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From 1995 to 2004, the Ministry of Labor’s Special Group freed nearly 12,000 people from the debt that indentured them to slavery. Among the people charged were those who held political office: Jorge Picciali and his son Leonardo Picciani, members of the state and federal House of Representatives respectively, representing Rio de Janeiro, and charged for slaving at their Mato Grosso farm; Inocêncio de Oliveira, a Pernambuco member of the House of Representatives, was charged at his farm in Maranhão; and, for the practices on their farm in the state of Pará, João Braz Da Silva, mayor of Unaí, Minas Gerais, and Francisco Donato de Araújo Filho, Secretary to the Governor of the State of Piau were brought to justice.

Slavery for debt [1]

Ricardo Rezende Figueira

 From 1995 to 2004, a special group in the Ministry of Labor has been able to release nearly 12,000 people from slavery. The special group continues in its activity, focusing on the state of Pará, which has the greatest concentration of known cases.

 Among the people charged are those who hold political office: Jorge and Leonardo Picciani, a father and son who hold state and federal office in their respective House of Representatives in the state of Rio de Janeiro, who have a farm in Mato Grosso; a Pernambuco member of the house of representatives, Inocêncio de Oliveira, who owns a farm in Maranhão; and, with a farm in the state of Pará, João Braz da Silva, mayor of Unaí, Minas Gerais (MG), and Francisco Donato de Araújo Filho, Secretary to the Governor of the state of Piauí.

 Beyond the slave labor, it is not rare to find, weighing against such elected officials, accusations of other crimes. It is what has happened with Antério Mânica, the new mayor of Unaí, Minas Gerais, whose term begins in 2005. Mânica is considered, with his brothers Norberto and Luiz Antonio, to be the largest producer of beans in the country. Antério is accused of using slave labor in Minas Gerais with his brother Norberto. Both are suspected of ordering the assassination of a driver and three Ministry of Labor inspectors in Minas Gerais. The former Deputy of State in Pará, Vavá Mutran, is also accused in the case. He has been charged, with other members of his family, of having used slave labor on at least five farms[3] in the south of Pará for almost 20 years. Vavá has also been charged in the homicides.

 The locations of the crimes are in remote regions of the Amazon, in areas of low demographic density, where the roads are precarious and river and aerial transport are at times necessary.  But it can also occur in densely populated regions, served by tarred roads and in the presence of an organized civil society.  Diverse cities in the state of Rio de Janeiro[4], for example, have been cited in recent years in charges of slavery.

 The press neglected the problem of slavery for a long time, despite the fact that it affected a large number of people, especially in the north of the country. However superficially and briefly, the press did begin to wake up to the subject.

 What has changed in Brazil with regard to slave labor? The social status of those charged with involvement in the crime had changed; this changed the behavior of the government and certainly changed the level of knowledge of the problem for a great portion of the public. This was the result of a long mobilization of civil society. The Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) was a pioneer in the systematic, continuous denunciations. Isolated in the beginning, it was as if they were speaking to stones when they addressed the issue, but, beginning in the early 1990s, a few other organizations embraced the cause and, a decade later, the number of organizations and concerned people working for the eradication of slave labor grew significantly.

 Recently, the Office of the Attorney General, headed by Dr. Aristides Junqueira, formally took on the cause, and the Attorney General’s office held monthly meetings with the participation of grassroots organizations. This discussion helped to guide policy proposals in the following years. In 1992, Valdir Ganzer, a representative for the state of Pará, which has the greatest concentration of known cases, proposed a constitutional amendment that would enforce the "immediate expropriation" of property that used slave labor. Other parliamentarians, including some from Pará, such as Paulo Rocha and Ademir Andrade, sponsored similar projects in the following years. The bill by Ademir Andrade was approved in the Senate and is still the subject of debate in the House of Representatives.

The Slave as a Migrant Worker [5]

 If we examine the charges, we find evidence of some coincidences. In general, the "victims" are not from the areas where the crimes take place. Studies conducted by the Pastoral Land Commission confirm that the majority of the workers enslaved in Pará come from other regions. They are people in transit, who had come to Pará in search of work. The phenomenon also happens in Minas Gerais, Piauí, Alagoas, São Paulo, Paraná, Maranhão, Espirito Santo, and Rio de Janeiro.

 However, there must be a reason to leave a place where one lives, where one’s values and relationships have been formed. Someone can leave because of an illness, a war, a desire to study, for sentimental reasons, for adventure, marriage, economic necessity or another motive. In the case of slave labor, the main reasons are usually poverty and unemployment.

 Places with a high poverty level are more vulnerable to enticements. It is also possible that these workers are illiterate or have a low level of schooling and do not have any job training; they have no land or have insufficient land for productivity or commercialization.

 Even if there are reasons to migrate, we could ask why the workers still submit themselves to slavery? Why don’t they end the cycle of exploitation? The mechanisms of coercion are many: the distance between the farm and the place they came from; the lack of money to travel home; the retention of their documents [by the land owners]; physical threats and in some cases armed guards. Are these enough to explain the slavery in the country? Certainly there are other factors.

According to professor Neide Esterci (1994: 17), citing M. Weber, domination is not supported exclusively by force. In fact, domination is more efficient if it is based on some apparent “right”, and the person dominated is convinced of this. In the case of slave labor, this is created by a system of debt. For this, it is essential to convince the workers that they do not have the right to leave the farm; that they are indebted because they received transportation, food, working tools, etc.

 The debt "captures" the person. It is an imprisonment that captures not only the body but the soul. To escape, to run away from the author of the persuasion, is considered to be a crime. To not pay the debt is perceived as robbery.

 What is surprising is that the farmers can in fact believe it is "morally" right to compel the "debtor” to keep working, as is evidenced in a interview with Jairo Andrade. He denied that he used slave labor, but candidly acknowledged that under the system of “debt” nobody ever left his farms (Rouard, 1998: 13).

 Another example is the case of Antonio Barbosa de Melo – condemned by a federal court for the intentional crime of using labor in circumstances identical to slavery,[6]– castigated his victims. According to him, “the workers were liars and drunks who did not know how to work and he had been generous in offering them a chance to be of service. [7]

What Has Been Done

For human rights organizations, it is necessary to work against notions that legitimize or naturalize slave labor. They have created permanent commissions and working groups, as well as campaigns for the eradication of slave labor, like one called "Open Eyes Prevent Slavery" organized by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT). The International Labor Organization, the National Association of Federal Judges, the National Association of Labor Relations, the Bar Association of Brazil and other organizations have expanded efforts to assist the Brazilian government in its actions against slavery.

 It is important to point out the actions of the office of the Public Prosecutor in the Ministry of Labor. The office has acted with efficiency and creativity in order to disseminate information on the subject. In Bahia, for example, after fining the large farms of Roda Velha and Tabuleiro for labor crimes, the Public Prosecutor required both to sign legal declarations of adjustment of behavior. The farmers promised to fulfill the laws, and these statements were made public and published in two local newspapers.[8] Another judicial measure with a pedagogical objective was undertaken in Mato Grosso. In the legal settlement, the farmer agreed to pay R$250,000 to support activities to eradicate slave labor.

 One of the most important measures proposed recently is a constitutional amendment that would enforce the immediate expropriation of farms that use slave labor. In order to guarantee its approval in Congress, grassroots organizations are pressuring the Federal Government to take a more direct role. It has to mobilize its own influence in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.


 ESTERCI, Neide. Slaves of Inequality: a Study of the Repressive Use of Forced Labor Today. Rio de Janeiro: CEDI, 1994.

 MEILLASSOUX, Claude. Anthropology of Slavery - The Womb of Iron and Money. Rio de Janeiro: J. Zahar, 1995;

 MOORE Jr, Barrington. Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1987;

 PALMEIRA. Moacir. "House and Work: Note on Social Relations on the Traditional Plantation."  Reviewed in Revista Contraponto (Counterpoint Magazine), year 2, no. 2, November 1977;

 PLASSAT, Xavier. Confiscation of the Land: The Tree and the Forest (article received by e-mail on September 2, 2004, distributed for the International Labor Organization (ILO);

 REZENDE FIGUEIRA, Ricardo. Stepping Outside of  the Shade: Slavery for Debt in Contemporary Brazil, Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2004;

 ROUARD, Danielle. Le Monde (April 25, 1998: 13);

 SAYAD, Abdelmalek. Immigration or the Paradoxes of the Other. São Paulo: EDUSP, 1998.

[1] For suggestions to the text, I thank the teacher Gelba Cerqueira and journalist Sonia Benevides, of the Group for Research on Slave Labor (GPTEC), a function of the Center for Philosophy and Human Sciences/Federal University-Rio de Janeiro (CFCH/UFRJ).

[2] Priest, chairman of the board of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights, researcher of GPTEC and one of the directors of the Human Rights Movement (MHuD).

[3] Between 1986 and 2004, there were charges of slave labor, for example, on the Baguá farms, Cabeceiras, Castanhal de Cabeceiras, Espirito Santo and Mutamba/Gameleira.

[4] Araruama, Cabo Frio, Campos de Goytacazes, Cantagalo, Carapebus, Magé, Petrópolis, Resende, Quatis, São Fidelis, Valença, Vassouras.

[5] Some aspects of the text concerning the migration and the resistance have been treated at greater length by Rezende Figueira (2004).

[6] On this aspect, the Valley of Punishment, read Sayad (1998).

[7] ‘Dwelling’ means more than ‘to inhabit.’ It is to inhabit, but also to work the lands of the farm. Read Valley of Punishment, on the category of ‘dwelling’ in the stimulating text by Moacir Palmeira (1977).

[8] See the book on the subject by Neide Esterci (1999).

[9] On the conditions that make the indignation possible see B. Moore (1987).

[10]  Article 149 of the Brazilian Criminal Code.

[11] "... the employee, Aparecida, beyond all the defects already told (...), is a person addicted to drink and a liar; he also adds that, having the interrogated them, Francisco Machado and Francisco Ferreira did not know how to work in weeds, but he gave jobs to them because they were dying of hunger “(...) (farmer Antonio Barbosa de Melo, in interrogation by the Federal Police: 1997).

[12] One of more national character, O Jornal do Brasil, in Rio De Janeiro, and the other more regional one, the Bahia newspaper, A Tarde. The first one, on September 9, 2004, page A22, for example, published: "Worse than to be without work is to not be able to leave it.” ”No to Slave Labor: Docket No. 0800710990, Fazenda Tabuleiro in partnership with the MPT, 5th District, Salvador, Bahia.”