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RIGHTS-BRAZIL: Freeing Modern-Day Slaves

Mario Osava

AÇAILANDIA, Brazil, Jul 2 2007 (IPS) - A young man with burns to his hands and feet which have become evil-smelling open wounds arrives, assisted by a co-worker. He suffered an electric shock on the hacienda (estate) where he works, when a metal rod he was carrying made contact with a high-tension cable.

CDVDH founder Carmen Bascarán Credit: Mario Osava

CDVDH founder Carmen Bascarán Credit: Mario Osava

He is recovering, thanks to tardy medical treatment, but one of his toes had to be amputated. "It’s the saddest case I’ve ever attended," said Brígida Rocha, 22, who provides initial care for people arriving at the Açailandia Centre for Defence of Life and Human Rights (CDVDH), with the support of two lawyers, a student and a social worker.

The appalling thing about the accident is that the injured man was left for several days without treatment, even though his employer is a doctor. The employer now faces criminal and labour abuse charges.

But what CDVDH president Carmen Bascarán remembers most vividly is the dozens of workers fleeing modern-day slavery, who arrive unexpectedly, ragged, hungry, with downcast eyes, often in ill-health and bearing signs of torture.

CDVDH, a local non-governmental organisation, regularly receives, in addition to complaints about slave labour – its main concern – pleas for help of the most varied nature, including employment and housing.

"They want us to replace the state, which we should pressure to work better," said Bascarán, a Spanish activist who founded CDVDH 11 years ago. This is the price the Centre is paying for having become a reference point for the poor and oppressed in an extensive area in Brazil’s eastern Amazon region, where rural violence is ever present. The complaints it receives are passed on to labour, justice or police authorities, which has resulted in thousands of workers being freed from slavery-like conditions.

The centre’s premises are a modest green and white donated house at the end of a street in Açailandia, where the endless trickle of foul sewage attests to the lack of basic sanitation. Opposite the house is a field where the "Athlete’s Foot Football Training School" has just resumed its activities after months of interruption following the demise of the coach, who was stabbed to death by one of his trainees.


Açailandia, a town of 110,000 people located 566 kilometres from Sao Luis, the capital of the state of Maranhao, is well known as a recruiting ground for slave labour. Its numerous "hotels," which are really houses with jerry-built extensions to provide lodgings for migrants close to the bus terminal, are the hunting zone for "gatos" (cats), as the recruiters are called.

In the past Açailandia was said to be home to a large number of gunmen hired to carry out the frequent murders of peasant leaders and their supporters, including human rights lawyers and missionaries, in an area covering parts of the states of Maranhao, Pará and Tocantins.

This is no longer the case: violence in Açailandia has diminished, and so has the incidence of slave labour, said Bascarán, who is responsible for the remarkable existence of a human rights centre in a town with such a history, rather than in the capital cities, as is usually the case.

Although the number of complaints is still rising because labour rights are becoming better known, they are more and more about labour abuses and "overerexploitation" of workers rather than conditions of actual captivity, Rocha said, according to statistics from her own and other institutions.

The neighbouring state of Pará has the dubious distinction of holding the record for mass killings of peasant farmers and activists and slave labour. Police and labour authorities there have freed the highest number of slave labourers, more than one-third of the 21,777 such workers rescued between 1995 and the beginning of March 2007 in the whole of Brazil, according to Labour Ministry figures.

But most of these people seduced by promises of work on far-off haciendas, and then prevented by force from leaving, are from Maranhao, because of its high poverty and unemployment levels.

The workers are informed that they are in debt, due to illegal charges for their transport, work equipment, and purchases of over-priced goods in the company store, and this is used as a pretext to keep them on the establishment under threat, and often under armed guard.

"A coconut cost 60 reals (31 dollars), and a co-worker who killed a chicken was charged twice that," said Gildasio Meireles, 26, who escaped from an hacienda where he worked felling trees in the forest for the first five months of this year.

Now he lives at the CDVDH centre, which got him a job in a restaurant, and he hopes to accomplish three things: help free his 15 co-workers who are still on the hacienda, claim his five months of earnings, and put together enough money for the surgery his father needs, before heading home to far-off Pindaré.

Slave labour is mainly used in making charcoal for the iron and steel industry, and in clearing forest for raising crops. The fight against slave labour has intensified since 1995, when the problem was officially recognised and mobile teams of labour inspectors and prosecutors together with federal police began to respond to complaints.

The inspections are "effective, but insufficient," because they take place only a few times a year and investigate only "a small fraction of the complaints we tell them about," complained Bascarán. And apart from fines, few of those responsible are punished. Of the hacienda owners reported to CDVDH, only one went to prison, and "only for a week," she said.


Other cases drag on slowly in court, such as that of Olindo Chaves dos Santos, at whose hacienda a mobile team reported finding 151 workers in slave-like conditions in 2001.

At a Jun. 13 hearing before a judge in Açailandia, attended by IPS, the hacienda owner said it was all "a trap," despite being unable to name individuals who might have an interest in harming him, and in spite of having paid up what was due to those he did not acknowledge to be working for him.

Chaves claimed he had only asked the recruiters for eight workers, who had just begun clearing a recently acquired property, "a small one, only 800 hectares." He said they had a good house with all utilities provided, but that they suddenly and inexplicably moved to a camp by a lake, which he said was deliberately polluted just before the inspectors arrived.

Chaves, the owner of six cattle ranches, explained that he had moved to Açailandia in 1974, because a hectare of land in his native state of Minas Gerais in the south cost 500 times as much as a hectare in his adopted state. He told IPS that he was "unaware of any slave labour practices" in the area.

His lawyer, Joel Dantas, said that the campaign against so-called slavery in a region where the state was only just making its presence felt was "more of an educational process than a matter for the justice system." Hacienda owners like his client are pioneers who opened the way to local development, and are learning to respect labour laws, he said.

The accused invariably present versions of events and arguments like the ones put forward by Chaves, which totally contradict "what the inspectors have found," said prosecutor Marco Aurelio Fonseca. The sentence for slave labour is from four to eight years in prison.


In spite of the enemies she has made as a result of her activism, Bascarán has not been the target of death threats like those received by other activists in the region, perhaps because she is not directly involved in conflicts over land ownership. But xenophobic expressions have been used against "that Spanish woman who wants to destroy the future of Açailandia."

A native of Oviedo, Spain, she discovered her social vocation as a teenager, when she heard another Spanish woman’s account of how she had spent three years in Switzerland, sleeping in subway entryways, without visiting her family, in order to save up her wages to build herself a house in Spain.

"I can still see her face covered in tears," says Bascarán, regretting that the increasingly intolerant Spaniards have forgotten that not very long ago, they were the poor migrants of Europe.

At the age of 50, when her four children were grown and had moved to other countries, she refused to suffer the "empty nest syndrome" and set out to fulfil her vocation where she was most needed. She gave up her job as a nurse in her brother’s clinic, and decided to work as a Combonian lay missionary in Açailandia, where she had another brother who is a Catholic priest.

Açailandia is "a microcosm of the poor world," where the effects of the "harshest forms of capitalism, such as slavery, environmental and family breakdown and mafias" are concentrated in a radius of 100 kilometres, but at the same time "the people are longing for an opportunity, however small, to lift themselves up and stand tall again," she said.


After spending a year talking over what to do with a local group, they decided "to defend human rights, emphasising life in a context where contempt for life is strong and ingrained." The CDVDH was founded in November 1996, and has achieved a number of victories.

The first was a campaign to obtain birth certificates for 3,000 unregistered local residents. This basic document was eventually supplied free of charge to the poor. Afterwards, the campaign and the free registration spread nationwide.

Another conquest is the Citizen’s Charcoal Institute, founded in 2004 by the 14 pig-iron manufacturers in the region, which monitors compliance with labour laws in the production of wood charcoal. The institute has already disqualified 312 charcoal suppliers out of the roughly 1,000 that it has inspected.

A large number of charcoal producers in the iron-smelting district of Carajás have not yet been inspected because they are so difficult to find, said Ornedson Carneiro, the institute’s president.

"It’s a step forward," but the pig-iron industry is still evading its labour responsibilities by outsourcing to "illegal" charcoal producers, Bascarán said.

The CDVDH also made an important contribution to the approval of a National Action Plan to Eradicate Slave Labour, in 2003, and played a decisive role in the formal adoption of the Maranhao state plan on Jun. 21, in a ceremony which included a theatrical performance by the centre.

In addition, it has organised two conferences on slave labour, the second of which took place last November and was attended by people from all over Brazil.

The Jun. 9 licensing of a community radio station in one of the poorest sectors of Açailandia is being celebrated as another victory. It follows nine years of struggle, during which broadcasts were interrupted four times by the authorities, a process which was key to the development of several CDVDH activists, including Brígida Rocha who became involved at age 14 as the presenter of a children’s programme.

The CDVDH also created the Maranhao Dignity Cooperative (CODIGMA), which employs exclusively former slaves and their relatives, in two units, one of which produces "recycled charcoal" with leftovers discarded by iron foundries, while the other manufactures toys from waste fragments of wood.

In recent years, the centre has expanded its cultural activities by creating groups for dance, theatre and "capoeira," a mixture of sport and dance developed as a hand-to-hand fighting technique by slaves of African descent. Over 600 young people are involved, some of whom have become professionals and instructors in five centres established in the poorest neighbourhoods of Açailandia.

This is an effort "to prevent slave labour" by generating jobs and income and opening up new horizons for young people. The arts have a powerful attraction, Bascarán enthuses, as she dreams of building a Cultural Centre in Açailandia, although she has not yet been able to obtain the necessary support from the local authorities.

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