Brazil: Amazon so vast slavery thrives amid crack downs

Inside one of the vehicles sat Claudio Secchin, a fresh-faced Work
Ministry inspector from Rio de Janeiro who has spent the past nine
years battling a practice that was officially outlawed in Brazil over
a century ago: slavery. As ever, the atmosphere was tense as the
convoy sped out of town and towards that day’s target, kicking red
clouds of dust up into the scorching air.

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Four years ago, almost to the day, four of Secchin’s colleagues from Brazil’s mobile anti-slavery taskforce had been gunned down while on a similar mission. Now Secchin’s team was accompanied by a handful ofheavily-armed
federal police agents, carrying pistols and automatic rifles. “My wife
thinks it’s too dangerous,” sighed 40-year-old Secchin, the father of
a three-year-old girl. “She gets nervous.” Officially, slavery was
abolished in Brazil in 1888.

But today, at the start of the 21stcentury, activists say as many as 50,000 impoverished Brazilian workers are still caught up in a web of exploitation, the majority here in the sprawling Amazon region. The majority of Brazil’s indentured workers hail from the country’s dirt-poor north east and end up working as forced labourers in the Amazon. Uneducated, unskilled and often almost completely unpaid, they are recruited by middlemen and then put to work clearing rainforest and making charcoal in order to pay off debts they have incurred while travelling to the region.

Often they are forced to live in pigsties or squalid jungle
camps. Some are prevented even from leaving by gunmen known here as
pistoleiros. Jose Batista, a local human rights activist who has
dedicated his life to the battle against slavery, said one of the
biggest challenges facing the government was the sheer size of the
Amazon. It could take government officials days or even weeks to reach
the remote areas where slaves were being held, he pointed out, making
the Amazon a paradise for those wishing to profit from modern-day
slavery. “In this region of Brazil, crime pays,” he said baldly.

In 2003 Brazil’s leftist president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva came to power vowing to change this reality and to bring the rule of law to a  region often described as Brazil’s Wild West. Having been elected promising to transform Brazil, one of the world’s most unequal countries, and help the poor, Lula doubled the work ministry’s budget and began pumping extra funds into the mobile anti-slavery taskforces, known as the grupo moveis.

It was an attempt, he said, to put an end to “Brazil’s shame” once and for all. Few doubt the group’s successes. Last year the government’s anti-slavery taskforce announced it had freed 4634 workers from “slave-like conditions” in 2008. According to government figures 31,726 workers were freed between 1995 and 2008, while more than 200 businesses are currently blacklisted because of involvement in slavery.

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