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20 Nov 2023

The Washington Post

Brazil: Investigators accuse açaí companies of taking advantage of vulnerable communities and their children


"Brazil reckons with dark side of açaí: Rampant, dangerous child labor", 20 November 2023

...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...

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...

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...

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”...