CURRALINHO, Brazil — The sun had barely risen, but José Armando Matos de Lima, 11, was already on the job. As his sisters slept in their hammocks, the boy fired up the family’s longboat, headed upstream and collected the order of the day: 15 buckets — more than 450 pounds — of açaí.

He was dreading the task ahead. The day was shaping up to be another scorcher. The jungle was full of scorpions, one of which had bit his hand months before. A girl across the river had been hospitalized after a recent fall while harvesting the fruit. But he was the best climber his family had. Açaí was their primary source of income. And this was his life: Toiling on the bottom rung of an industry that connects some of Brazil’s poorest people to America’s health-absorbed elite.

“Let’s go,” José said.

A brooding child with a shy smile, he tucked a serrated blade into his ripped shorts and headed out to perform what researchers and labor officials describe as one of the most dangerous jobs in Brazil, the world’s principal producer of açaí. At harvest time, tens of thousands of Brazilians, equipped with nothing more than knives and swatches of burlap to protect their bare feet, climb the wild açaí palm trees every day, ascending without harnesses to heights that can top 65 feet.

Because the tree’s trunk is tall and thin, and because the weight of an adult can snap it, often those who make the climb are children. It’s unknown how many assume the deadly risk; the government has never counted. But researchers agree the practice is widespread among the estimated 120,000 families who work the harvest.

The injuries that befall açaí pickers — known here as “peconheiros” — are routine and serious: bone fractures, accidental knife wounds, venomous snake and spider bites. Some end up paralyzed. Others are killed. Some peconheiros go out and never return — such as two boys, ages 13 and 14, lost this year in the forests of Amapá state. All in pursuit of a rock-hard, fibrous fruit that’s known here as “black gold.”

Fueled by claims of extraordinary health benefits, slick marketing and influential promoters, açaí has in recent years become one of the trendiest foods in the world. Pitted and pulped, the fruit is the deep-purple fixture of smoothies most everywhere. It has become especially popular in the United States, the largest açaí consumer outside of Brazil, where it’s a viral star on Instagram and celebrated by health and wellness enthusiasts. Analysts predict the global market, valued at $720 million in 2019, could exceed $2 billion by 2026.

In the shadows of the ascendant industry, hidden down a maze of remote tributaries, are kids like José.

That so much açaí is harvested by children is evidence of how few labor protections are afforded to families like his. They are freelancers in an unregulated supply chain, selling to middlemen who sell to other middlemen, so far removed from the profits that many have little idea that an açaí bowl can go for $15 in Washington. No law addresses their interests or guarantees a wage that would free parents from the difficult decision of sending children up trees.

A fair-trade certification process, industry critics say, has fallen short of its promise to eradicate child labor from the business. Brazilian and U.S. authorities say they are now investigating child labor in the açaí industry.

“We can’t wait any longer,” said Rejane Alves, who heads the child labor division in Pará and Amapá states. “We need to track the supply chain, identify people, hold them responsible and protect the children.”

José flung himself onto a tree and started to climb, knife glinting from his waistband. Higher and higher he went — 30 feet, then 40, then 50 — until he was just a small silhouette flitting against a background of palms and sky.

A brutal harvest

The fruit the boy collects forms the base of his diet and that of everyone he knows. For centuries, families like his have scurried up açaí trees to wrest free thickets of dripping berries. The skin of the fruit — the only edible part — is removed and processed with river water to yield a nutrient-dense pulp, which accompanies just about every meal. If they haven’t eaten açaí, people here say, they haven’t eaten.

Unusually rich in antioxidants and healthy fats, the fruit migrated to Brazilian cities, where it became popular among athletes. Then it spread further: Exported to the United States. Featured on Oprah’s website. Said to control weight and cholesterol — possibly even arthritis or Alzheimer’s disease — açaí became a darling of the global urban elite.

The claimed benefits of the fruit remain largely unproven, and studies are limited. But the demand was there, and more companies have come to the forest to meet it. Between 5 and 10 percent of the harvest is now exported.

Equipped with a knife and a piece of burlap wrapped around his bare feet, a young boy descends from a tree with açaí in Curralinho, Brazil. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

But the incoming merchants didn’t forge a new cultivation system. They leveraged the established infrastructure. What had always been an informal community practice became the engine of one the Amazon’s biggest businesses — for many families, the only way to make money.

It made for great marketing. “Collected naturally by the Riverside population,” one company says. “Directly giving back to family farmers,” says another. “As nature intended,” says a third. But largely kept out of sight, researchers say, are the harvest’s brutal hardships.

Nine in 10 farmers say someone in their family has suffered an accident, more than half of which required hospitalization, according to a 2016 study by the Pará and Amapá state labor tribunal. Two-thirds of the injuries led to lengthy work absences. Researchers were told of one man who was impaled by a tree, in agony in the woods alone for hours, before he was freed, only to be replaced on the job by his young son. Labor officials found children whose growth had been stunted by the work.

Even the fruit’s biology conspires against those who pick it. Açaí spoils almost immediately. It ideally needs to be transported, processed and frozen within two days of its harvest. That leaves farmers with little negotiating power. They often must sell to the first middleman, which lowers the price to a few cents per kilo and makes it nearly impossible for farmers to harvest their way out of poverty.

“I’d say there is a 90 percent chance that the açaí being eaten by someone in the United States was produced in an unjust way,” said Manoel Potiguar, one of the authors of the labor tribunal study. “It’s very little, what is cultivated in a just way.”

Young children at work

Three buckets filled. Twelve to go.

José was joined by his brother, Izomar, 10. They wandered among the açaí trees, eyes skyward, deciding which tree would be next. The collection took less than a minute: They soared to the tree top and then were down — small firemen whooshing down a pole — clutching a fresh bunch of açaí.

Their father, João Paulo Oliveira Lima, 51, watched from the ground. He’d been climbing açaí trees since he was 12, but he no longer moved as he once did. His feet were swollen and malformed. Bees that spit acid had pockmarked his body with burns. He fell out of a tree when he was 40. Now his back hurt more every day. But he was still out here, climbing alongside his young sons, hoping that somehow they wouldn’t end up like him, uneducated and with no other way to make money but to risk everything for açaí.

Seven buckets filled.

There was a time when Oliveira and his wife, Josélia Pereira Matos, 49, had kept their two boys out of the trees. They’d wanted them to focus on schooling. But in 2019, malaria left Oliveira hospitalized for weeks. The family couldn’t pay its bills. So first José picked up the blade. Then his brother. They have kept up with their studies, but they haven’t stopped climbing the trees since.

Ten buckets filled.

“This is tiring,” José sighed. He wished he was inside playing video games.

His mother, Josélia, threshing açaí into a woven bucket, wanted the same. When she was 12, she was sent to Belém, the Pará state capital, where she worked as a maid for eight years. She worried their childhood would be lost, like hers, but didn’t know what else to do. Some days the boys were responsible for half the family’s haul. So she allowed them moments of levity when they arose.

The boys took a break to play soccer with kids from neighboring huts. The forest filled with shrieks and laughter. All of the children had spent hours that day climbing açaí trees.

“I can pick three buckets of açaí in a day,” one thin boy boasted.

“I can do four,” another countered.

José smiled timidly, embarrassed to admit he could fill five buckets. And now it was time to get back to it. When he returned from the trees, he saw his nephew. The 5-year-old had grabbed a knife and was scaling a tree, giggling with excited fright. He made it up 15 feet before the family called him down. It was not yet his time.

Fifteen buckets filled.

The family set them at the water’s edge. They sat to wait for the boatman to arrive.

‘Certifications shouldn’t be allowed’

In recent years, as more questions were raised about labor practices in the açaí industry, several large exporters sought and earned a fair-trade certificate they say guarantees a supply chain free of child labor. The Fair for Life certificate program requires participating companies to register and periodically inspect all family suppliers. Then it audits about 3 percent of them annually.

“Not only does FFL strongly condemn [child labor], but above all FFL works with companies and producer organizations to ban these practices,” spokeswoman Cécile Caminel said. She said Fair for Life has never discovered child labor in açaí production.

But labor analysts and researchers say the açaí supply chain is almost impossible to track. “Zero chance they can guarantee the things they’re guaranteeing,” said Monte Dawn Talley, an anthropologist who wrote her 2019 dissertation on child labor in açaí cultivation. The supply network is composed of tens of thousands of families spread across vast territories. In a region with one of Brazil’s highest illiteracy rates, families might not understand the certificate paperwork. Impoverished families will make difficult choices to survive.

“This is one of those situations where certifications shouldn’t be allowed,” said Charity Ryerson, executive director of the Chicago-based Corporate Accountability Lab, which investigates supply chain labor abuses. She said the fact that Fair for Life hadn’t found child labor showed the flaws in its auditing process, not the absence of abuses. Community leaders are given prior notice of upcoming audits, and açaí company officials accompany auditors.

“It doesn’t take much to say, ‘An auditor’s coming; get out of the trees,’ ” added Anna Canning, campaign manager of the Fair World Project, a Portland, Ore., organization that studies third-party certifications.

The first açaí exporter to obtain a Fair for Life certificate was Sambazon, which helped popularize the fruit in America. Founded by three Americans, the company last year sent nearly 14 million pounds of açaí pulp to the United States, according to Panjiva, a research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence. It has made certifications central to its branding: “Our pledge, your impact.” The company says it has donated nearly $800,000 in aid to the communities from which it sources the fruit, funding the construction of several schools and a medical center. It has described poverty as its “enemy.”

But four people who have worked for Sambazon recently said there are gaps in the certification system to combat child labor. Certification specialists tell families not to send children to harvest, the people said, but many are unable to honor the request because they can’t afford to lose the income provided by a child’s work. Sambazon does not pay extra money to individual farmers, the former employees said, to incentivize them to follow the labor practices prescribed by certifiers.

“A lot of producers will say, ‘You want my kid not to go pick fruit with me, so why don’t you help me out and give me some money?’ ” said one person who, like other former employees, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing employment in the industry. “But our prices didn’t change. It’s the same price as paid for conventional açaí.”

Without a harness, a child in Curralinho, Brazil, ascends trees as high as 70 feet to gather açaí. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

Two açaí merchants in Curralinho said Sambazon buys fruit outside its registered network, exposing it to the possibility of purchasing fruit harvested by children. The merchants, João Rodrigues Fernandes and Valdinei Borges Farias, said they have sold to ships supplying Sambazon, with no questions asked about working conditions or child labor.

“Sambazon shows one thing,” one former employee said. “But the reality among farmers is different.”

But another former employee who trained families on best practices said the company did everything right. Jeferson Carvalho, 25, worked for Sambazon from August 2020 to April 2021. “The time I was there, everything was straight down the middle,” he said.

Sambazon CEO Ryan Black denied that the company purchased açaí harvested by children. He said the company buys only from certified sellers. The company’s community-building projects, Black said, give farmers an incentive to follow its rules. He described açaí as a positive force, bringing environmentally sustainable income to an impoverished region. Sambazon was a pioneer in the industry, he said, pushing others toward more socially conscious farming practices.

“There are now industry standards,” Black said. “Is it perfect? Show me a system that is. But this isn’t some Nike sweatshop. This is building a business in a rural culture in the developing world.”

Alone in the forest, spine severed

José’s family understood the risks. Everyone knew someone who had been hurt badly while collecting açaí. Some, like the hospitalized girl across the river, recovered to climb again. Others were like Magno Rodrigues Dias, 33, sitting outside his stilted house, entrapped by a rickety pier whose twists he can’t navigate in his wheelchair.

Dias has spent four years thinking about the tree he almost didn’t climb. It had been one final ascent for the day. He worried briefly that the tree wouldn’t support his 200 pounds, but assumed it would be fine. Then the trunk snapped. Dias fell more than 20 feet. Spine severed and alone in the forest, he dragged himself out — more than two hours across the forest floor.

Now in a wheelchair and 30 pounds heavier, he awaits the day he knows is coming. His son will eventually ask about collecting açaí. “I’ll tell him he can’t,” Dias said. But he doesn’t know if the boy will listen. They aren’t making it on his $200 monthly government benefit. His son might insist on helping his family, no matter the risk.

José, another boy wanting to help his family, now watched as the boatman made his slow approach. There were no greetings. The transaction took little more than one minute. A quick accounting was made: For dozens of trees climbed, 15 buckets filled with açaí and a day’s worth of labor, the family would be paid less than $40.

“One more day of açaí,” José’s mother said.

The fruit was placed aboard. Then, saying nothing more to the family, the boatman was off to the next house, one of dozens he’d visit, paying out less than $3 per basket and spiriting the black gold out of this labyrinthine tributary system to the cities and consumers beyond.

Gabriela Sá Pessoa and Elder Miranda contributed to this report.

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