“It’s all right,” said Ana Maria Rodrigues, a municipal social worker. “You’re safe.”
Izaque Pimentel Rocha, 12, stepped nervously out. He shifted his weight. His arms and legs bore scars — reminders of the dangers he endured as an invisible worker in the $1.6 billion açaí industry.
His grandmother told him to sit down, relax. Rodrigues, a social worker for the Amazonian city of Igarapé-Miri, was here only to check in. No one was taking him anywhere. He was no longer a child laborer. He could now be just a child.
Açaí, valued for its nutritive benefits, has become in recent years a top superfood of the international hipster wellness movement — a much-sought ingredient for smoothies and bowls. Sourced almost exclusively from the Amazon rainforest, where it is viewed as a sustainable growth industry for a deforestation-ravaged region, açaí has gained particular popularity in the United States, the world’s top importer. Walmart alone sells açaí bowls, açaí juices, açaí powders and açaí weight loss supplements.
But the success of the berrylike fruit has largely obscured what Brazilian labor officials call a “grave human right violation” that undergirds it: child labor. The mixture of the extreme poverty in the regions where the fruit grows and the architecture of the tree itself — it rises tall and thin — means that the harvesters who scamper up the stalks to pick it are often young children.
A Washington Post report in 2021 brought international attention to the perils these children face: bone fractures, knife wounds, venomous snake and spider bites. After it was published, the U.S. Department of Labor added açaí to its list of goods produced by child or forced labor. Now Brazil’s Labor Ministry is investigating the harvest. It has already found “dozens” of cases and reports of child labor.
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One child, investigators found, was paralyzed from the waist down in a fall from a tree. Others suffered spinal and skeletal problems. Some were bitten by venomous snakes. Truancy was widespread.
“Wherever we looked, we either found child labor or reports of child labor,” federal labor prosecutor Margaret Matos de Carvalho told The Post. “Everyone knows — the cities, the schools and the state.”
Authorities say it is impossible to guarantee a supply chain free of child labor. But they are demanding improvements. The federal government has given açaí producers and the cities in which they operate until the end of this year’s harvest in November to take steps to curb child labor or face sanctions. Investigators accuse açaí companies of taking advantage of vulnerable communities and their children.
“We asked what type of monitoring companies have been doing,” labor investigator Eduardo Reiner said. “And we found that either the monitoring didn’t exist or it was prone to failure.”
The Post requested comment from four companies that export to the United States. All champion sustainability in their marketing. “Caring for nature and generate social value: this is our commitment,” one says on its website.
Only one of the companies responded. Rafael Ferreira, a spokesman for Petruz Fruity, said the company has doubled its efforts in recent years to combat child labor, earning international certifications that endorse its product as ethically sourced.
“We are not exploiting a poor region,” he said. “We want us all to grow together, in which we all win.”
The tension between economic development and exploitation, between family farming and child labor, is a matter of increasing debate across the forests of Pará state, which produces more than 90 percent of the world’s açaí.
Now in town halls and homes including Izaque’s, people for the first time are beginning to account for the societal damage wrought by an industry that most have long preferred to celebrate.
“They say child labor is just a part of the culture here,” said Izaque’s aunt, Ediene Alemeida Pimentel. “I say this culture isn’t going to get my nephew.”
A forest long exploited for cheap labor
Perhaps no city has more closely hitched its fortunes to açaí than Igarapé-Miri, the self-styled “worldwide capital of açaí.” This community of 65,000 produces more açaí than any other. Residents see performances at the Açaí Plaza, work out at the Açaí Fitness Gym, buy medicine at the Açaí Pharmacy and drive along the Açaí Route.
The city, which traces its history back to 1710, is one of the oldest in the Amazon. Its territory is vast, encompassing a labyrinthine network of rivers, an area people call “the islands.” Life in these scattered and isolated river communities has long been a gantlet of forced labor and hardship.
First, the bosses were the loggers. Then, the rubber barons.
“And now, they’re the açaí factories,” said town historian Marinaldo Pantoja Pinheiro, a researcher at the State University of Pará. “The same scheme as always; all that’s changed is the names.”
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Far below those factories in the supply chain, in an economy that’s nearly entirely informal, are the river people. They have long consumed açaí, which grows naturally throughout the region, as a subsistence food. But when the fruit made it to Brazil’s southeastern metropolises, and then beyond, demand skyrocketed. Outside investors poured in resources. Processing factories were built to increase production.
The basic structure of the trade, however, never changed. It remained intensely informal: Families pick the fruit and sell it to a local boatman, who sells it to a larger regional boatman, who hauls it to the cities, where it’s loaded onto trucks and taken to the factories for processing and shipment.
Families work for little more than a few bucks per bucket of açaí. There’s no paid leave, insurance or pension plan. But in a region with few options, açaí can be the difference between crippling poverty and stable poverty.
The dynamic led families to press their children into service. Then they in turn have made their own children work. The cycle, now several generations deep, will be difficult to break, government social workers say.
“I see people’s faces when I say, ‘child labor,’” said Rosilda Lobato, who counsels families at the Igarapé-Miri social services center. “They say, ‘I worked as a child, and I’m fine.’”
That’s how Deusiene Gonçalves, 39, sees it. She was 8 when she started scaling the trees. The work was exhausting — so exhausting she often didn’t have the energy to drag herself to school in the afternoons. She dropped out at age 14 and had four children.
They, too, went up into the açaí trees starting at age 8. They, too, dropped out before graduating from high school.
“I have no regrets,” she said. “I was poor. My kids were poor, too.”
‘I like it here; I don’t have to work’
Izaque Pimentel Rocha lived so far out in the country — two hours from Igarapé-Miri by boat, when the current was high — that Oneida Castro, his grandmother, saw him only rarely. Even less after his father split from her daughter and moved away. On one of the rare occasions when they were together, Izaque asked his grandmother whether she might throw him a birthday party. He would soon turn 11. She said “Of course, dear.”
When his father dropped him off that day in July 2022, the family noticed something amiss. He had scars on his arms and his legs. He evaded questions about school and didn’t seem to know how to read or write. When it came time for him to return to the islands the next day, he asked to stay.
“He said, ‘I like it here; I don’t have to work,’” recalled Alemeida Pimentel, his aunt. “I said, ‘You have to work at home?’”
Then he came out with it: He was working from dawn to dusk at a large, distant açaí orchard, he said, breaking only for lunch. Other children worked there, too, he said, but he was the youngest. None of them went to school.
He said he got the scar on his leg when he was clearing brush and gashed himself with his machete. He acquired another when he slipped and skidded down an açaí stalk.
Izaque didn’t want to climb anymore. The heights scared him. He wanted to go back to school. Would his aunt and grandmother help him?
They went to the social services center that afternoon. The city investigated, and the Public Ministry awarded preliminary custody of Izaque to his grandmother. The case is now awaiting a final decision by federal court.
Efforts to reach his parents were unsuccessful.
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More than a year later now, Izaque was preparing to go to school.
An inquisitive boy, he had quickly learned how to read and write and caught up to his peers. But even then, family members said, his past was with him. He often fretted someone was coming to take him back to the açaí fields. Once, he asked his grandmother and aunt what work they wanted him to do. He said he could make food to sell at the market.
“We had to tell him that he didn’t need to work,” Castro said. “He just needed to go to school.”
“He’ll carry this imprint for the rest of his life,” Alemeida Pimentel said.
And so, too, will the region. There are so many, she said, whose childhoods were sacrificed, who today can’t read, can’t do much besides pick açaí. But at least, she said, that won’t be Izaque — a child laborer no longer, but a boy who slept in lazily on weekends, played striker for his soccer team, and now, picked up his things and headed out the door for school.