Thu, Oct 02, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Slavery still alive in Brazil

Though slavery was banned in 1888 the Brazilian government estimates that there are still 25,000 indentured servants in the country

REUTERS , FAZENDA BOM JESUS, BRAZIL

Brazilian slave laborer Francisco Borges de Souza bleeds from the side of his nose as he cuts down forest with his scythe on the Bom Jesus farm in the Amazon basin, some 1,6000km north of Brasilia. As teams of govermment inspectors and federal police step up their quest to free an estimated 25,000 slave labors, there is no doubt that Brazil's feudal slavery traditions are still alive and well in pockets of its hardscrabble northeast, more than a century after the practice was abolished.

PHOTO: REUTERS

At the Bom Jesus farm in Brazil, a slave laborer was told to treat the cuts he got hacking down thorny undergrowth by rubbing them with salt and urinating on them and then to keep working.

The stories told by Valdeci Alves Ciqueira de Oliveira and 21 other workers found in a government raid on the farm left no doubt that Brazil's feudal slavery traditions are alive in pockets of its poverty-stricken northeast.

As government inspectors and armed federal police descended on the farm in Maranhao state, the bedraggled workers emerged one by one from the bush which they had been slashing to turn into cattle pasture.

Brazil's government estimates there are 25,000 indentured servants in this country, which imported more African slaves than any other before abolishing the practice in 1888. They are lured into their predicament with the promise of jobs on isolated farms and once there find themselves unable to pay off debts amassed for tools, clothing and sundries.

The inspectors who arrived at Bom Jesus belong to one of five federal government teams that scour Brazil's vast, isolated interior to liberate peasants working in slave-like conditions, relying on human rights groups for tips.

So far this year, they have freed 3,160 workers, compared to 2,156 in all of last year. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, himself from a northeastern state where the practice formerly existed, has pledged to eradicate slavery for good.

At Bom Jesus, like other farms including one in Bahia state where a record 800 workers were liberated in August, there are no chains or whips. But the laborers know and fear the man who has turned them into indentured slaves.

The cat

"He is evil," said Francisco Borges de Souza, a 47-year-old slave laborer, sweating heavily and bleeding from his nose as he clutched his scythe with a deformed hand. The temperature was easily 400C.

Borges was talking about the man known to farm workers in Brazil's lawless ranching frontiers as the "gato," or cat -- a sort of foreman, often armed, who is contracted by a farmer to provide laborers to do work like clearing fields or setting fences. And then he exploits them.

"The cat doesn't let anybody leave without paying their debts," said Ciqueira de Oliveira, 46. "Nobody ever settles their account here."

The cat was not there when the inspectors arrived. But his presence was clear in the squalid makeshift shelter of wooden poles and plastic canvas where the workers live in a dusty, sun-scorched gully.

On the earthen floor near their grimy food -- dry beans, rice and fly-infested pig fat -- sat two wooden boxes. They contained tools, cigarettes, boots, soap, sweets and other items that offer the men some normality in their miserable lives.

The workers have to pay for everything, at inflated prices, except meals and lodging. If they have a day off, they pay for their meals too.

"They were treated like animals," said Fabio Leal Cardoso, a government prosecutor on the team.

"This we can really describe as being like slavery," said Claudia Marcia Brito, who heads it.

The inspectors meticulously interviewed every worker. Most had received no pay for up to six months and many put their thumb print on the declaration because they cannot write.

Won't sleep in a mansion

The inspectors returned to their trucks and drove 5km down a dirt track to the farm house to see farmer Marcos Antonio Araujo Braga. Two armed federal police agents stayed with him while the inspectors talked to the workers.

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