The berry market has transformed Portugal as plantations have sprung up in recent years. Conditions for workers are problematic and an already dry region is quickly using up its water supplies.
By Jan Petter and Gonçalo Fonseca (Photos) in São Teotónio, Portugal
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In the past four years, says João Rosado, he has tried everything. Harvesters of different sizes, different nationalities, men, women, mixed teams.
Efficiency, after all, is vital during the late June harvest season at Portugal’s largest blueberry farm. The bushes stretch to the horizon, with hundreds of workers kneeling among them, picking the plump, ripe berries. Foremen on quads urge them on in different languages.
Rosado, the head of the plantation, is sitting in a container on a sandy hill and looking out over his realm, a 92-hectare (230-acre) facility in the southern part of the country. When he heads down to the fields, he takes the car; it’s about a six-minute drive to the center of the plantation. His Dacia compact used to be white, but now looks as though it hasn’t seen a paved road in quite some time. On the way, Rosado explains that there is a “window of opportunity” for each berry which needs to be recognized and taken advantage of. The same holds true of the workforce, he says.
Most of the approximately 300 workers on his farm are shorter than 1.70 meters (5 foot 6) and work in separate teams. For taller people, he says, the work is simply too strenuous, and they develop back pain more quickly than shorter workers.
The appetite for fresh berries has skyrocketed in northern Europe in recent years, and that has produced significant changes in the Alentejo region of Portugal. The country’s berry exports are now three times greater than they were in 2015 and the sector is expecting consumption to quadruple in the coming years. In 2020, Portugal generated 247 million euros ($290 million) in revenues, with the Netherlands and Germany the largest recipients.
Vaccinium corymbosum, the cultivated form of the blueberry that comes from North America, is the secret star, though challenging to grow. The bushes need to be watered correctly and are sensitive to cold and pressure. Furthermore, each berry must be individually twisted from the bush. In exchange, they allow growers to demand the best prices. No other fruit is growing in importance as quickly. In 2019, annual per capita consumption averaged out to 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds). In Europe, it was merely 190 grams.
Southern Alentejo seemed like the perfect setting to expand production. The climate is temperate for most of the year and allows for longer growing seasons than in Spain. There is lots of space and plenty of EU agricultural subsidies.
But the booming berry business only works thanks to an army of migrant workers who are generally as unfamiliar with their rights as they are with the Portuguese language. Initially, the workforce largely consisted of Romanians and Bulgarians. Now, it is primarily made up of South Asians from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Their number has grown rapidly, with the total estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000. And more than 90 percent of the berries they pick are slated for export.
As a result, an armada of refrigerated trucks leave the region every evening at twilight, winding their way north on the region’s curvy country roads. And just a few hours after they leave, dozens of vans and buses fan out to the villages in the area before sunrise, going door to door to collect the harvest workers. Many gaze tiredly out of fogged-up windows during the drive, which can take more than an hour.
Suraj is one of them. The 23-year-old from Kathmandu is his parents’ only son. After finishing school, he assembled USB sticks for a while, but then lost his job. In 2019, a friend told him of a new job opportunity – and so he uprooted and flew from Nepal to Portugal. Suraj’s story is similar to the one told by many of the berry harvesters the region. The tend to be young, male, the oldest son in the family and on the search for a better future in Europe.
On a Monday evening in June, a man knocks on Suraj’s door and wants money. He grumpily moves through the room from resident to resident, the pile of money in his hands growing bigger and bigger. The money collector, who isn’t particularly pleased to have been observed as he goes about his business, calls himself Suraj’s “agent.” Eighteen people live here, in his small, five-room house on the outskirts of Sao Teotónio. They are all from Nepal and each of them has to pay 165 euros ($195) per month for a squeaky metal bed. The total rent is just short of 3,000 euros per month. An exorbitant price.
The small village of São Teotónio is symbolic of the changes that have occurred in recent years. Two thirds of its official 6,500 inhabitants are thought to be migrant workers and the place is home to Indian supermarkets and a Nepalese snack bar.
There is, though, a shortage of decent living conditions. The house shared by Suraj and his 17 roommates has but two toilets and mold in some of the corners. And social distancing has been impossible throughout the pandemic. In order to maintain some semblance of order, the men eat in shifts and alternate kitchen duties. They have planted spinach in the garden out back. Suraj says he spends 50 euros a month on food and tries to send 100 to 200 euros to his parents, or he sets it aside to send later.
Suraj and his coworkers earn 3.50 euros per hour, with much of it being paid to the agencies. Of the workers’ 600 to 1,200 euros in monthly earnings, they tend to end up with just 300 to 400 euros after paying for their sleeping space in the shared room, cheap food and several suspicious service fees. DER SPIEGEL has seen relevant documents and statements from multiple harvest workers.
The fact that Portugal attracts so many migrant workers is also due to it having one of the most liberal immigration systems in Europe. Anyone possessing a work contract longer that six months receives a residency permit and those who retain work for seven straight years are eligible for citizenship. This puts a life in Western Europe within reach for many people, a promise that is euphemistically referred to as a “raspberry visa.”
The harvest workers include Indian IT experts and business administration students from Bangladesh who had previously lived in Denmark or Germany and lost their incomes during the pandemic and must now face the prospect of losing their visas to stay in Europe.
The farm where João Rosado grows blueberries for half of Europe belongs to a young man who is himself only 30. Lourenço Barral de Botton is the scion of a family that grew rich from plastic packaging and a questionable trick. His grandfather earned millions in the 1970s by using many small companies to circumvent the co-determination rights that were then mandatory for all large companies.
For his grandchild, the process of earning money began in a relatively simple fashion. In a video interview, he explains that his father gave him an empty field for a summer and told him: “Do something with it if you want to be successful.” The son learned about the blueberry business at a trade fair and invested.
Five years later, the company Logofruits has two large plantations covering 1.5 million square meters (370 acres). The know-how and the plants came from the Chilean agricultural concern Carsol and two other partners. The fields in Portugal are meant to expand the offerings when it’s winter on the other side of the Atlantic. The company says it supplies the German supermarkets Edeka, Lidl, Aldi, Rewe and Kaufland.
Such collaborations exist throughout the region. An opaque network of multinational agricultural companies, local large-scale landowners and European trading companies has emerged. The world’s largest strawberry producer, Driscoll’s, also grows here.
Lourenço Barral de Botton admits that his company has a lot of freedom. “In the past year, our plantations were inspected more often by Tesco than by the Portuguese authorities,” he says with a shrug. The quality standards of British supermarkets seem to pose a greater danger for him than the law.
On only one occasion did the region experience difficulties with the authorities, when the entire region was sealed off for several days in May 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, a spotlight was shone on the conditions in which the laborers were forced to live and work. In 108 inspections, fully 123 violations of labor law were found. There are still six ongoing investigations into human trafficking. But almost nobody is interested in the details, and since then, there has been no more talk of inspections.
A half hour from the Logofruits plantation, José Alberto Guerreiro is sitting in the city hall of Odemira. Rivers, sea, fields and mountains – his municipality is a cross-section of Alentejo, the mayor says. Odemira is the largest community in Portugal by area. But there are only 26,000 inhabitants – fewer than 15 per square kilometer.
For a long time, it seemed like a minor miracle was taking place here: Dozens of new companies showed up, jobs were created, and plantations sprung up everywhere. The region was suddenly connected to the world at large.
But the 57-year-old says that locals are increasingly wondering what they are getting out of all of this. He remains silent for a moment, then says that the migration problem needs to be solved – quickly adding that he is, of course, referring to the living conditions. It sounds a bit like he no longer really knows what is right anymore and what is wrong.
Indeed, the exploitation of people is no longer the only problem. The Santa Clara reservoir in the mountains behind Odemira has been supplying the region with the dammed water of the small Mira River for 53 years. From here, it flows toward the sea and branches out into smaller open channels. But it no longer reaches everyone.
Because while the agricultural companies keep irrigating their fields as they always have, the first inhabitants have seen their taps run dry. “We only have enough water for two years,” warns Guerreiro. The reservoir is already half empty, and the depth gauge is high and dry. Alentejo is drying up.
Francisco Pacheco, 75, has been living here his whole life. The residents of São Miguel, a suburb of Sao Teotónio, tend to be elderly. Most of them were simple farmers or workers and now survive on pensions of 200 to 400 euros per month. Children and grandchildren have largely moved to the city. To make ends meet, they often grow potatoes or beans, as well as strawberries and spinach. “We never had much, but before now, it was always enough,” says Pacheco.
Before, the use of the irrigation channels cost him less than 20 euros per year. But since March, the water has stopped coming. The valves on the pipes leading from the canal were removed overnight. Pacheco points to his dried-out plants. It will seemingly be his last harvest.
The elimination of irrigation rights for people like Pacheco is hardly surprising. The special-purpose association that controls the water from the reservoir is, after all, controlled by its largest users. The big farms are responsible for 90 percent of consumption, and they are able to divert the water to themselves and shut the others out. When Pacheco and 32 other residents complained about the situation in a letter, the head of the agricultural lobby recommended they water their potatoes with tap water.
Meanwhile, the drought is getting worse. Further west, toward the sea, residents, politicians and environmentalists are complaining about water shortages and the environmental damage caused by the intensive farming. The say the lower reaches of the Mira are drying out, the aquatic plants are dying, biotopes are disappearing.
Sara Serrao is one of those fighting back. If something doesn’t happen soon, she and her fellow campaigners from the residents’ initiative Juntos pelo Sudoeste worry that the nature preserve could soon be lost. She says the problem is getting worse. “The large-scale farmers are now building new plantations directly on the cliffs without approval,” the 46-year-old warns.
Environmental organizations from outside the region are now also issuing warnings about the destruction of the nature preserve and have submitted a complaint to the European Commission. Left-wing parties have also started an initiative in Portuguese parliament to take away the control over the Santa Clara dam from the special-purpose organization.
Such initiatives are not, for the moment, foremost on João Rosado’s mind. He has other problems. The current season, he says, has been the worst thus far because of the pandemic. During the lockdown, he says, many migrants left, leaving him with a shortage of workers and a surplus of uncertainty. Instead of 900 workers in the fields, he says, he currently has 300 at the most.
For the berries to still be processed in time during peak season, they now need to be driven overnight to the Netherlands, where there is a sorting machine that can process 2.4 tons per hour. Rosado hopes that the harvest workers can thus concentrate on the picking.
“We’re fighting for survival,” he says, briefly wiping his face.
It is hardly surprising that many harvest workers have left. Of the hundreds of people on Rosado’s farm, only 25 are on staff. The others officially work for temp firms and agencies like Suraj’s – under dangerous conditions. A few weeks after our last encounter, the Nepalese share a photo of a COVID test in their house. It was positive: 12 of 18 inhabitants were infected, even though some of them were already vaccinated.
João Rosado, on the other hand, is already thinking about the future. Once things improve, after the pandemic, he says, a third farm will be needed. After all, he says, the blueberry business is just getting started.
With reporting by Enrique Oltra Pinto-Coelho