The conversation was more like an interview. Or both.
My interest in connecting with the Danish art collective SUPERFLEX comes from identifying intersections between our practices. Their project “Guaraná Power” brought them to the spotlight in the São Paulo Biennial. Both our projects took place in remote Amazonas riverine communities, funded by northern countries, with the majority of the team consisting of white people who didn’t speak the local language. There were many important differences too, which I won’t get to right now.
SUPERFLEX members connected me with Carlos, their local contact, but didn’t have time to chat with me as they were finishing up their major installation for the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, commissioned by Hyundai.
Carlos is from Maués, land of the guaraná fruit.
Currently, he lives in Manaus where he teaches ESL in a local public school. His father is still a guaraná grower.
I tried to meet up with Carlos in Manaus, but it didn’t work out. When I was in land, he was on a boat down the Amazon River. When I was on a boat down the Purus River, he was on another boat down the Black River.
When I got back to California, we were finally able to talk over a video call about his participation in the SUPERFLEX project.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Sure. Bjørn, the Danish, told me you would get in touch. I’m glad we’re talking and I apologize we couldn’t meet in person when you were here. I just don’t get check my email everyday, my bad.
Oh, no problem at all, I also don’t check my email every day. Well maybe next time you will make it to Maués, you would love it here, it’s beautiful and we have so much fish. So, so much fish really. You’d like it here.
I’m sure I’d love it. I just got back from the Purus River, so lovely down there too. Let’s see when I get a chance to go back. Tell me how you got involved in the Guaraná Power project? I met them [SUPERFLEX] in Maués, like 10 years ago. I’m not sure how they got there, but maybe through the Mayor, a connection via São Paulo. I teach English and they needed someone to translate. They were interested first in getting to know the town and the local culture, you know, Maués is the land of Guaraná. As you may know Guaraná Antártica belongs to Inbev [Belgian transnational beverage company] and they have a huge plantation of Guaraná there over 100 hectares. 100 hectares is a lot, so much, the growers I know usually have a maximum of 1 hectare. To complement their production, Inbev used to buy, and still buys from the small growers. But they pay less than market value to the growers. So they [SUPERFLEX] were interested in seeing how it would be possible to give more support to the small grower. Inbev also has a factory in Maués, where they extract the essence of guaraná and then transport it to Manaus [the state capital]. In Manaus they produce the Guaraná soft drink. SUPERFLEX also did a research and concluded that the actual percentage of Guaraná present in the soft drink was extremely low. It was mostly marketing strategy. The other thing is that Inbev did nothing for the local population. No social projects. The only thing they do for the local community is the yearly Guaraná party when they bring a nice band for a street party. But then when you look closely you realize that even that event only plays in their favour because they sell all the drinks, all their own brands, their sodas, their beers. And the Danish really saw that. So they met a farmer’s coop that was trying to get better prices for Guaraná. The Danish had this vision for the European market. So they started thinking how to sell to other places and get a better price, or even make other products out of Guaraná, like truffles etc. But the actual goal was to sell at a better price and also give a percentage of the sales revenue back to the coop. And then they created these nice advertisement for the Guraná Power, have you seen them?
No, I haven’t, but would love to. Maybe I’ll find it on Youtube? Oh. Yes. I think that’s possible. But you know, my Grandma died when she was 102. This dude even came up and told me ‘wow, it was about time’, can you believe it? She drank Guaraná powder everyday [not the soda]. But they [SUPERFLEX] liked that and put that concept into the advertisement, this idea can Guaraná can give you energy and longevity. So their marketing became this, that you could get energy from this natural project. Then they found a company in São Paulo to help them produce Guaraná Power. And their [SUPERFLEX] idea was to put a higher concentration of the guaraná [fruit] in the Guaraná Power drink.
Yeah, that makes sense. Then they [SUPERFLEX] took me with them to the São Paulo Bienal, and there they had problems with Inbev and Guaraná Antártica. Because their [SUPERFLEX] packaging resembled Guaraná Antártica bottle so that created a conflict with Inbev. So they had to change the logo and packaging. And so they presented at the São Paulo Bienal, as I recall it it was at the Ibirapuera Park. But there was this great effort to promote Guaraná Power, we would show it around, it got great publicity. And then a company in São Paulo got interested in producing a few units and it seems to me they even sold in Denmark, they publicized in the TV there and distributed some there in Europe.
Got it. But then as they said it, they [SUPERFLEX] are not business men. All they could do was to publicize the product and maybe another company would be interested in buying the coop’s Guaraná [fruit] production and manufacturing the Guaraná Power drink.
Right. As they said it, they were artists – they are artists – so their work is not commercial, industrial.
So do you see their [SUPERFLEX] role as initiators? Yes, to bring awareness to these issues and this new product. In their videos the showed the farmers, their precarious situation, so people would be aware. The they had their hand tied by a multinational company. Almost 80% of Maués residents grow Guaraná. And you know, Inbev uses us in their marketing, because they advertise it ‘The Original Amazonas Guaraná’.
Exactly. But what the Danish really insisted – they really insisted – is that Inbev would take advantage of this in their Marketing. And the Danish really wanted to bring awareness to this fact, they thought this could really change the lives of the small growers and their precarious situation. It’s unbelievable that situation when you compare to how much money Inbev makes. So the Danish were thinking of ways to help these people.
And what happened then? So then that São Paulo company started to buy from the coop at a more just price. But son they realized it would be better for them to have they own production in Maués, so they bought property here and started to grow themselves. Because you know, that’s the capitalist market.
And how did the idea of selling to international markets, or Denmark, unfold? So one of the solutions they looked into to was selling to other countries and they did efforts in advertising in Denmark. They sold some but couldn’t really establish something. They also had the idea of promoting the fact that our local production here was all natural and organic and we started the process of getting the organic certification, but it started to get too costly and complex and so they didn’t have a budget for that anymore and we dropped it.
So as I’m understanding, Guaraná Power was more of a sample, a prototype for a possible solution but ended up not taking off as an actual product or sustainable response to the local issues? Exactly. Even in Denmark, it didn’t become an actual business.
Almost like an experiment then? Exactly, exactly.
I can see how it must have been challenging to go beyond that. And what’s the current situation like? Because this happened like 15 years ago? Well, what they [SUPERFLEX] idealized didn’t exactly take off. You know, it was just too challenging to find a business interested in producing the Guaraná Power under those conditions: buying from the growers at a fair price and sharing 2% of their profits with the coop. And it would have to be like that because the situation of the growers is so precarious. There’s no access to drinking water, so that’s something the coop was really interested in doing for the growers, getting that percentage back and digging wells for them.
Lack of access to drinking water seems to be a pervasive issue in the Amazonas riverine communities. In the community I collaborate with they also don’t have access. Exactly, and you know, getting the percentage and using it to dig wells for the producers could have been a benefit for the growers if the model had worked. In the beginning with the results we got, two producers were able to get wells. They were soooo sooo happy. That’s something that really changes their life.
I know. You know the Federal Government has this program ‘Electricity for All’, right? It’s bringing electric energy to many of these isolated rural communities. It’s unbelievable the amount of remote communities that now have electricity. Now they can have a fridge, a TV, access to information. The government provides no support to these communities, except for this program, the only good thing.
Right, but why not ‘Water for all’? Why did the government prioritize electricity over water, when it seems like access to drinking water is a more urgent issue? Hmmm. That’s a good question. Maybe the government is unaware of the water issue? It’s making me think also that the government might have an interest in reaching these populations via media, there must be an interest in that too. But it is intriguing, because to me it seems like drinking water is a more pressing issue than electricity.
Definitely, such a sad irony that all these communities in the Amazon River Basin have no access to drinking water…Back to the project, what is your role now in relation to Guaraná Power? Now I don’t have a role. The excitement cooled off, so people are not engaged in the coop. People had to resume their lives as things with Guaraná Power didn’t become sustainable. Unfortunately producers went back to selling to Inbev.
I guess people had to move on then. So even your father went back to selling to Inbev. Exactly, there was no alternative for the growers. They had to go back to selling to that wicked multinational.
I’m curious to know how you think the growers felt about working with foreigners, the challenge of not speaking the same language, the cultural contrasts? In the beginning the growers didn’t trust them, thinking they wanted to take advantage of them, resell their crops at much higher rate in Europe. After they visited 4 or 5 times, people started to understand their intentions, that they wanted to help out. And then when they shared the profits of the sales they made, than the growers started to trust the Danish. What they shared made possible for two growers to dig wells. That moment they established trust.
That makes sense. And the Danish were always very clear and open, all the numbers were very clear. There was no way for people in the coop to cheat each other too because they would come and share all the numbers with everyone. When they would visit they would gather everyone in the coop and share all numbers, so there was no way to cheat. They were always transparent, everyone had access to receipts.
And how did you and the locals made sense of the fact that these foreigners are trying to help out? What do Danish people have to do with the people of Maués? How did they justify their interest? Right, my understanding is that they had a cultural and artistic interest. And as they started to understand our local economic challenges, they were interested in that. But I can’t really explain, to be honest, I never thought about this angle. They always made it clear they were not businessmen. I don’t know, it’s a good question. What I know also is that they got money from Denmark’s government to undertake this project, and they had to be transparent with their funders too.
It’s getting late in your timezone, so I’ll just ask a couple of final questions. Even though Guaraná Power didn’t take off and now growers are tied to Inbev again, what were the main positive outcomes of this collaboration with SUPERFLEX? For me it was a great experience to collaborate with people from a different culture, to see people from far away interested in helping us out. I think we learned a lot about transparency with them, it was nice to see their way of working. It was good to experiment with a model of a coop, so many good things, the idea of focusing on collective gain. So the concept of the coop was great but the operation was too challenging, we couldn’t sustain it. Now growers are back to their old lives, taking care of their individual farms and again being in the hands of Inbev.
And what are some critiques to the collaboration? Or things that could be different? Maybe not necessarily personal to you but in general. It’s hard to say. Maybe the fact that people were extremely hopeful about this idea taking off and then it didn’t so there’s frustration. Growers made financial contributions for the establishment of the coop, but then some people had no return on what they invested. Some did, some didn’t. Even though they were aware of the risks, there’s always expectations and frustrations.
What time is it there right now? 9pm, not too bad. And there?
Wow we’ve been chatting for over one hour and I know you teach in the morning. Here’s still 6pm. I really want to thank you for this great conversation. Anytime. Get in touch next time you’re in Amazonas. Good night.