The Other Amazon: How the world’s largest river feeds São Paulo

By Emma Young

Virgílio proudly declares his roots the moment you begin to speak with him. “I’m not from this city,” he says. “I’m from the Amazon.”

While his declaration is certainly good marketing for his organic produce stand, I take his statement as earnest: he does not want to assimilate into the Paulistano lifestyle. “When I first got here and saw these big buildings, I thought they were going to fall down on my head,” he jokes. After his construction business back in his native Manaus—the most populous city in Amazonas state—proved difficult to maintain, Virgílio began distributing organic foods in 2008. A rather drastic career change, he started out slowly, bringing only Brazil nuts to sell in São Paulo. Today, he sells organic Brazil nuts, raw Bahian cacao, açaí powder and other Amazonian organic produce throughout the city. Virgílio’s products are triple certified: by the IBD—the largest certifier in Latin America—Brazil’s department of agriculture and, unusually, the USDA, telling of international plans.

Virgílio holding up a packet of Brazil nuts at his stand at the Agua Branca organic market

Virgílio holding up a packet of Brazil nuts at his stand at the Agua Branca organic market

Virgílio’s northern identity, and that of the products he sells, holds massive advertising power. When we consume small-production, certified organic açaí, we are consuming the idea of the Amazon, often imagined as a “pure” place free of the pollution, traffic jams, poverty and grime of São Paulo. Agroforestry and agroecology are words only just beginning to enter into the parlance of Brazilian urbanites (and worldwide, for that matter). But here in Brazil, açaí and guaraná—berries grown in the forest—have been popular for decades. It’s only recently that these Brazilian products have gained international notoriety as “superfoods,” single ingredients loaded with antioxidants and vitamins not found in such quantities in other items. The bitter purple açaí berry grows on palm trees in the Amazon but ends up in thick sorbets and açaí bowls in São Paulo and Sydney.

Guaraná, too, is a popular coffee-bean sized berry that, like açaí, is known for its energizing properties. The red-orange berry is probably best known in its fizzy, sugary beverage form—guaraná soda (check out this classic ad by the Antarctica soda company that essentially asks Coca-Cola, “Where are your fields?”)—and it is not uncommon to find the powder added to energy drinks or supplements.

In addition to the bastão, Virgílio occasionally has pre-powdered guaraná for sale

In addition to the bastão, Virgílio occasionally has pre-powdered guaraná for sale

The Pathway to São Paulo

Virgílio’s shipments must overcome immense traffic, poor infrastructure and debilitating floods to reach the urban jungle of 11 million people. His network of production stems out of four states: Mato Grosso, Amazonas, Pará and Bahia. Virgílio’s goods are transported first by riverboat and then by truck into São Paulo, except for his cacao, which travels exclusively by truck from Bahia.

Moving his products from forest to riverboat to highway can be complicated—“crazy,” as Virgílio puts it. Riverboat travel is relatively common in Brazil, with the nation ranking third in the world for the greatest amount of navigable inland waterway (50,000 km). The Port of Manaus is a major river port in the northern part of Brazil from where Virgílio’s products begin their trek down the Amazon and Rio Madeira rivers. He explains that to place a shipment on a riverboat, it requires knowing a boat owner with a captain’s license—someone reliable—who can bring products to Porto Velho where they are picked up and placed on trucks headed for São Paulo. In other words, there is not one large company that operates, but rather several individual captains. For Virgílio’s delivery of freeze-dried powders and dried nuts, the boat covers around 300 kilometers (186 miles) over three days, often carrying many other agricultural products such as squash, watermelon and flour, as well as passengers. Virgílio estimates that the boatman he usually works with can carry around 200 passengers in addition to an assortment of both dried and fresh food products.

Once reaching Porto Velho, Virgílio’s products make the rest of the journey to market via truck. The FAO has reported that trucks deliver 62 percent of all freight in South America, yet road infrastructure remains inadequate and poorly maintained. Only nine percent of the more than 1.5 million kilometers of roadway in Brazil is paved. Further, the report concludes that the costs of operating a truck can increase 30 to 50 percent when roads are “in poor condition.”

Aside from infrastructure, the wrath of nature also makes road travel difficult and potentially costly: “It’s very slow,” Virgílio said, explaining how the Rio Madeira’s occasional flooding can obstruct roads. “We need to obey nature,” he states. If there is too much precipitation during the rainy season, he cannot export his products for weeks or even months. Truly “sustainable” production, as he describes it, won’t allow for massive production. “Only crazy people do this type of work,” he says with a smile.

After traversing rivers and Brazilian highways, the congestion within São Paulo itself presents one of the last challenges to Virgílio’s supply chain. Within the city, transportation and congestion are serious points of contention. As one Guardian article explains, it can take a São Paulo commuter as long as four hours to travel 22 miles. The same article describes how protests erupted when it was announced in 2014 that public transportation fares would rise. Much of the city’s transportation inadequacy stems from policies of the 1960s that increased road construction to encourage the use of cars, while not factoring in the rate of urbanization São Paulo would experience over the next decades.

Considering the weather, poor infrastructure and major congestion within São Paulo, delays of weeks or even months are common.

Luckily for Virgílio, he deals primarily with dried products that can withstand lengthy deliveries. For guaraná, drying and preserving take place primarily in Maués, a town in Amazonas state famed for production of the berry. Virgílio works with the Sateré-Maué indigenous producers of the region. The producers first mash the berries by hand with a type of giant mortar and pestle. Then, taking large banana leaves, they wrap the pulp very tightly and leave it smoking over coals for nearly two months. The final product, called a guaraná bastão, or baton, is dense and hard as stone, jet black on the outside with a burned orange interior. In order to consume the guaraná powder, Virgílio instructs customers to use the traditional Amazonian method of taking a dried pirarucu fish’s tongue to scrape the powder out.

Admittedly skeptical, I tried it. Virgílio scraped the tongue against the bastão and down fluttered finely powdered guaraná into my outstretched palm. When preserved this way, the powder will last for eight years, according to Virgílio. Paulistanos at the market buy it to add to morning smoothies (here called vitaminas) for a boost of extra energy. “You hear people talking about goji berries,” Virgílio said. “But açaí and guaraná are better!” And they are grown in Brazil.

While most of Virgílio’s Amazonian products are indeed dried, his frozen açaí requires a cold chain, which makes this particular shipment even more difficult, as the temperature of the container transporting the frozen açaí should not rise above a certain level. While cold chains and refrigerated trucks are available to Brazilian producers, the technology is often not affordable for small-scale distributors like Virgílio.

Beating the Odds

Yet, despite the barriers, Virgílio’s business seems to thrive. As we spoke over the course of my several visits to the market, I noticed the popularity of his stand. Virgílio estimates that he now has around 800 customers and he’s expanded over the past seven years to work at six different feiras do produtores orgânicas throughout the week. At the AAO Agua Branca market on a Tuesday night, which is generally much slower than the weekends, I observed a client asking Virgílio for his contact information so that he could order in bulk via Sedex (or airmail – a certainly expensive option) directly to his home in another state. While this is unusual, it illustrates that Virgílio has a committed customer base that is willing to pay good money to get around the headache of Brazil’s road infrastructure. Recently Virgílio has even begun exporting small quantities of Brazil nuts abroad to Germany, Italy and Spain. With the USDA organic certification and the United States’ craze for “superfoods,” he aims to distribute into the U.S. as well, which will certainly present a new array of challenges for transportation, but perhaps greater profit.

Even with his apparent success, Virgílio still likely represents many small distributors and producers in Brazil who play a balancing act. They produce crops that have to overcome leaps and hurdles for delivery, yet can only be cultivated seasonally and in limited amounts from the forest. The incremental growth of organic trends in the nation will only present additional challenges and expense, as producers have to meet standards of, and pay for, certification if they want to go organic.

An organic cacao pod at Virgílio’s stand

An organic cacao pod at Virgílio’s stand

While feiras livres (street markets) have been essential to the buying and selling of food in São Paulo from the beginning of the twentieth century, over the past twenty years, the Associação de Agricultura Orgânica (AAO) and other organizations have increased the presence of organic produce in the city. The creation of certified organic markets, of which there are at least seven throughout the city, reflects their efforts.

As Virgílio explained to me, his organic market (which is indoors, unlike most smaller markets) has been in existence for twenty years, “but I am the first Amazonian here.” Indeed, the market hosts more than forty organic producers, almost entirely coming from either São Paulo or neighboring Minas Gerais state. It’s no surprise that Virgílio is one of the few Amazonians that have mastered the trek from North to South in light of the expense and volatility of delivery.

About the author: Emma Young, a former resident of São Paulo, studied the history of foodways in Latin America and the Caribbean at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. In this article, Emma reveals how the increasingly popular organic foods from Brazil’s Amazon, imbued with the idea of purity, sustainability and healthfulness, are anything but immune to the stressful and unreliable food transportation system.

Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on September 10, 2014 on the Miracle of Feeding Cities, the precursor to Food+City.