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Senior thesis leads to book, rainforest-friendly sorbets

STANFORD -- Häagen Dazs, watch out.

What began as a Stanford student's published honors thesis on Brazil could end up as the coolest thing in frozen desserts since the stick. And it's reportedly good for the rainforest, too.

Working with small-farm operators and collectors of wild fruits he met while doing research on Brazil's Transamazon Highway, Stanford author and alumnus Douglas Ian Stewart has started a new business in Palo Alto, Calif. - Howler Products - to turn exotic fruit pulps into frozen rainforest “Sorbeija” and “Howler Bars” similar to those consumed in the Amazon river valley.

His first shipment, in September, contained eight different fruits from the Amazon, including several that never have been sold commercially in the United States.

“Cupuaçu, cajá, acerola, açaí - in the

Amazon, these fruits make more popular ice cream and sorbet flavors than chocolate or vanilla,” said Stewart, who received his bachelor's degree with honors in history and Latin American Studies in 1991, and a master's in education in 1992. (He has been teaching at Palo Alto's Jordan Junior High School for the past three years.)

“By creating an export market for such forest fruits, I'll provide a cash incentive to save the remaining Brazilian forests and to increase research into forest products and reforestation. This is not business as usual.”

Stewart's interest in the rainforests began after his freshman year at Claremont McKenna College, when he dropped out and bought a one-way ticket to Asia, wending his way from Hong Kong to Turkey. The deforestation he saw in the Asian tropics so concerned him that he vowed to study the issue when he returned to school.

Transferring to Stanford in his sophomore year, Stewart linked up with Steve Haber, associate professor of history, who helped him secure funding for travel and research in Brazil. The 1,000-kilometer trip from Belém to Altamira alone took “three days, six buses, three boats, and a 10-hour hitch with a truck driver named Eduardo,” Stewart said.

“I ended up living with a great family on the Transamazon Highway, and getting engulfed in how colonists were affecting the environment and what drove deforestation. I must have walked about 20 kilometers a day, doing interviews.”

He also came down with malaria, just before he was due to go home. Despite the hardships, Stewart's resulting thesis, an ecological analysis of Amazonian colonization and deforestation, was of such quality that it has been published by the University of Texas Press as After the Trees: Living on the Transamazon Highway.

Delving into issues of land distribution, soil ecology and the colonists' adaptation to local ecosystems, Stewart's book explores why colonization of the Amazon has fallen so short of the planners' vision. He also describes how small farmers have banded together during the past decade to overcome the challenges of the frontier. Their collective action, he said, “if backed by government policy, could lead to progressive land redistribution and wiser use.”

The key to all of this, though, is making small, rainforest-friendly farms economically viable - and that's where the sorbets come in.

“Once the book was safely off to the publishers, I started looking around at sustainable rainforest economies as a doctoral topic and realized how little was actually happening,” Stewart said. “I knew about Ben & Jerry's and Community Products' Rainforest Crunch. I knew about the Body Shop, and I'd seen some shampoos and soaps in the Nature Company. All these companies bought Brazil nuts and/or Brazil nut oil, and not much else.”

At the same time, he said, Amazonia's most obvious and tastiest form of biodiversity, the forest fruits, hadn't even made it to Rio and São Paulo in southern Brazil, let alone the rest of the world.

“I fell in love with Amazonian ice cream scoop shops and juice bars the day I arrived in Belém. I could go to one every meal for a week without exhausting the novel fruit flavors, and just about did. I wondered why nobody had brought all these wild flavors to San Francisco.”

Returning to Brazil at the end of 1993, Stewart contacted three possible suppliers and put them in touch with one another. He asked them to prepare to export numerous fruits in small quantities rather than a single product in large quantities - fruits harvested from the forest and planted in reforestation projects.

When they hit the market early in October 1994, Stewart's Howler Bars will retail for $1, and the Sorbeija for under $3 a pint, “competitive with Ben & Jerry's,” Stewart said.

“I want to create a high volume, low markup business. That way a higher percentage of the purchase price goes back to forest inhabitants,” Stewart said. “If my business takes off, the market will make the forest itself more valuable, while more people will enjoy the fruits of the forest, literally.”



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