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Slavery in Brazil

Brazil's Prized Exports Rely on Slaves and Scorched Land

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 Belém 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," Cláudio Secchin, director of the Ministry of Labor's special antislavery Mobile Enforcement Team, said in an interview in Brasília. "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.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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