[Marxism] Brazil workers exploited as modern-day Amazon slaves

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 7 06:57:00 MDT 2012


Brazil workers exploited as modern-day Amazon slaves
Brazil's slavery victims are promised work and find themselves 
toiling in brutal conditions for little or no pay in the Amazon. A 
culture of impunity persists.

By Vincent Bevins, Los Angeles Times

5:06 AM PDT, June 7, 2012

ACAILANDIA, Brazil — After months of chopping down trees in the 
forest without pay and living on rice, beans and dirty water, Gil 
Dasio Meirelles decided he had to escape from the remote clearing 
in the middle of the vast Brazilian Amazon.

But he would have to make his way alone through dense foliage, a 
place where a man can lose his bearings and find himself lost amid 
a constant, menacing buzz of jungle creatures.

"Three other workers helped me come up with the plan," he said. 
"But they got scared and backed out. They thought that if the 
armed guards didn't shoot us in the back, we'd be lost and starve 
in the jungle."

He knew he had to take his chances, or die trying.

Meirelles was one of tens of thousands of Brazilians living in 
what critics call modern-day slavery, mostly in the Amazon jungle, 
where ranch owners are the law of the land.

Promised work, the victims are usually taken to remote, unfamiliar 
areas, where they face harsh conditions they would never have 
agreed to and have little chance of escape.

Some receive little or no pay. Others are told they must work to 
pay off "debts" for room and board. Some are threatened with 
violence or abused. Others simply cannot afford the journey home.

Brutal conditions and a culture of impunity across the 
1.5-million-square-mile Amazon region persist in the background of 
Brazil's stunning economic growth.

Although conditions and wages for most Brazilian workers have 
improved over the last decade, exploitation persists in the vast 
Amazon forest, far from the government's reach.

In 2003, the International Labor Organization estimated that 
25,000 Brazilians were working in conditions it described as slavery.

Luis Machado, head of the ILO's unit to combat forced labor, says 
the number is probably larger now.

"Over 40,000 workers have been rescued since 1995," he said. "But 
not one single person in the history of Brazil has been jailed for 
this crime. These men feel untouchable. They feel they are risking 
nothing by doing this."


Meirelles waited until his supervisors were out of sight, then 
disappeared into the hot foliage.

He wandered aimlessly for hours before he got lucky and found a 
dirt road. As he waited hours for a car to pass, his fear slowly 
mixed with hunger. What if he flagged down a truck from the 
operation he had just fled?

He got lucky again when a "safe" truck stopped and gave him a lift 
to a nearby city, Acailandia, where Meirelles had heard there was 
a center that would help people like him.

The problem was, he wasn't quite sure that the Carmen Bascaran 
Center for the Defense of Life and Human Rights of Acailandia 
actually existed.

Much of the work that Meirelles and others like him do reflects 
the illegality that reigns in the jungle. They are put to work 
cutting down the forest or at illegal cattle farms on protected 
parts of the Amazon. Others shovel illegally harvested wood into 
hot pits to make charcoal, often without protective gear.

The government of President Dilma Rousseff has said it is 
committed to fighting abuse of workers as well as illegal 
deforestation. Rousseff has been facing pressure from 
environmental and civil society groups over a new Forest Code bill 
that would roll back legal protections for the world's largest 
rain forest.

Enforcing government rule across the Brazilian Amazon is no easy 
task. To find out where deforestation is occurring or illegal 
charcoal camps are operating, workers for nongovernmental 
organizations fly for hours over the jungle, circling what from a 
distance look like illegal activities. Then a professional 
navigator tries to pin down the location and later find a way to 
reach the site.

This kind of approach has little effect, Machado said.

"The government simply can't be going to every farm to check. The 
resources don't exist," he said. "So we rely on trying to pressure 
the government to punish proven offenders and educating potential 
victims about the risks of taking distant jobs they know little 

Meirelles is rare among liberated workers in that he is 
comfortable telling his story in depth. He escaped in 2008 and has 
since had a kind of a happy ending: The Carmen Bascaran center, 
named for its cofounder, a Roman Catholic missionary from Spain, 
did exist, after all.

Eventually, he was able to bring in the police and rescue his 
friends and cousin, collect damages from the landowner and settle 
down into a new life. He speaks calmly, even proudly, about his 

But when seven men who had been rescued more recently gathered at 
the center this month to discuss their experiences at various 
charcoal plants, they spoke quickly and quietly, either timid, 
embarrassed or emotional.

"It was dangerous. We drank dirty water. They didn't care for our 
health at all. We worked in front of blazing fire, wearing just 
sandals," said Pedro Augusto Soares da Silva, 31. "I know the same 
owner is still using slaves right now. He's just moved a bit."

Antonio Perreira dos Santos, 35, said he passed out from the heat 
at one of the pits and was given no medical attention for three days.

"They seemed unconcerned if we died. It was only through the 
threat of violence against them that we got them to send a sick 
and dying colleague out of the camp. 'If he dies, he won't be the 
only one,' we said, and that eventually worked."

Recently, workers at the Bascaran center have been canvassing the 
region and distributing cartoon booklets titled, "Keep Your Eyes 
Open to Avoid Becoming a Slave."

"There are about 500 cases of workers each year who manage to be 
rescued and file specific complaints," said Antonio Ferreira Lima, 
the group's director. "Most come to nothing. The government simply 
has little control over powerful landowners in this part of Brazil."

Meirelles said it took the authorities months to finally get out 
to the farm where Meirelles had left his cousin and friends 
behind. He refused to leave the Bascaran center until they did, 
and slept in the back room.

"The response times are faster now, which is good," he said. "And 
more people know about the risks of taking this kind of work, and 
thankfully, there are more jobs now here in the city so people 
don't have to fling themselves into the middle of nowhere for the 
promise of some pay."

Many of the liberated workers now do similar jobs but earn the 
official minimum wage of 600 reals, or about $300, a month, have 
safe working conditions and can visit home.

Meirelles has bought a small piece of land with the money he won 
in court and is building a house with his girlfriend.

"I think slavery is the right word to use for what we went 
through," Meirelles said. "They are conditions we did not choose."

Bevins is a special correspondent.

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