As the demand for fresh berries has skyrocketed in northern Europe in recent years, there have been 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 in revenues, with the Netherlands and Germany the largest recipients.
Vaccinium corymbosum, the cultivated form of the blueberry that comes from North America, is 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. 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.