From North to South: How the Amazon Feeds São Paulo

By Emma Young (São Paulo). Emma is a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she studies the history of food-ways in Latin America and the Caribbean. She is based in Brooklyn and São Paulo. In this article, Emma reveals how traffic—often thought of as an annoyance to the everyday commuter in many cities—can present a serious challenge to food logistics, particularly in regions of the world like Latin America, where infrastructure is largely inadequate. Ironically, 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.

Meet Virgílio

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 only bringing 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’s northern identity 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, agroecology: these are words only 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”—supposedly loaded with antioxidants and vitamins not found in such quantities in other fruits. The bitter purple açaí berry grows on palm trees in the Amazon, making its way to lunch counters throughout Brazil loaded with sugar and served frozen, like a thick sorbet, accompanied by a side of sliced bananas or granola. 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

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

An organic cacau pod at Virgílio’s stand

An organic cacao pod at Virgílio’s stand

The Pathway to São Paulo

In the process of bringing these popular items to market, the collision between the “pure” Amazonian image Virgílio brings to the city and the urban jungle of 11 million people in São Paulo plays out clearly in his supply chain. Virgílio’s shipments must overcome immense traffic, poor infrastructure and debilitating floods. 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, in addition to 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 way to market via truck. The FAO has reported that trucks deliver 62% of all freight in South America, yet road infrastructure remains inadequate and poorly maintained. Of the over 1.5 million kilometers of roadway laid in Brazil (the fourth largest amount in the world) only nine percent of these roads are 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, it’s not much surprise to hear that Virgílio’s deliveries have been delayed in the past. A few weeks ago, Virgílio tells me, the trucks scheduled to pick up his products were behind schedule. The trucks arrived Monday night, while the boat had arrived in the morning. The boat turned around, taking all the products back, which added an additional fourteen days to the delivery. In the end, the products took an entire month to reach market. Typically, his shipments require two to three weeks.

The Secure Cold Chain

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 what is apparently a 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 oftentimes not affordable for small-scale producers like Virgílio. As the FAO explains, “surveys [of small producers] showed that while an important proportion of respondents (45 percent) recognize that their product suffers damage…during transport, 100 percent reported that they do not use refrigerated trucks,” and that “most small producers lack access to refrigerated equipment for economic reasons.”

The financial barrier to refrigeration, combined with poor road infrastructure, makes pathways into urban markets difficult for small, rural producers.

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 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. Certainly, 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. I’ve lived in São Paulo for nearly a year, but it was not until recently at the AAO’s feira do produtor orgânica in Parque da Agua Branca that I saw organic, small-production sugarless açaí powder—“the best in the world,” Virgílio declared—and dried, compact guaraná.  As Virgílio explained to me, this 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 over 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.

The Agua Branca organic market functions as a place of sale as well as a community and cultural center. They’ve recently opened up a night market for Tuesday evenings with music, film screenings, and courses

The Agua Branca organic market functions as a place of sale as well as a community and cultural center. They’ve recently opened up a night market for Tuesday evenings with music, film screenings, and courses

While organic foods in Brazil are still a gastronomic experience available largely to upper-middle class Paulistanos, if specialty, Amazonian foods continue to grow in popularity, problems that have existed even for conventional produce looms just as heavily for organic and agroforestry producers like Virgílio. How will small entrepreneurs and producers break into a promising, new market given the cost and confusion of the current infrastructure?

Posted in São Paulo