Brazil's Prized Exports Rely on Slaves and Scorched Land
By LARRY ROHTER
INGUARA, 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 deal.
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 workplace.
"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 otherwise."
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 timber.
When a shipment of mahogany reaches the port of Belim 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," Claudio Secchin, director of the Ministry of Labor's special antislavery Mobile Enforcement Team, said in an interview in Brasmlia. "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, Piaum and Maranhco, 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 futile.
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 Maraba 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 gato.
Outside one pioneer hotel in Sco Filix 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 questions."
Many ranchers are influential businessmen or powerful politicians. Last summer, for instance, the enforcement team, acting on a tip, raided a ranch west of Sco Filix do Xingu owned by Francisco Nonato de Arazjo, from Piaum, 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. Arazjo 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 region."
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 Maranhco, 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 will."