The Miami Herald
Sun, Sep. 19, 2004

Modern-day slavery

BY KEVIN G. HALL
Knight Ridder News Service

First of two parts

MARABA, Brazil - José Silva came to the Macauba Ranch in Brazil's eastern Amazon hoping to earn a few hundred dollars clearing jungle.

Two years later, he was $800 in debt and terrified that if he tried to leave the ranch, Gilmar the field boss would pull out his .38 revolver and kill him.

''I would cry alone at night in my hammock and ask God to help me escape. I felt like a slave,'' he told Knight Ridder.

Silva was a modern slave, working with 46 other men and a boy to clear jungle with machetes, chain saws and tractors from sunup to sundown in the tropical heat, seven days a week, for no money.

He and the others got one meal a day of rice, beans and a little chicken or beef, which they were

made to eat standing up to discourage resting. There were no toilets or latrines at the workers' camp, only bushes.

Rat feces flecked the sacks of rice in the camp's storehouse. Flies covered raw meat hung on clotheslines in the tropical heat.

Workers got no medical attention, even though one of them shivered with malaria, a

disease spread by the Amazon's ubiquitous mosquitoes.

Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. Earlier this year, however, the government acknowledged to the United Nations that at least 25,000 Brazilians work under ''conditions analogous to slavery.'' The top anti-slavery official in Brasilia, the capital, puts the number of modern slaves at 50,000.

The fruits of Brazil's slave labor end up in the United States in the form of imported hardwoods, pig iron and processed meats. Other products, such as soybeans produced on farms cleared by enslaved workers, compete with U.S. products in world markets.

''Silva'' isn't the ranch worker's real name. When a Knight Ridder reporter encountered him, he was an informant leading Brazilian labor department investigators, accompanied by heavily armed federal police, back to the Macauba Ranch. He may be called as a witness in court cases, and labor officials insisted that he not be identified for fear of reprisal.

While landowners don't own Brazil's modern slaves, the workers toil at gunpoint and the threat of violence, hidden by the vast Amazon jungle and, in many cases, beyond the reach of the law.

Most are unschooled men from Brazil's northern states, where their families live in tiny dirt-floored homes without running water. Their infants squabble with cats and dogs and pigs over food.

Recruiters who promise land-clearing jobs that pay $3 to $4 a day find it easy to lure these men hundreds of miles southeast to clear land at the Amazon jungle's edge.

''Our situation obligates us to travel,'' said José Egito dos Santos, 43, a father of four once lured into slavery. He's a subsistence farmer in the northern state of Piaui, where he considers himself lucky to make $20 a month.

Slavery persists in Brazil -- alone among South American countries -- for a simple reason and a complicated one. The simple reason is that slaves are out of sight and out of mind: Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, who dominate the national political culture, are no more likely to worry about slaves in the Amazon than New Yorkers are to worry about illegal immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley.

OUT OF REACH

The eastern Amazon region, where most Brazilian slavery occurs, is remote, and its ranchers feel few restraints in how they treat their workers. ''Landowners believe it is the most normal thing in the world to deny someone their liberty and even their life,'' said Marinalva Cardoso, leader of a government anti-slavery team.

By law, enslaving a worker can bring a landowner two to eight years in prison in addition to fines. However, the fines are so low -- less than $110 per offense -- that they're at worst a small cost of doing business. And no one has ever been imprisoned for it.

The complicated reason is that Brazil's modern slaves are cogs in the global economy. Their labor makes Brazil's exports of beef, soybeans, timber and pig iron cheaper, often much cheaper than competing U.S. products.

On the Macauba Ranch, where Silva worked, some slaves cleared jungle with machetes to make tropical hardwoods accessible to loggers, pastureland for cattle and farmland for soybeans.

Brazil is the leading exporter of cooked and processed meats to the United States. Beef from cattle raised on land cleared by slave labor can end up in products such as Con Agra's Mary Kitchen corned beef.

Typically, commodities produced with slave labor in Brazil get mixed in with commodities produced by its legal workers. By the time they reach the United States, it's almost impossible to determine whether a shipment is contaminated. U.S. companies, do, however, import products from areas of Brazil where slavery is widespread.

Brazilian tropical hardwoods such as cumaru, ipe and jatoba, some of it harvested or made accessible to loggers by enslaved workers, are widely sold as exotic flooring and decking. In U.S. stores such as Home Depot's Expo Design Centers, such woods are sold under names such as Brazilian cherry, Brazilian teak and Brazilian walnut.

Cleared wood that has no commercial value ends up in charcoal ovens, which are often tended by slaves or by what Brazil terms ''degrading'' labor: workers considered slightly less abused because they're not held against their will. Degraded workers in the Amazon number in the hundreds of thousands, or by some estimates a million or more.

Blast furnaces in the eastern Amazon combine the charcoal that they produce with rich local iron ore to make pig iron, which is to finished iron and steel products what baking chocolate is to chocolate cake and fudge.

U.S. IMPORTERS

U.S. companies imported virtually all the 2.2 million tons of pig iron that northern Brazil produced last year. One of the biggest buyers was Nucor Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., America's leading steel-maker, whose products end up in everything from cars to steel beams.

Executives of U.S. companies contacted by Knight Ridder said they were unaware of links between Brazilian slavery and their products, had language in their contracts with suppliers to assure that what they bought wasn't slave-tainted, or didn't consider the problem significant.

Nucor buys pig iron from Ferro Gusa do Maranhao (Fergumar), a Brazilian pig-iron maker that labor inspectors determined was buying charcoal from a ranch that used slave labor. ''We're not familiar with it, not involved with it. It's something for the Brazilian government to handle. . . . Nucor doesn't have the ability to influence the issue,'' said Dan DiMicco, Nucor's president and chief executive officer.

Kay Carpenter, a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods in Omaha, Neb., which buys cooked beef from Brazil and sells it under the Mary Kitchen label, said her company was ''several steps removed'' from cattle ranches that are operating on land cleared by slaves a few years ago.

At Cargill Inc., world headquarters in Minneapolis, spokeswoman Lori Johnson said the agribusiness giant had limited leverage over Brazilian soybean farmers. ''I think it is unfair of folks to point at Cargill and say Cargill is solely responsible for actions other people take,'' she said.

American companies may see no evil, but the working conditions on some Brazilian farms and ranches may be even worse than those endured by the 3.6 million African slaves on whom Brazil depended for four centuries, said Marcelo Campos, who heads anti-slavery programs at Brazil's Ministry of Labor.

''Legal slaves were property, and watched over because they were an asset,'' he said. ``They had food and shelter because the owner needed to make sure they stayed alive. Today's slave is not a concern (to the landowner). He uses them as an absolutely temporary item, like a disposable razor.''

THREATS OF ABUSE

Egito dos Santos, the subsistence farmer from Piaui, said that his foreman threatened to kill workers if they tried to escape.

Another abused worker, Gilvado Mendes Soares, 27, a muscular, dark-skinned jungle-clearer at the Aguilar Ranch in southeastern Para state, said he hadn't been fed in three days, but he wasn't complaining about that. What worried him, he said, was that the landowners at his ranch might treat him like the worker they'd beaten a week earlier and sent off without pay. He'd asked repeatedly to be paid, he said. ``They always say tomorrow, but then tomorrow never comes.''

José Silva and the other workers at the Macauba Ranch never saw the $3 to $4 a day they'd been promised. Gilmar, the field boss who recruited many of them, deducted money from their wages to pay for the train and truck rides that brought them to the ranch. Their midday meal, which he'd promised would be free, cost them a dollar a day.

Before they could sleep, sardine close, they first had to buy their hammocks.

Because the men had never learned arithmetic, they let Gilmar keep their tabs, which he converted into days of labor owed. When Silva fled the Macauba Ranch, he owed Gilmar more than 260 days of work.

Silva waited until after midnight one night, put a curved log in his hammock to gain some extra time and fled. He walked four days without food to Maraba, the nearest significant town, where he found help via a rural civil rights arm of the Roman Catholic Church.

Coming Monday: U.S. consumers concerned about slavery in Brazil have some options.