Açaí has become well known in recent years as a popular superfood, transforming from a little-known berry grown in the Amazon into one of the most sought-after ingredients. But Brazilian labor officials say hiding behind the boom is a culturally accepted practice of extremely dangerous child labor, according to the Washington Post.
Monitoring almost nonexistent or prone to failure
Açaí berries grow on tall, spindly trees and are sourced almost exclusively from the Amazon rainforest. Their growth and harvest are seen as a sustainable way for indigenous farmers to earn a living in regions suffering from deforestation. However, reports have found that children who harvest them risk suffering bone fractures, knife wounds, and venomous snake and spider bites among other dangers.
Federal labor prosecutor Margaret Matos de Carvalho told The Washington Post:
“Wherever we looked, we either found child labor or reports of child labor…everyone knows – the cities, the schools and the state.”
When labor investigators asked what type of monitoring the major exporting companies were doing to keep child labor out of their supply chain, they found they were doing nothing or their activities were so prone to failure, that they were effectively useless.
Forced labor and child labor nothing new in Amazon
The region growing the açaí berries is no stranger to exploitation and labor abuse. While the industries have changed, the exploitation and poverty felt in these indigenous communities remain. Today the thin line between “crippling poverty” and “stable poverty” drives whole families to work for little more than a few dollars a bucket. And it’s been happening for generations.
Rosilda Lobato, a counselor at the Igarapé-Miri social services center said:
“I see people’s faces when I say, ‘child labor,’ they say, ‘I worked as a child, and I’m fine.’”
Generational poverty and the need for more income have meant that families press their children to work harvesting açaí. As those children grow-up they make their own children work and the cycle continues leaving generations of children scarred, crippled, and even paralyzed when they fall from the trees.
Times change, harvests change, culture can change
Recently there are signs the tide may be turning and for the first time, people in these rural communities are starting to take an honest look at the societal damage wrought by the açaí industry.
The aunt of a child who harvested açaí said:
“They say child labor is just a part of the culture here. I say this culture isn’t going to get my nephew.”
The federal government is working to address child labor concerns with the growers to implement changes to the system. Açaí producers have until November, when this year’s harvest ends, to prove they are taking steps to curb child labor. The government claims if they fail to do so, they will face sanctions.