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English Report

According to the OIT (International Labor Organization), the place of origin of the workers rescued from slavery in Pará is the state of Pará itself in 35% of the cases, 22% from Maranhão, 14% from Piauí, and 13% from Tocantins. An important contingent of these workers (14%) is already from the area, as they have lost all ties with their places of origin and their families. Considering those workers' origins, it has been shown that only 8% are from Pará, whereas 39% are from Maranhão, 22% from Piauí and 16% from Tocantins.

Slave Work in Pará

Fr. Xavier Plassat*

1. The practice of slave work has become routine in Pará

The reality of slave work in Pará is not new. Public policies of financial and fiscal incentives developed since the '60s promoted an influx of thousands of investors and/or adventurers who wanted to maximize profit in the shortest time. They received a great deal of public subsidies.

The first news of slave work circulated in the regions of Santana, Conceição do Araguaia and Marabá. One important case was documented at the Volkswagen ranch. But there were very few inspections or investigations. In the last few years, cases of slave work are in the news almost weekly.

From January of 2000 to September of 2003, the Pastoral Land Commission denounced 9,906 cases of slave work, in 298 ranches in Pará, in a scale that kept growing from year to year: 16 reports and 334 workers in 2000, 24 cases and 1,355 workers in 2001, 117 cases and 4,333 workers in 2002, and during the first 9 months of 2003, 143 cases and 3,889 workers. Pará alone accumulated, in this period from 2000 to 2003, 74% of the reports of slave work in the country (13,331).

The whole iceberg of slave work still lies very much out of society's sight, since the only cases registered are the ones where some fugitive workers, after facing the most varied risks, manage to come forward. Some organizations estimate that the total number of slave workers in Brazil is between 25,000 and 40,000.

The farming and lumber sectors often use slave work. More than 80% of workers rescued from slavery are in cattle ranches. They perform the hardest physical tasks, as temporary workers, without any rights according to the Brazilian Labor Law.

2. Slave work in Pará represents a portion of a perverse country-wide system

An analysis of slave labor in 39 Pará counties in the last three years reveals that in 19 of them there were slave workers (the total number of cases was 8,629). These areas were: Paranapebas, Parauapebas, Canaã dos Carajas, Xinguara, Rio Maria, Redenção, Piçarra, Sapucaia, Sta Maria das Barreiras, Itupiranga, Água Azul do Norte, Bannach, Novo Repartimento, Curionópolis, Cumaru do Norte, Marabá, Dom Elizeu, Pacajá, Santana do Araguaia, and São Félix do Xingu.

According to preliminary data by a survey performed by the OIT-Brazil, the origin of workers rescued from slavery in Pará is the state of Pará itself in 35% of the cases, from Maranhão 22%, 14% from Piauí, and13% from Tocantins. An important contingent of these workers (14%) has lost all ties with their place of origin and with their families. Considering the place of origin of those workers, only 8% are from Pará, whereas 39% are from Maranhão, 22% from Piauí, and 16% from Tocantins.

In those states there is a large industry of trafficking workers, starting with the landowners, and including a complex network of intermediaries, where the contractor, known as the "cat", plays a major role. It also includes the owners of boarding houses, the transporter, and the police station inspector. According to an investigation presented in a recent book by Binika Le Breton, all of them earn good money. On the other hand, the workers suffer physical and/or psychological violence, isolation, and humiliation.

3. A complex crime that kills men and nature

The practice of slave labor rarely occurs alone. It is associated with various other crimes, such as homicide, killer gangs, illegal deforestation, negligence in tax payments, invasion of Indigenous land, weapons and drug traffic.

Nevertheless, or because of it, it has been extremely difficult to find and punish these crimes. Of the 124 cases inspected in Pará in the last four years, resulting in the liberation of 3,439 enslaved workers (40% of the national cases in this period: 8,650), we have no knowledge of any consistent criminal conviction. From 1995 to 2001, in Southern Pará, there were only two convictions of ranch owners. And only four contractors were convicted, a few simply sentenced to donate food baskets.

Between 1996 and 2003, we identified only 49 people reported for this type of crime. Related to those 49 reports, to this moment only 24 sentences were issued. Among the total people sentenced, 80% went unpunished and only 20% received penalties. It is interesting to note the reason for the absence of penalty: one half is due to proscription, and 27% for lack of interest in the process. Among the guilty, 41% benefited from proscription, 21% through lack of interest in the process, 17% were absolved, 13% received alternative sentences, 4% received preventive imprisonment, and other 4% were sentenced to prison on semi-open status.

Such impunity works as the most powerful incentive to this criminal practice. A 2002 report by CPT found, among the 10 biggest farmers identified with slave labor, an average of 5 inspections finding the same practice, the champions being the following ranchers: Jairo Andrade (with 10 reports in the CPT records), Quagliato Group (with 9 citations), Romeiro Albuquerque (7), Antônio Barbosa (6), Lima Araújo Agropecuária / Land and Cattle Co. (4).

4. The road to eradicating slave labor

The best way to stop the practice of slave labor is by creating preventive policies. It's also necessary to intensify repression and punishment. Liberating convoys of workers, as work inspectors do, will never eradicate slave work by itself. In risky and daring actions, which intensified lately because of the government's National Plan to Eradicate Slave Labor, inspectors usually can only impose the payment of labor fees.

Therefore, it's necessary to implement other policies to ensure job creation and agrarian reform. The eradication of slave labor needs to include short-term solutions (repression and effective punishment) and medium and long range ones (generating work alternatives and public policies, such as education and access to land).

Innovative labor attorneys and judges have recently pioneered actions against employers who repeat the practice of slave labor. These include immediate payments of labor fees, and blocking bank accounts and other assets. Additionally, the Labor justice has created Mobile courts.

In October of 2003, the Public Ministry of Pará started a legal case against Lima Araújo Land & Cattle - owner of Estrela de Maceió and Estrela das Alagoas ranches. In that sentence, the fee for collective moral damages reached the uncommon value of $R22 million, or 40% of the estimated total value of those ranches. In four consecutive years, the Labor Ministry had found the use of slave labor there, rescuing 180 workers.

Unfortunately, this is not common. The Justice system continues to be slow and inefficient in most cases. To the penalties already applicable to the crime of slave labor, the Brazilian Congress needs to add land confiscation, blocking any public financing or bidding. The landowners also need to pay for environmental destruction. To eradicate slave labor in Para and Brazil it's necessary to mobilized civil society, as well as the Legislative, the Executive and the Judiciary systems.


*Fr. Xavier Plassat is the Coordinator of the National Campaign Against Slave Labor of the Pastoral Land Commission.