BBC News

Forced labour clouds boom in Brazil's Amazon

By Vladimir Hernandez
BBC Mundo, Para, Brazil


Business is booming in Maraba, a small town in the Brazilian Amazon.

image captionJose recounts how they were watched all day by guards

The region's cattle farming, charcoal and logging industries are attracting jobseekers from all over Brazil.

But the good times have not managed to dispel a social ill that has long plagued this region: slave labour.

In the state of Para, where Maraba is located, government officials say that over the past two years they have rescued more than 1,000 workers who were being held on farms or in charcoal camps against their will.

People being forced to work have been found in raids across Brazil but Para is where the government is focusing many of its efforts to stamp out slavery.

Officials from the Labour Ministry usually act after getting a tip-off, or if one of the enslaved workers manages to escape and alert the authorities.

In most of the cases, the rescued workers are found in extremely poor sanitary conditions, and some have even suffered physical assault.

Horror stories

In Maraba, the Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission(CPT) runs a centre to help workers who have recently been released in government raids.

Here, they are treated for any injuries and offered temporary accommodation before they try to make their way back to their homes.

During their stay, they are also able to tell their stories to the authorities who are trying to investigate what happened to them

"We were watched all day by security guards, who would not let us leave the farm," says Jose Nobre Ribeiro Mafra.

image captionConditions are beyond basic for some of the workers in the region

"They had us working all the time. We had no water or services. They never let us wash our clothes, which meant I could spend several weeks with the same dirty clothes," he adds.

"The only place I had to clean myself up was a pond where the cattle in the ranch would urinate and defecate," says Jose Pereira de Souza, another worker who is now being helped by the Pastoral Land Commission.

"Once I tried to complain, and the farm manager attacked me with a knife. I managed to avoid the blow, but then he hit me hard in the head. Not even the dogs on the farm were treated like this," he says.

The background of many of the rescued people is strikingly similar: rural worker, poor, desperate to make a living in one of the most deprived and unequal areas of Brazil.

Economic influence

The sole mention of slave labour or human rights is a delicate matter in this part of Brazil.

Several land activists have been killed in recent years, as well as government officials who investigate allegations of abuse by ranchers.

One of the most high-profile cases was the murder in 2005 of Dorothy Stang, an American nun who spent decades in the Brazilian Amazon helping rural workers.

Jose Batista from the Pastoral Land Commission says that ranchers often exert their economic influence with powerful people to avoid investigations when allegations of slave labour are made.

The ranchers themselves say that slave labour "does not exist" in Para.

Jimmy de Senna Simpson, a Brazilian farm owner with Scottish ancestors, is a director in the Rural Producers Syndicate, the landowners association in Para.

He receives us with a certain hostility as he blames the media "for misleading everyone about what happens here".

However, after agreeing to talk to the BBC, he expands his views.

image captionNot all workers here are forced to work against their will but life is tough

"Most of the allegations (about slave labour) are false. There are many who make false claims in an attempt to get some money out of it. And the authorities often come, judge and sentence without checking the facts."

For this rancher the allegations of slave labour are more related to misinterpretations and cultural differences

"We are very humble people with archaic customs. If you go to a farm and find someone sleeping rough, on the floor, or in a dirty shed, that can be something normal here.

"It is not right to call this slavery. Nobody is being mutilated or chained. Actually, conditions have improved in recent years," he says.

In 2008, government figures show that 811 workers were rescued from slave-like conditions in Para. This dropped to 303 last year.

But so far this year, the Brazilian Labour Ministry has conducted raids on farms in at least nine states, freeing more than 200 workers. Half of them were found in Para which suggests this is an ongoing battle for the authorities.

Across Brazil, more than 3,000 workers were rescued last year in government raids, down from more than 5,000 in 2008.

Although this year the number of rescued workers is so far in the hundreds not thousands, it is too early to say if the situation is improving.

When President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva came into power eight years ago, he launched a national plan to eradicate slavery.

After two terms in office, President Lula's policy has brought about the rescue of thousands of workers held against their will.

But slavery seems to be a social challenge that the next president, due to be elected in October, will still have to deal with.