The scourge of Brazilian slavery

Tens of thousands of debt slaves work in inhuman conditions in isolated ranches and plantations.
Pedro Dutour | Apr 6 2007 | comment  



Charcoal burning in the AmazonAlthough England is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, slavery still exists. One of its last strongholds is Brazil. Brazilians are better known for carnivals, beaches and soccer. But deep in the interior of this vast country is the scourge of slavery.

According to the Pastoral Commission for the Earth, a Catholic group, and the International Labor Organization, between 25,000 and 40,000 people working as debt slaves. The numbers are not declining, either. Half of Brazil's slaves work on cattle ranches; a quarter in deforestation; and the rest in sugar cane, cotton, coffee and soy plantations and so on.

"While Brazil is proud of being the world’s largest meat exporter, it is precisely in that economic activity that there are the highest percentage of slaves", Marta Pener and Valeria Penacosta, two human rights activist from the group Entorno, told the BBC.

Most of the slaves come from Pará, a northern state in the Amazon region far away from the big cities like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Brasilia or Belo Horizonte. Isolation is a big obstacle in the fight against slavery, because the landowners – or fazendeiros -- are beyond the reach of the law.

Today's slavery is not based on race, but poverty. The landowners keep their slaves in permanent debt by charging them exorbitant rates for the food, water, clothes and the tools they work with.

As well, landowners use intermediaries –known as gatos (gang master)- who runs the slavery service. "The real employer never shows up because he doesn’t wish to assume responsibilities in the contract relation," says Xavier Plassat, coordinator of the National Campaign of the Pastoral Commission for the Earth.

The slaves work all day, from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. They don’t receive wages; they don't get medical attention – many die from malaria; and they sleep in straw shacks, in hammocks very close to their cooking fire. They get just one meal a day of rice, beans and a bit of chicken or meat. Often they eat standing up to discourage resting. Needless to say, they don’t have access to toilets or good hygiene. In fact, fazendeiros threaten workers with death if they leave the job. They have militias to keep clean the land of human rights defenders.

"There was no way we could get out of there because it was so isolated," said Regivaldo Pereira dos Santos, a 22-year-old from the town of Redençao, in the state of Pará state, after winning a court case against a fazendeiro with the help of a human rights lawyer.

Most of the people engaged in this kind of job are illiterate and dirt poor. The gatos promise US$3 to 4 a day to clear land. But they are charged for their transport to the job and from the first day, they find themselves mired in debt. In the end they are trapped in the jungle working as virtual slaves.

Last month, when George W. Bush met Lula in Sao Paulo to secure an agreement on ethanol, which is made from sugar cane, allegations about the painful conditions so many peasants are work in the sugar cane plantations resurfaced.

Brazil is the world’s principal producer of sugar cane, but the "sugar and alcohol production is swamped in blood, sweat and death," says María Cristina Gonzaga from the Ministry of Labour. Labourers are paid according to the weight of sugar cane they cut. They work under a roasting tropical sun in the middle of dust and soot. They are paid US$1.15 for every ton. Over a million peasants work on each harvest.

Brazil officially abolished slavery in 1888 -- the last Latin American country to do so. Before that, over 350 years, millions of Africans were brought by the Portuguese to work, mostly for the sugar cane plantations.

More than 50 million of Brazil's 166 million people live in extreme poverty. According to official figures, the unemployment rate rose from 9.3 per cent to 9.9 per cent in March. However, during the last decade its economy has been booming.

But corruption means that it is impossible to fight modern slavery effectively. "It’s a shame, but unfortunately we still have slavery; we must put in jail businessmen who don’t know that slavery is over in Brazil", President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said last month during a radio program.

Despite the President’s bold words, more than good will is needed: tougher laws, bigger budgets and effective police protection for whistleblowers. There are so many stumbling blocks: prosecutors investigating with no resources; judicial sentences which are never carried out; low fines; and the lack of pressure to confiscate fazendas where people work in subhuman conditions.

Three years ago the Ministry of Labour rescued 32 workers from a remote cattle fazenda in Pará. To their surprise the prosecutors discovered that the landowner was João Ribeiro, of the right-wing Liberal Front Party. Corruption amongst the politicians means that laws aimed at slavery are normally ineffective.

However, there is room for optimism. Alison Sutton, author of a book about slavery in Brazil works for Unicef in the capital Brasilia. She believes that things are improving. "Public awareness is much higher, and that’s a big advance", she says. But victory will not come soon. Between 1995 and 2006, the government freed about 19,000 workers from slavery. But new people flow into the system all the time, victims of unemployment, ignorance and poor education.

Pedro Dutour writes from the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo.

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