The river traders of Brazil

There is a unique and dangerous commerce system at work in Amazonia, where children risk their lives for a few pennies.

There is a unique commerce system at work along the narrowest stretch of the Tajaparu River in Amazonia, northern Brazil. This is where the boats pass close to the shore and it is the best place for the small canoes selling sweets and jams to do their business. 

The children who operate the canoes weave in and out among the boats, shouting directions and warnings to one another as the propellers of ferries churn just below them. They then climb aboard in a bid to sell their wares to the ferry passengers.

The best-selling item is the ingas, a jungle fruit that is only found around this stretch of the river and which is much in demand among the ferry passengers. But it is a dangerous harvest. The ingas is only found at the top of some trees, often more than 30 metres above ground. Four ingas sell for one real, barely $0.25.

Santos, the captain of the Bom Jesus, is worried about just how young some of the children who climb aboard his ferry are.

“I keep a list of all the children’s names. There seems to be more of them lately,” Santos explains. “There are so many now, especially little ones, less than six years old, on their own.”

About a dozen canoes attach themselves to the Bom Jesus as it approaches the shore, but the captain must maintain his speed as he has a schedule to keep to.

Brazilian law holds a river captain responsible in the case of accidents.

“I let the authorities know about them, because it’s dangerous what they do, especially at night,” he says. “I tell them not to do it at night. By day, it’s okay.”

‘Sometimes we eat, sometimes we don’t’

Fourteen-year-old Jesse is among those who risk death just to make a few pennies.

The little money Jesse brings home is a small contribution to his family’s income. His family of 12 adults and 16 children live in a house on stilts over the water. Theirs is a life that revolves entirely around the river.

Jesse’s mother, Benedicta, wakes him up each morning to work the river boats.

“My husband’s too old to work now,” Benedicta explains. “Sometimes we get up in the morning and there’s nothing to eat for the whole day.

“We hope there’ll be something for the next day. That’s the way it is here; sometimes we eat, and sometimes we don’t.”

In the Amazonian basin, the rivers are the main arteries for virtually everything. The waterways are a constant ebb and flow of people and trade, with barges forming the public transport system – bus, train and tram all rolled into one.

The passenger ferries – 1,500 tonnes of iron and steel travelling at 30km an hour – are the hardest ships to board. But Jesse knows the safest place to board is in the bow, far from the dangerous eddies at the stern.

The trickiest are the merchant ships and barges, whose crews are much less accommodating and do not tolerate the children climbing on board.

But the crews have good reason to be cautious. In recent months incidents of piracy have increased on the river. Bandits, who hold the merchant boats at gunpoint during the night, use the same type of canoes as the children.

The river traders of Brazil follows Jesse, but his is a story that ends in tragedy. The youngster turns to piracy and is shot dead by the captain of a river barge during an attempted robbery.

But, as this film shows, life and trade on the river goes on. And for the children of this area, there is little alternative.

Editor’s note: This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in 2011.