[OPE-L:6817] NYTimes.com Article: Brazil's Prized Exports Rely on Slaves and Scorched Land

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Mon Mar 25 2002 - 20:39:19 EST

We had some argument about whether workers who are not formally free 
wage laborers could still produce surplus value--I tended to find the 
old arguments of Jairus Banaji persuasive.  I would consider these 
workers  to be clearly proletarians productive of surplus value.

Brazil's Prized Exports Rely on Slaves and Scorched Land

March 25, 2002


XINGUARA, Brazil - The recruiters gather at the bus station
here in this grimy Amazon frontier town, waiting for the
weary and the desperate to disembark. When they spot a
target, they promise him a steady job, good pay, free
housing and plenty of food. A quick handshake seals the

But for thousands of peasants, that handshake ensures a
slide into slavery. No sooner do they board the battered
trucks that take them to work felling trees and tending
cattle deep in the jungle than they find themselves mired
in debt, under armed guard and unable to leave their new

"It was 12 years before I was finally able to escape and
make my way back home," said Bernardo Gomes da Silva, 42.
"We were forced to start work at 6 in the morning and to
continue sometimes until 11 at night, but I was never paid
during that entire time because they always claimed that I
owed them money."

Interviewed recently in his hometown, Barras, about 600
miles east of here, Mr. Gomes da Silva said particularly
troublesome workers, especially those who kept asking for
their wages, were sometimes simply killed.

"I can't read, so maybe a half-dozen different times I was
ordered to burn the identity cards and work documents of
workers who I had last seen walking down the road,
supposedly on their way out," he said. "We also found heaps
of bones out in the jungle, but none of us ever talked
about it."

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish
slavery, in 1888, and forced labor for both blacks and
whites continued throughout the 20th century in some rural
areas. But government authorities admit that despite a
federal crackdown announced seven years ago, "contemporary
forms of slavery" in which workers are held in unpaid,
coerced labor continue to flourish. The reasons range from
ranchers in cahoots with corrupt local authorities to
ineffective land reform policies and high unemployment.

Perhaps most important, though, is the growing pressure to
exploit and develop the Amazon's vast agricultural
frontier, in part to supply foreign markets with two prized
goods: timber and beef.

In the jungle west of here, fortunes are being made
clearing the forest and harvesting mahogany and other
tropical hardwoods, including jatoba and ipe. The United
States is the main importer of Brazilian mahogany, and
though logging has been permitted only in 13 designated
areas, Greenpeace, the advocacy group, has listed nearly
100 companies it says deal in illegal mahogany to meet a
growing demand from American furniture makers.

Furniture companies like Ethan Allen and L. & J. G.
Stickley say their mahogany comes only from "suppliers that
advise us that they comply with responsible forest
practices," as Ethan Allen Interiors Inc. of Danbury,
Conn., put it in a statement. But the companies also
acknowledge that they do not have independent monitors and
do not believe that they should have to determine the
origin of imported wood.

"We cannot do the job of the Brazilian government," said
Aminy Audi, an owner of Stickley, a big buyer of Brazilian
mahogany in Manlius, N.Y., for its own stores and a
manufacturer for other brands. "We have to believe the
certification, and we have had no reason to believe

Brazilian government statistics indicate that Aljoma Lumber
of Medley, Fla., near Miami, was the largest importer of
Brazilian mahogany in the United States in 2000. Asked
about slave labor in the Amazon, the company's vice
president for hardwoods, Romel Bezerra, said that "there is
no such thing these days," and insisted that his company's
mahogany came from legal sources.

"Brazil has put in place many, many regulations, with
export licenses and stamps all over the place," he said.
"They have established strict controls on logging and
cutting and transportation and export, so it is impossible
to ship mahogany illegally."

But the Brazilian government has estimated that as much as
80 percent of Amazon timber comes from illegal sources,
according to a confidential 1997 report. In booming mill
towns like this one, dealers openly resell, copy or simply
counterfeit the government certificates needed to export

When a shipment of mahogany reaches the port of BelÈm for
shipment to the United States, government inspectors have
no way to determine its origin.

As the trees have fallen, there has also been a huge
expansion in cattle ranches that raise grass-fed "green
beef." Brazil's commercial cattle herd, the largest in the
world, generally does not eat manufactured feed or
synthetic supplements.

That makes Brazilian beef especially attractive in Europe
and the Middle East, where fears of mad cow disease are
still strong. Exports of Brazilian beef, fresh and
processed, grew 30 percent in 2001, to $1 billion,
according to government statistics.

"Slave labor in Brazil is directly linked to
deforestation," Cl·udio Secchin, director of the Ministry
of Labor's special antislavery Mobile Enforcement Team,
said in an interview in BrasÌlia. "There are more and more
cattle ranchers who want to increase the size of their
herds, but to do that they need more space, so the clearing
of land is a constant."

In 1995, the first year that Mr. Secchin's team operated,
288 farmworkers were freed from what was officially
described as slavery, a total which rose to 583 in 2000.
Last year, however, the government freed more than 1,400
slave laborers.

Mr. Secchin attributed the increase to "the growth both of
slave labor and of our efficiency in combating it." But he
acknowledged that most cases probably go undetected.

A national survey conducted in 2000 by the Pastoral Land
Commission, a Roman Catholic Church group, estimated that
there were more than 25,000 forced workers. A decade ago,
there were less than 5,000.

Desperation and Coercion

Mr. Gomes da Silva, a slight, bearded man, said he had been
forced to work on four ranches over a dozen years and had
met hundreds of other slave laborers. Recent interviews
with more than a score of other former victims produced
similar accounts of forced labor, nonpayment for work and
threats or use of violence.

The task of felling trees, some so tall they block out
sunlight, is dangerous and exhausting work. The unrelenting
heat bathes workers in sweat that causes chainsaws and axes
to slip from their grip and draws mosquitoes, flies and
chiggers that bite incessantly and transmit diseases. The
dense smoke from incinerated tree trunks stings the eyes,
and predators like leopards and cougars are often close by.

Still, many of the workers, desperate for any work, had
journeyed hundreds of miles to Amazon towns like this one
and accepted employment at ranches even deeper in the
jungle. Once on the job, however, they discovered that
their pay would be less than promised, and that they would
be charged for transportation and forced to pay inflated
prices for the food, lodging, medicine and tools.

"We were obliged to make our purchases at the ranch's
cantina, since we couldn't go to town and the foreman
forced everyone to remain in the area," said Gilvan Gomes
da Silva, 22. "But everything at the cantina was more than
double the price it would have been in town."

In addition, former slave laborers describe living and
working conditions as abysmal. Mr. Gomes da Silva recalled
the time he spent on a ranch with 48,000 head of cattle as
particularly difficult. Forced to spray chemicals to clear
pastureland but deprived of protective gloves and masks, he
became ill and was plunged deeper into debt when a foreman
charged him for the medicines used to treat him.

"The cattle were treated better than we were, since they
were at least fattened up in buildings with concrete
floors, while we had to sleep out in the jungle," he said.

"The only time we ever ate meat," he added "was when they
had rotten beef they were desperate to get rid of, and so
there were men who didn't have enough to eat and became
weaker and weaker until they just got sick and died."

The peons, as they are called here, were often told they
would not be paid and threatened with violence to keep them
from complaining or leaving. "When I asked to receive my
wages, the foreman told me `Kid, your salary is right
here,' and pointed to his revolver," said Gilvan Rodrigues
Freitas, 29.

Workers fall into the trap of slave labor in different
ways. But the most common is to be recruited by the
"gatos," or "cats," who go to towns deep in Brazil's two
poorest states, PiauÌ and Maranh“o, to hire laborers.

"They talk a good game, sweet-talking you and promising you
everything when they want you to sign up with them," said
Francisco Souza de Santos, 54, a former slave laborer. "But
they change their tune just as soon as they have you in
their clutches."

Onboard the bus, a fiery sugarcane liquor called cachaca
starts flowing.

Days later, over bumpy, remote roads, the workers arrive in
a compliant mood.

"Our trip lasted five days, but we only had three meals,"
said Onatan Alves da Silva, 53, one of 170 recruited
workers who traveled on four buses to a ranch west of here.
"Two young guys named Fernando and Severino wanted to go
back, but the contractor," who was heavily armed, "hit and
threatened them, saying he could fill them full of holes if
he wanted to."

Going to the local police for help, however, is often

Sworn statements by workers fleeing slavery are on file at
the local office of the Pastoral Land Commission here,
reporting incidents in which they went to the police in
Marab· to complain of being held as slaves and were
promptly returned by the police to the ranch from which
they came.

"On the ranch where I was held, the cops were really tight
with the foreman, who walked around with a .38 pistol in
his belt," said Reinaldo Carvalho da Silva, 23. "They'd
come around to his house to have coffee and gossip, so
there was no way I could go to them."

But it is also common for ranchers and contractors to
decide that a worker is no longer needed and to tell him
that they will "forgive" his debt. The worker can then
leave, but must find his way through the trackless jungle
to a settlement usually at one of the many shabby "pioneer
hotels," that take lodgers on credit.

In reality, these boarding houses are essential to
perpetuating the system. Cut off from their families and
unable to find anyone to help them, escapees and fired
workers find themselves once again becoming prey for the

Outside one pioneer hotel in S“o FÈlix do Xingu stood
Baltazar Ribeiro dos Santos. The government's enforcement
team had freed him in a raid last August, but a few weeks
later he owed about $44 to his land- lady and risked being
sold to the next recruiter who would pay the tab.

"I'm so ashamed," he said. "Nothing like this has ever
happened to me before in the 24 years that I have spent as
a roving laborer. How did I let myself get ripped off like
that? I feel like slitting my throat. How can I go home to
face my wife and kids? I left with nothing, but I can't go
back with nothing."

Benta Borges, the owner of the hotel, first claimed not to
know what a gato was. But eventually she acknowledged her
relationship with the labor recruiters.

"There's corruption in the whole world," she said when
pressed about her business. "Whatever arrangements the
ranchers or contractors make with the peons is their
business, not ours. We just give them lodging. We don't ask

Toothless Enforcement

Many ranchers are influential businessmen or powerful
politicians. Last summer, for instance, the enforcement
team, acting on a tip, raided a ranch west of S“o FÈlix do
Xingu owned by Francisco Nonato de Ara™jo, from PiauÌ,
where he is a member of the state Legislature, a prominent
official in the ruling party and, until recently, the state
secretary of agriculture.

The raid freed Baltazar Ribeiro dos Santos and 59 other
workers, some of them ill with malaria, from what was
categorized as slavery.

Mr. Ara™jo did not respond to telephone messages left for
him at his offices and on his cellular phone. But he has at
various times told local newspapers and radio stations that
the ranch belongs not to him but to his father, blamed the
ranch foreman for withholding the workers' wages and argued
that "this type of hiring is standard practice in the

The enforcement team cannot arrest or prosecute offenders
itself, and must rely on the local state's attorneys and
courts, many of which are either indifferent to slavery or
openly sympathetic to ranchers.

In addition, the Labor Ministry unit is chronically short
of money and resources.

At least part of the vacuum has been filled by the Catholic
Church, whose Pastoral Land Commission distributes a
pamphlet to potential recruits warning them to keep their
"Eyes Open So As Not to End Up A Slave." Many of the
workers, however, are illiterate.

"Alerting workers to the danger is not enough to stop
them," said the Rev. Ricardo Rezende, who works with former
slave laborers. "Their thinking is that `If I am hungry
enough, I will run the risk and hope that this contractor
is better than the other ones, because it's better to take
that chance than let my family die of hunger.' "

But Mr. Bezerra, the timber company executive in Florida,
dismisses talk of slave labor as "lies and politics,"
propagated by ambitious officials "who want to run for
office and want the green banner behind them."

He, too, is a Brazilian, once lived in the Amazon and still
travels to the region four times a year. He says he has
never seen even a single sign of slave labor.

Both the Catholic Church and the environmental movement, he
continued, are infiltrated by "watermelons, people who are
green on the outside and red on the inside."

"That's right," Mr. Bezerra said. "They are a bunch of
Communists who think that all businesses are bad."

But Brazil's most prominent antislavery crusader, Pureza
Lopes Loyola, a peasant woman from Maranh“o, tells a very
different story. Her brother, Ataide, went to work on an
Amazon ranch in 1974 and was never heard from again. When
the same fate befell her teenaged son, Abel, eight years
ago, she set off on a three-year odyssey until he was
finally found.

"Everywhere I went," she said, "I saw the same scenes of
workers suffering from malaria, hepatitis other dreadful
diseases, prevented from leaving by armed guards. Now I
have a grandson, and I fear for him.

"I pray to God every day for the government to go after
this whole structure of slavery so that he too doesn't fall
into this terrible trap," she added.

"But I don't think they


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