Starvation and jaguars

Editing to add: H/t Kengi

Al Jazeera on slavery in Brazil.

Slavery is reported across the country, from farms in the wealthy south to five-star hotels in Rio de Janeiro and factories in São Paulo. But for decades, the heart of the problem has been this well-trodden route. It leads from northeastern states such as Maranhão and Piauí, known for their poverty and political corruption, to Pará, a vast state in northern Brazil encompassing much of the Amazon rain forest.

Former slave Elenilson de Conceição, whose furrowed face belies his 29 years, knows it intimately after he was himself enslaved to deforest the jungle. He was not paid a cent for three months of grueling labor and slept under the stars amid a forest filled with jaguars and deadly snakes. As he retraced the route with Al Jazeera America to highlight the problem, the raggle-taggle truck stops; the caged vans barely fit for animals; the shrill ferry horn, all brought back painful memories.

It’s estimated that nearly 5 million people were enslaved in Brazil.

Slavery was abolished in 1888, but land reforms forced the poor to continue to be exploited in terrible conditions on the same farms, historians say.

Oh gosh, you know what that sounds like? What happened here in the US. Slavery was replaced by a racist prison system that made a profit from contracting “prisoner” labor. Many of the prisoners were there on extremely fanciful charges. And then of course there was sharecropping…

Conceição, like many others, did not grow up understanding the concept of slavery. Instead, many of his parents’ generation understood themselves to be migrant workers. He, like those before him, was living in poverty when he was tempted by an unscrupulous agent — or gato — who lived locally and promised work. Conceição was trafficked to the Amazon and, amid death threats and violence, set to work without pay, days off, decent food, safety gear or bearable living conditions.

And no protections, because nobody had “bought” him with a large capital outlay.

Conceição said the bus finally stopped on the roadside near Santana do Araguaia, in Pará state. The men were ordered onto a cattle truck with a cage section on the back — a design that still gives him flashbacks when he sees it.

“The promise was that we would go to a farm, but actually when we arrived, there was no farm,” he said. “We simply walked into the Amazon forest. When we were in the middle of the forest, we stopped, and we were ordered to put up a canopy.”

The men’s mission was to deforest that part of the Amazon to create a ranch and sell the timber. Many others who are enslaved there are put to work on livestock farms, with others forced to do dangerous work in coalmines.

The 100-odd workers on the farm were woken at 4 a.m., when Barba would shout at them to get up. It would still be pitch black. There would be a long walk through the forest until work started at 5:30 a.m. It would not finish until 6 p.m. They never had a day off, and they had no idea how long they would be held before they were released. The food was white rice and uncooked black beans, with only dirty water to drink.

The men were left to fend for themselves in the middle of the jungle, sleeping in hammocks in the open under a leaking canopy.

“We spent most of the nights on our feet, since when it rained, the water would blow everywhere,” he said. “Most of our protection from the rain came from the trees above.”

There were snakes and jaguars and other animals around. They kept a fire going to scare the jaguars but found their paw prints in the mornings anyway.

The workers were not paid and were told they had a debt to their masters they would have to repay. “It turned out the bosses had everything we needed — food, water, work clothes, tools, medicine — but their intention was to sell it to us,” he said.

A debt to pay. For what? The gas it took to drive them there?

“In the evenings, we just kept talking and thinking, ‘How are we going to get away?’” he said. “Barba heard us and told us the bosses would find us and kill us.”

“I do not think I could have escaped. I had no money. I had left what I had at home. We could not have gotten away from there. There’s nowhere to go on foot. They took us to a place that you cannot walk, return, return on foot at all,” Conceição said.

So many crimes here. Fraud, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, extortion, theft, menacing…

Then after three months, the men were suddenly released and put on a bus to Monsenhor Gil. “In those three months I did not receive a single cent,” he said.

The decision to release the workers came in the aftermath of a raid by inspectors from Brazil’s Ministry of Labor on a neighboring farm, in which 78 slaves were rescued. Conceição was given $77 to cover his trip home, but unlike the slaves rescued by the government, does not have a right to claim compensation. The owner of the raided farm was not arrested but was eventually ordered to pay $257 to $322 to each worker after a civil case brought by the Land Pastoral Commission.

For three months of hard work in horrific conditions.

I suppose David Brooks would tell them to look on the bright side.


  1. says

    This is horrible. Despite my horror and revulsion, this:

    I suppose David Brooks would tell them to look on the bright side.

    Made me laugh so hard

  2. Kengi says

    You’re just dwelling on the past. All of these things (by definition) happened in the past.

    Look to the future! Look at the offshore tax-exempt capital investment opportunities this creates. Look at the affordable Brazilian Rosewood bookcases you will be able to buy!

  3. johnthedrunkard says

    Al Jazeera? Are we holding our breath for them to report about labor conditions in Qatar?

  4. StevoR says

    Horrendous stuff. Wish we could think of slavery as something restricted to the awful past but that it still happens now to so many who never have a chance to fulfill their potential or live good lives is just sickening. So wrong and needs to be so much better known and strongly opposed than it is.

    I take it this is what you were thinking of here :

    Or wa s that a separate case?

  5. StevoR says

    @3. johnthedrunkard : Dunno. Maybe not, maybe so but in any case at least they are reporting about this Brazilian instance and it doesn’t change the reality of that if AJ does overlook other horrible examples closer to home. Who else is telling us about this in the “mainstream” media (whatever that is) – if you even call Al Jazeera that?

    @2. Kengi : Look to the future – yes and try to stop things like this happening in the future. The past started a second ago, and what happens in the present and future is shaped by the past.

    Also that’s why we need to focus on having some way of certifiably ethical non-slavery sustainable product labeling enforced – and insist on fair trade not free trade. Countries that can use slave labour and destroy their environments for short term profit shouldn’t be allowed to benefit so much from that and have so much advantage over ones that treat their workers well and look after their environment. That’s where unrestricted capitalism goes so horrifically wrong.

  6. StevoR says

    Countries and corporations that allow or fail to stop slavery in this or other similar forms should have some huge economic penalty for doing so. Something so strong it renders slavery uneconomical and provides a real incentive to end the practice and keep it ended. Not sure if there are international efforts towards this end – sadly, if anything, I suspect the reverse may be happening with “free trade treaties like the TPP.

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