Vanderbilt University doctoral candidate Monte D. Hendrickson, supervised by Dr. Beth A. Conklin, will conduct research addressing the cultural criteria of children's roles in producing export commodities, a subject that has received little anthropological attention. Hendrickson's study focuses specifically on acai production in the lower Amazon region of Brazil and investigates children's roles in the production of this commodity, which is marketed as an environmentally sustainable and socially responsible product that enhances the livelihoods of the rural poor. This research seeks to understand how the moral and economic processes involved in a global commodity boom affect the lives of children and the cultural politics of childhood in poor families at the production end of an export-commodity chain.

To evaluate these complex links between acai and children's wellbeing, research will be conducted in two rural communities, Gurupa and Curralinho, in the state of Para. Research will involve multiple sources of qualitative and quantitative data to yield insights into local concepts, understandings, and perspectives on decision-making concerning children's health, education, and labor, and children's contributions to acai production. Statistical data from official records and findings from household surveys will be complemented and contextualized by ethnographic participant-observation, open-ended interviewing, semi-structured and structured interviews, participatory photo interviews with children, and life histories collected in each community.

This research is significant in that it contributes to an under-theorized dimension of human rights concerns: the question of the moral and ethical evaluation of children's labor activities in family/household contexts. This investigation will produce a rich case study of work conditions, effects on income, education, and health, and attitudes toward children and childhood in these rural Amazonian communities. The dissertation based on this field study will juxtapose this local case study against discourses at the regional and international levels concerning the benefits of acai, fair trade, rural household production, and child labor.

Project Report

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE Over the last decade açaí (Euterpe oleracea Mart.), a palm fruit traditionally eaten as a staple food in the Brazilian Amazon, has become a popular dietary supplement and fashion food for global consumers. Marketed as an exotic tropical berry rich in healthy antioxidants, it is also hailed as an environmentally friendly, sustainable rainforest extract that brings much-needed income to the rural Amazonian poor while maintaining forest cover and biodiversity. Açaí seems to embody an ideal of "ethical consumption," but upon closer inspection another narrative emerges. Children’s labor is a crucial element in the extraction process. Youths (typically age 8 to 15) are regularly recruited to climb the tall thin palms--which often break under the weight of adults--to cut off the fruit caches. As the export boom intensifies, increasing fivefold in the last 20 years (Brondízio 2009), questions arise about risks this may pose to the well-being of these children in the labor force. Using ethnographic data collected in two rural communities in the lower Amazon region in the state of Pará, Brazil, this research documented the effects of Amazonia’s açaí boom on rural child welfare and the cultural politics of childhood in poor families at the production end of this export-commodity chain. Utilizing a mixed-methods approach, this study combined ethnographic participant-observation, questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, and participatory photo interviews with children to evaluate links between the açaí boom and child welfare at the family and community levels. Over the course of 14 months, I lived with families, participated in daily family and community life, volunteered at schools, and attended community meetings. I observed the various roles that children play in their homes and communities, how adults view and treat children in public and private spaces, and the educational and economic options available to children and their families. A major goal was to understand cultural constructions of childhood and child labor from a local perspective. The research found that age, physical maturity, and education affected cultural definitions of childhood. Most individuals defined childhood as a specific period in children’s lives that involved playing with friends, going to school, and a state of innocence separate from adult life and responsibilities. However, local definitions of the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood varied more. Some considered 18 years of age the significant marker of adulthood, which conforms to Brazilian law and international labor organizations’ ‘universal’ definition of adulthood. Others placed more emphasis on biological maturity and the onset of puberty. These findings suggest different understandings of children’s lives and their appropriate roles and responsibilities based on a child’s individual development. Child labor was not as easily defined; many families understood children’s work as a normal part of daily life and growing up, as long as it did not interfere with their education. This study found that children’s labor contributions have long been an integral component in rural household survival; açaí production is no exception. The data show that children’s work in açaí production is essential for many families. However, this work is not only arduous but also dangerous, as the child climbs up, down, and across tall thin palms, large knife or machete in hand, without safety equipment. Açaí related falls and injuries pose a major risk. Although no official data exists on the extent or severity of açaí work related injuries, my interviews documented testimonies recounting accidents for workers that resulted in permanent injury or death. Beyond the risk of physical injury, there are both positive and negative effects on children’s overall wellbeing. One major benefit is a rise in household income, which allows many açaí- producing families to improve their living conditions (better homes, transportation, food, etc.). But children involved in açaí production miss many days of school during the harvest season. This research expands anthropological knowledge about childhood and child labor in Amazonian riverine communities. It also furthers understanding of the moral and economic implications of a global commodity boom that directly affects the lives of children. Beyond contributing to the evolving field of the anthropology of childhood, this project offers insight into an under-theorized dimension of human rights concerns: the question of how to evaluate children’s labor in family and household contexts. In Brazilian açaí production, this study shows both real benefits and real harms to children, highlighting the complexities of developing and applying human rights standards across cultures.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Jeffrey Mantz
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
United States
Zip Code