New era of slavery exposed in Brazil's rainforest
A SKELETAL Geraldo da Silva was found sleeping under plastic sheets in a jungle camp with no running water or toilets, the deep bloody cuts on his hands and feet evidence that he had spent months clearing thick jungle vegetation.
Armed vigilantes watched over him as he worked and had threatened to kill him if he tried to flee.
Silva was among 32 slaves found by Brazilian labour ministry inspectors during a recent raid on remote cattle ranch in the Amazon owned by a right-wing senator - a find which has brought to the attention of the wider world an appalling violation of human rights.
More than 2,000 slaves have been freed in raids over the past year, and there are now thought to be more than 25,000 people living in inhumane conditions and working for nothing on cattle ranches, coffee farms and sugar cane fields across Brazil.
Senator Joao Ribeiro is the highest profile figure so far to be caught with slaves on his land, and the case is a stark sign of how powerful the landlords are in these remote rural areas, where they effectively ‘own’ the local judiciary and police forces. Local politicians and town mayors are among dozens of ranchers investigated by the labour ministry in the past few months.
The Ribeiro raid comes only two weeks after three Brazilian government anti-slavery officials and their driver, who were probing allegations against ranchers of black bean farms in the state of Minas Gerais, were killed in an ambush. Suspected of the killing are hired gunmen working for local landlords in a northern region of the state. The inspectors had received repeated death threats from landlords who objected to government inspections.
These events have triggered renewed calls for a tougher line against the archaic practice which is still all too common in Brazil, especially in remote Amazonian ranches and coffee and sugar plantations in the states of Bahia and Maranhao.
The enslaved labourers on Ribeiro’s ranch in the northern state of Para had been lured to work there by being falsely told that they would be paid the equivalent of a 20 monthly salary.
In fact, slaves such as Silva must pay exorbitant prices for food, water and tools and end up working to pay this back for years. "It’s modern day slavery. People are tricked into an endless cycle of debt and fear," said Isidoro Revers, of the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission which monitors and rescues people trapped in slavery.
Silva said: "We were told we would get paid. But when we got here it became clear that we would just get meagre rations, and never received a cent."
Like most of the other workers, he comes from the drought-affected northeastern state of Piaui, stricken by poverty and unemployment. He was lured to work on the Amazonian cattle ranch nearly a year ago when a truck arrived in his village with men who promised they would take him to a place in lush Amazonia where there was employment.
"I thought I was coming to a job that would help me send money back to my wife and five children," he said. He and other workers were given just scraps of flour and rice in return for working 10 hours a day, slashing and burning rainforest covered land to make way for cattle fields. They were made to work seven days a week and forced to sleep under precarious makeshift shacks set up in the middle of the jungle.
"It was a trap. They told us we had to pay for the food with our labour and there was never a way of getting our of the debt with the landlord," Silva said. "We were taken miles away from home with no money to get back. Even if we wanted to run away there were always armed men watching over us."
Most had few possessions other than the damp rags they had worn since being dragged into slavery.
"We found the 32 men living in desperate conditions with almost no shelter from the rain and intense heat," said a spokesman of the ministry of labour team that oversaw the raid.
Socialist President Lula da Silva vowed last year that his government would free those held as slave labour across his country. He announced measures which should see slave driving landlords face prison sentences, and not just symbolic fines.
As part of these measure his government set up of the team of labour ministry inspectors who have for the past year toured the country raiding dozens of farms. Rescued labourers are usually sent back to their home states, with compensation payments funded partly by the government and partly by fines.
But these measures are not likely to be enough to eradicate slavery, say human rights organisations. "It is not unusual that farmers who have been fined for keeping workers in unhealthy illegal conditions just go out and get more slaves to work for them," said Frei Xavier Plassat, who works for a Catholic organisation which takes in escaped slaves and campaigns against the practice.
Inspectors can only raid farms after receiving a tip-off from witnesses to the mistreatment. But some of these ranches are in remote areas which take days of road and boat trips to reach. "We have only managed to inspect a tiny minority of farms," said Marcelo Campos, a ministry of labour press spokesman.
To really tackle the problem, President da Silva needs the Brazilian Congress to pass a law which would allow the confiscation of lands from farmers who subject workers to slave labour.
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