed shade to young palms. “Deep in the forest, the juçara may take up to 25 years to flower,” said Emerson. “In this arrangement, it takes around 8 years to bear fruit.”

Yçara: A Dream Between the Ocean and Forest

Fabiana believes that Emerson and Viviane could become leaders within the juçara supply chain — not only due to their pioneering efforts and commitment, but as educators for other producers who decide to join the legal juçara palm market. “Their efforts can be multiplied and serve as an example, because other producers are only willing to join once they’ve seen it working properly,” she said. “We want more producers to unite, to join organizations or cooperatives. Extracting juçara fruit is an extremely viable income option for small farmers.”

Emerson has even bigger dreams. He has an ambitious plan to connect the remaining areas of the Atlantic Forest in the municipality of Santa Teresa to the coast. In the restless mind of this farmer-surfer lie the seeds of Yçara, a company that combines his two passions to support a single mission. “If you go down to the beach and ask each surfer what they do, one is a doctor, another is an actor, another is a student,” he said. “The sport brings people together. Juçara is a native energy drink from the Atlantic Forest. We see surfing, capoeira, extreme sports as all having huge potential to introduce juçara into the global consumer market.”

His plan also includes making the farm a space for observing the juçara palm in its natural habitat. With his finger, Emerson draws in the air the elevated walkways on which visitors would stroll near the tops of palm trees. Previously a pure conservationist, he now sees entrepreneurship with a strong social component as the sustainable way forward. “We’ll organize surf tournaments, a women’s surf team,” he said.

Viviane is on board.

Photo: Asteroide

We want to give farmers the guarantee that they don’t need to kill the palm,” she said. “The juçara bears fruit every year. I’m learning all of this with Emerson. It’s a great adventure.

Viviane Lopes

"And we’re not in this alone. Government and private institutions, farmers — each plays a role in this effort to save the juçara from extinction,” said Emerson, always grateful for the partnerships that have made this adventure possible. “There have been times when I’ve wanted to give up, but Viviane helps me find balance.”

It’s late afternoon on Rancho Fundo, and the cicadas begin their symphony. Emerson repeats his mantra between sips of juçara juice: “We want to save the Atlantic Forest, save the juçara from extinction, while generating income for family farmers.” This time, he adds: “Because if we can’t generate income for family farmers, the mission simply isn’t over.”