RIO DE JANEIRO, – When labor inspectors arrived in a rural area of the Brazilian Amazon state of Para in late June, they expected to rescue illegal loggers working in slavery-like conditions. But the trees were already cut down and the loggers gone.
Instead, the officials from Brazil’s anti-slavery mobile enforcement group found four men and a boy of 15 building fences and cattle sheds nearby with the illegal timber, on the orders of a local farmer who kept them in a ramshackle camp.
“They had no water, they had no bathrooms,” said Magno Riga, the inspector in charge of the rescue. “They told us they had never been in such a precarious condition.”
Deforestation surged in Brazil after right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, giving a green light to mining and agriculture in protected parts of the Amazon and weakening environmental enforcement agencies.
But while the forest loss itself sparked international outcry among foreign governments and the public, little attention has been paid to the labor abuses underpinning the practice, legal specialists told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Historically, Para is the state where workers are most often found in slavery-like conditions, accounting for at least 13,259 of a total of 56,000 people found across Brazil since 1995.
The state is also a hot-spot for deforestation, topping the list for Amazon region states since 2006, government data shows.
“The relationship (between deforestation and slavery) is permanent,” said Lys Sobral Cardoso, who leads anti-slavery efforts at Brazil’s Labor Prosecutor’s Office, an independent body of public officials.
“It has been that way for 20 to 30 years,” she added.
CATTLE AND MINES
While there is no hard data on deforestation and slave labor, more than 1,324 workers have been rescued from slavery-like conditions while felling wood from native forests since 1995, said Mauricio Krepsky, head of the government’s Division of Inspection for the Eradication of Slave Labor.
But there are likely many more such cases going undetected, said Krepsky, as inspectors find it hard to get information and rescue workers in remote areas where most deforestation occurs.
“Many workers do not report (their employers) for fear of not getting more work or even of being murdered,” he said.
In 2019, when deforestation jumped, 12 workers were rescued in Para and 17 in Roraima, both Amazon states, with several more rescues carried out since.
Traditionally, unscrupulous farmers have used slave labor to clear land for cattle, which feeds Brazil’s powerful meat-packing industry – but recently mining is also attracting attention from the authorities as a driver of deforestation.
“We do not have consolidated data saying that there is deforestation in all (illegal) mining areas, but in all cases in which I worked, there was deforestation,” said Cardoso, who has worked on about 20 such cases.
As illegal logging and gold mining – both highly profitable industries – have expanded in the Amazon, labor officials have stepped up efforts to tackle the slavery issue.
In 2018, Brazil set up the Labor Prosecutor’s Office to fight abusive working conditions in illegal mines.
On July 28 this year, more than 100 federal police officers drove to a farm in Para, near the city of Ourilandia, to investigate reports of a huge illegal gold mining operation.
“The whole area was deforested illegally,” said labor prosecutor Edelamare Melo, who took part in the raid.
During the operation, federal police arrested six men found responsible for the illegal mining and apprehended machinery. Melo interviewed about 50 workers who were left in the mine but many others fled as soon as they saw the police arrive.
Besides living in flimsy sheds without walls, the workers had no protective gear and drank water left over from the mining process, which Melo said was likely contaminated by mercury.
“All this forms the conditions for slave labor,” she added.
Slavery in Brazil is defined as forced labor but also includes degrading work conditions, long hours posing a health risk or work that violates human dignity.
Three workers from the raided illegal gold mine were sent to a halfway house for rescued slaves in Maraba, in Para state, run by the Comissao Pastoral da Terra (CPT), a Catholic charity that has pioneered anti-slavery efforts in Brazil.
Like most workers rescued from activities linked to deforestation, they were from neighboring states with few employment opportunities, said Geuza Morgado from the CPT.
“We’ve had cases of people being rescued for a second or third time,” said Morgado. “The standard story is that in their towns there are no jobs, so they need to migrate.”
The Labor Prosecutor’s Office, the CPT and Para’s State Commission for the Eradication of Slavery (Coetrae-PA) have all run programs among workers to raise awareness of their rights and slave labor in Para and neighboring states.
But the impact is limited due to a dearth of other job opportunities, said Leila Silva, a social activist in Para and Coetrae-PA member from 2013 to 2020.
“They don’t have access to an alternative,” said Silva. “To break (the cycle) we need effective public policies.”
States and cities should offer job training to rescued workers so they can build a better life, she said.
“Some want to study, but they have no access to a school. So they go back to the slavery cycle,” she explained.
Riga, who rescued the four men and the teenager in Para, sees little chance of a brighter future for them and others trapped in similar slave-like conditions.
“There’s a huge demand for this sort of work, and they live off of it,” he said.