SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
I have had acai berries, being one of those Americans who longs to be healthier especially if I can do it by plopping a few berries into a smoothie. Acai, which to me tastes a little like dull blueberries, reportedly brim with antioxidants, vitamins and fiber. They're said to promote energy, healthy digestion and even a dewier complexion. But how do acai berries get from the tops of trees in Brazil's Amazon into the acai bowls that sell in San Francisco, Austin and West Des Moines? Many are picked by children.
This week, an exemplary piece of reporting by Terrence McCoy in The Washington Post puts faces and names to some of those young workers. Jose Armando Matos de Lima is 11. His brother, Izomar, is 10. The acai palm trees are slender and routinely grow more than 60 feet tall. The bulk of an adult might snap them, so the boys scale the trees with knives in their belts and burlap wrapped around their feet. Their father, Joao, who is 51, still climbs with them, but he fell from a tree a decade ago and hurt his back. Terrence McCoy says Joao's feet are swollen, and his body is scarred by the acid spit of bees. He needs his sons to help pick acai to support their family. The Post says an estimated 120,000 families in the Amazon region harvest acai for a growing world market.
The Fair for Life Program awards fair trade certificates to participating companies that import and sell acai under phrases like ethically sourced and hand-harvested. But this is one of those situations where a certification shouldn't be allowed, Charity Ryerson told us. She's founder of the Corporate Accountability Lab, which investigates labor abuses. Brazilian acai is largely wild harvesting, she says. It's not clear what would be monitored and who would even identify where the harvesters are working or who they're working for.
Manoel Potiguar, one of the authors of a 2016 study by the state labor tribunal, told The Post, I'd say there's a 90% chance that the acai being eaten by someone in the United States was produced in an unjust way. The study found that someone in almost every family that harvests acai has gotten hurt, sometimes catastrophically. It is difficult and often frustrating to trace the ethical origins of everything we eat. But once we know, can we turn away? Acai berries may be healthful for us, but what harm do they do to the small young hands that pick so many of them?
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