September 03, 2006
Prisoners of the rainforest
Farmers in the Amazon aren't just destroying the environment. They're also conning destitute Brazilians into doing their dirty work, leaving them in debt, captivity and squalor. Report by Eduardo Martino
Campaigners have highlighted the havoc wreaked by the deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest for many years. It is an environmental disaster that comes at a huge cost to us all. But those making the greatest sacrifice are the modern-day slaves working in the industries that feed off the edges of the rainforest.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Brazilian government estimate that there are at least 25,000 people leading a slave-like existence in Brazil, working in extreme heat and appalling conditions, often without contracts and forced into debt bondage.
The Amazon is an important centre for pig-iron production – the intermediate stage in the steel-making process, for which large amounts of charcoal are needed. There is an abundance of wood, often taken illegally, in this region. In 2004, earnings from pig iron – in the north of Brazil amount to about £210m a year, mostly from sales to the car industry in the US, China and Europe. Those working on the charcoal farms, however, see little or none of this money.
Lured by the promise of wealth, these men leave their homes in dirt-poor towns such as Barras and Bacabal in northeast Brazil, where many make as little as £3 a week. These naïve, often uneducated workers are recruited by men known as "gatos", or cats, due to their propensity to fall on their feet. The gatos are commissioned by rich landowners to find labour for short-term contracts. They travel to areas where men are jobless and desperate, offer a cash advance to be left with the families, and herd the men onto the train known among those fighting the problem as the ‘slavery express'. On arrival in Maraba, the hub of the pig-iron industry, the men are often told they owe money to the landowners for travel expenses, so they begin their work in debt.
Frei Xavier Plassat, a Dominican friar, has been working to improve conditions and free the labourers in Para and other Brazilian states for the past 17 years. He has seen many men crushed by the conditions imposed upon them.
"The gatos speak about a farm where the conditions are nice, the wages are high, and the sanitation, food and housing are good," he says. "But when the men arrive they find the opposite. They must work each day of the week. Their homes are barracks made of trees or plastic. And when they are given their wage there is a deduction for transport, food, housing, even the tools they need to work. They feel desperate."
These "debts" often leave the workers with less money than when they first arrived at the farms, and without the means to travel home, the men are trapped. The landowners routinely confiscate identity papers, further restricting the men's mobility. Short of running alone into the rainforest, the men have no means of escape. "This is modern slavery," says Plassat. "There is nothing they can do but accept it."
The men are closely patrolled by the gatos and armed guards who threaten the workers if they complain or slacken the pace because of hunger or fatigue. "Workers are told, ‘If you don't pay off your debt, if you don't work to the end of your contract, if you don't work on Sunday, if you disobey, you will be punished,'" says Plassat. He recalls the story of a man who was freed by a federal agent. "He told me he'd overheard two gunmen speaking about how they were going to punish another worker. He tried to intercede and they were so angry, they punished him. He was forced to eat half a kilo of the salt block they feed to the animals, and became dangerously ill."
In an unpublished 2003 report on Brazilian slavery, the ILO recorded that "cases of humiliation are frequent, and physical torture, with men being pistol-whipped or beaten with chains from chainsaws, has been reported. There is no way of knowing the number of slave workers who have been murdered, because they are buried anonymously on the ranches".
In 1995, the Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment set up a team of investigators called the Special Mobile Inspection Unit (SMIU), to raid farms accused of using forced labour. In areas where local police have turned a blind eye to the slave farms, federal police – not involved in local politics – step in. SMIU inspectors storm the properties, release the workers and collect the evidence needed to sue the landowners and ensure the labourers receive the wages owed them. In the past 11 years, some 18,000 workers have been freed from 1,500 farms.
Once liberated, the men are sent home and are entitled to a three-month, state-funded allowance at the minimum wage. But when the three months is over, the only choice is to go back. "Again they have nothing," says Plassat. "So they turn to the same solution as before – the gato. It's a vicious circle."
Bhavna Sharma of the London-based Anti-Slavery International organisation believes the Brazilian government is genuinely trying to alleviate the problem but lacks the manpower to follow through. "The government needs to enforce the laws," says Sharma. "They need to ensure that there are more arrests, that fines are collected. But they don't have the resources."
Virna Soryana Damasenco, an SMIU co-ordinator, believes the unit's most significant achievement has been to shed light on the problem of slave labour by collating photographs and statements from the workers. "My main frustration," she says, "is that we are limited to fire-brigade activity. We deal with emergencies: rescue the workers, make sure they get paid, but then what? We throw them back where we found them so they get enticed once again into that same old cycle of exploitation."
Damasenco is concerned about the effect the recent boom in pig-iron production will have on Brazilian slave labour. "When we started 11 years ago, there was only one pig-iron-producing company in Para," she says. "Now there are nine and plans to build 15 more over the next two years. It's a massacre, both of our workers and the environment."
Additional reporting by Amy Turner