20 for 20: Açaí Safety Harnesses, a Practical Conservation Tool

Acai harness as a part of the sustainable forest products program by Amazon Conservation,part of 20 for 20 Years of Conservation Wins by Amazon ConservationDue to a misstep coming down the tree with a heavy branch of açaí in hand, Omar Espinoza, an açaí harvester, fell from a height of about 40 feet head first. He was gathering fruits to support his family and like many açaí harvesters, was climbing 10-15 açaí trees a day with heights reaching up to 65 feet to bring down bundles of açaí weighing dozens of pounds.

Thanks to one of the features in our newly developed safety harnesses distributed earlier in the year, Omar’s misstep was not fatal and due to the harness’s aptly named “life line”, he was stopped from hitting the ground. Instead Omar just dangled from the harness, his head a few feet above the forest floor. Using the harness he had before this project would have meant a certain fall. Had it not been for this new equipment, he would have faced severe and debilitating injuries or possibly, death.

These harnesses are a practical conservation tool because they promote (and improve the safety of) forest-friendly livelihoods such as the sustainable gathering of brazil nuts and acai berries. These activities are safer, more profitable, and encourage conservation of standing forests compared to activities such as gold mining, logging, or agriculture, which results in forest habitats being cleared.

For many years now, we have been working with açaí and Brazil nut harvesters who depend on the Santa Rosa de Abuná conservation area and have helped improve how harvesters locate, gather, and process the forest goods they sustainably harvest. This is a key conservation and community development strategy for providing local people with the incentive to keep forests standing, as many of the globally in-demand fruits and nuts they harvest can only grow in healthy forests – not in large-scale plantations. With this strategy in mind, we help families improve their income by growing their local economies through instituting ecologically sustainable activities that protect the forests they call home.

This story is part of a series commemorating our 20th anniversary protecting the Amazon. We’re celebrating this milestone with a look back at our 20 biggest conservation wins over the past 20 years. Click here to help create more life saving tools that help local harvesters in the Amazon.

Building a sustainable forest-based economy for the Amazon

By strengthening community-based enterprises and improving safety through innovation, we help grow local economies and advance conservation.

acai berriesThe Amazon’s ecosystems provide an array of vital services to the region and the world as a whole, and they are home to millions of people who rely on the forest for their livelihoods. In Bolivia, we have been working closely with communities in and around the 420,000-acre Santa Rosa del Abuná conservation area who rely on harvesting Brazil nuts and açaí from their forests. Through improving their capacity to sustainably manage these highly productive forests and building the business side of their harvesting activities, we are helping the people of Santa Rosa and nature thrive.

For the last few years we have helped Santa Rosa communities grow their sustainable production to 3 tons of açaí berries. These communities derive income from the açaí berry, the popular “super food” often found in juices and smoothies. Açaí is harvested each year from April to November, complementing the harvest of Brazil nuts that takes place from December to March. Mario Aguada, one of our local experts, heeds the economic importance of harvesting both products: “If one of the two has a poor season, families don’t lose their income for the year. It will be a harder year, but they can still earn some income harvesting the other.”

harvesting acai berriesThis year, we helped improve the processing and storage of açaí, which is increasing incomes and giving these small producers more control in the market. By improving the capacity to efficiently and sanitarily process the berries and then freeze them, they are able to sell directly to buyers instead of middle-men, leaving more money with the community.  

This achievement has required innovation. To make harvesting safer and more efficient, in 2019, we provided 100 new climbing safety harnesses to five Santa Rosa communities. These were based on a prototype that we invented, tested and patented with community members to meet the rigorous needs in the field. To harvest açaí, harvesters need to climb up to 65 feet, scaling 10 to 15 trees daily to gather bundles of fruit weighing 20 to 30 pounds. Carefully balancing the heavy fruit laden branches while safely lowering themselves to the ground, makes this a difficult and dangerous job. 

These harnesses have already proved their value. Omar Espinoza was using the new harness  when he made a misstep coming down a tree with a heavy branch of açaí in hand, falling from a height of over 40 feet, head first. Thanks to our safety harness he was stopped from hitting the ground where he would have faced severe injuries or possibly, death without it.

Our progress this year has reinforced our hope that we can take this system to production across millions of acres across the Bolivian and Peruvian, and that it’s possible to build a true forest-based economy for the Amazon. This forest-friendly enterprise provides families an alternative to clearing and burning forests, instead working to improve their quality of life through sustainable means.

This was a story from our 2019 Impact Report. Click here to read about other conservation successes from 2019.

153,000 Acres Of Brazil Nut Forests Protected by Amazon Conservation and Google

 Brazil nut concessionaires walking in forestAmazon Conservation’s sister organization Conservación Amazónica – ACCA, with support from Google.org, just finished up a two-year initiative that trained community members to use cutting-edge satellite and field technologies to combat deforestation in the southern Peruvian Amazon, now protecting over 150,000 acres of lowland forests.

This initiative trained 75 Brazil nut harvesters and their families in forest monitoring technologies, which will help them safeguard forests to be used for sustainable purposes. Preventing deforestation of natural resources is not only environmentally important, but also economically, as the productive forests in and around the Madre de Dios area in Peru provide a sustainable and forest-friendly economic income to around 45,000 people, about 20% of the population.

In Peru, local families or associations can be granted a piece of public forests to be used for specific purposes – called a concession – such as harvesting nuts and berries, or for ecotourism. This system prevents acres of forests from falling victim to destructive activities, such as land squatting, illegal logging, or invasions by gold miners. Additionally, concessionaires are required by law to report on illicit activities in their concessions, which is a way the government gets community support to protect large swaths of forests.

Brazil nut concessionairesBefore this program, concessionaires and their communities lacked capacity to monitor these large, remote areas and a way to rapidly and safely report deforestation in their territories. Our innovative methodology of combining real-time satellite imagery analysis and drone field technology (which includes smartapps and other technologies developed by Google) with legal training, gave concessionaires the ability to detect and report deforestation as it happened in their territory. This is a stark contrast from before, when the only way to monitor thousands of acres of forests was through foot patrols that took days to complete. 

Now 75 Brazil nut harvesters and their families are using satellite imagery, early deforestation alerts, and GPS applications on mobile devices to monitor their forests. Among them, 23 individuals successfully obtained their licenses as drone pilots from the Ministry of Transport and Communications’ General Directorate of Civil Aeronautics. This means they can now their entire territory in minutes, without having to face potential risks of confronting dangerous individuals committing environmental crimes or even running into outsiders who might bring diseases like the novel coronavirus into their communities. 

Brazil nut appetizersThrough this program, over 153,000 acres (62,000 hectares) of forests are now monitored and protected with technology by the local people we empowered. Moreover, technological kits were donated to each individual or local association, each containing a drone, a maintenance kit, a laptop and a printer, giving them the knowledge and tools needed to safeguard forests..

These successes were celebrated with a closing ceremony in the Castaña Amazon Park earlier this year. Local authorities and representatives of local organizations attended, such as the director of the Research Institute of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) and members of local harvesting associations. During the ceremony, attendees enjoyed Brazil nut appetizers, while watching presentations about the project, the results achieved, and the collaborators and participants. The event ended with a guided tour of the Brazil Nut Harvesting Center in the Castaña Amazon Park, which is noted as the first living Brazil nut tree park in the world.

Presenter at Brazil Nut Google EventThe project, led by our director of our Southwest Amazon Drone Center, Carlos Castañeda, will continue to provide technical support to maintain the donated drones and training to reinforce what they learned, as well as be available to answer any questions that may arise during monitoring and surveillance of their concessions. Thus, the continuity of the project and its sustainability are ensured.

This Google.org-funded project was the first of its kind nationwide in Peru. After this success, Amazon Conservation continues its mission of conserving the Amazon basin using new technologies. Over the next three years, we hope to strengthen the real-time monitoring of the forests by empowering local people and employing science and technology as a proven way to fight deforestation in the Amazon and create a model for other tropical forests around the world.