Listen to this article
“We live here like slaves,” Paulo Ferreira says in his slow country drawl, as he remembers how he toiled in the Amazon this year for no pay. He slept in a makeshift wooden shelter and drank water from a spring clogged with cattle manure.
He is 67-years-old.
Mr Ferreira, whose name has been changed for his own protection, is far from alone. A legion of forced labourers in Brazil has cleared vast stretches of the forest for cattle pasture, helping the region’s more unscrupulous ranchers grow rich.
Nearly 50,000 people working under slave-like conditions have been freed in the country over the past 20 years, according to Jônatas Andrade, a labour tribunal judge in the state of Pará. Their liberation came only after a concerted effort by police, prosecutors and labour officials. Many others are still suffering.
On the far-flung ranch where Mr Ferreira recently worked for three months he had no choice but to buy provisions from the rancher — no town was conveniently near. He built up a debt so large it became impossible for him to leave.
When payday came, his boss gave him no wages, saying his labours had been just enough to cover the debt. Complaining was not an option. “If a labourer tries to denounce a rancher to the authorities, he will be killed,” Mr Ferreira observes.
The idea that slavery still exists touches a raw nerve in Brazil. The country imported 4m African slaves during its first 400 years of history — 40 per cent of the total brought to the Americas, compared with 10 per cent for the US. It was the last large nation in the hemisphere to end slavery: abolition came only in 1888.
“This is a country still struggling to break with its past of slavery, a past still present in our society,” says Ubiratan Cazetta, a public prosecutor in Pará. In fact, he and others argue, the battle against the trade is becoming more difficult.
Modern slavery in the Amazon is intimately linked with illegal deforestation, a notorious contributor to climate change. Typically, a middleman recruits labourers from Piauí and Maranhão, the country’s two poorest states, and persuades them to travel hundreds of kilometres away on bad roads to Pará, with the promise of high wages.
Like Mr Ferreira, many labourers soon find themselves crippled by debt, because they have no capital of their own, often having to borrow just to make the long journey to the ranch, as well as for provisions.
Most labourers do not dare to leave the farm or try to escape their growing debts. Although 24-hour armed guards are now rare on farms, crooked ranchers readily contract “pistoleiros”, local hitmen, to deal with argumentative workers, prosecutors and activists say. And when the authorities carry out raids to stop illegal logging, the ranchers themselves often disappear, leaving their forced labourers to take the heat.
The business model has proved remarkably resilient. Slavery has been in the spotlight in Brazil for a generation and yet it persists.
An initial crackdown began after the experiences of Zé Pereira, a labourer who in 1989 was lured to a ranch in Pará where he was imprisoned and forced to work without pay. He escaped, was ambushed and left for dead — but somehow survived and managed to file an official complaint.
In the ensuing outcry, the government began to publish a blacklist of farms accused of using slave labour. Those on the list were automatically blocked from government credit or business with state agencies.
But Mr Cazetta, the prosecutor in Pará, complains that the problem has worsened again over the past 10 years as the ranchers and the agricultural lobby have fought back. The Brazilian supreme court has halted the blacklisting of farms and businesses that allegedly use slave labour, arguing that the list’s publication violates the right of defence of those named.
“Resistance has become a lot more sophisticated,” Mr Cazetta says. “Culturally, Brazil is accustomed to tolerating conditions of labour in rural areas that amount to slavery.”
Along the Transamazonian highway, the same road that snakes past Mr Ferreira’s unadorned house, there is no shortage of cases showing that slavery endures.
In one incident last year, a 22-year-old from Maranhão disappeared just after ringing his mother to tell her he was due to be paid and was about to come home. A month later a cowboy riding by saw vultures circling in the distance. On closer inspection he found the corpse.
Local Catholic activists have long lists of such crimes which, as in this case, often go without proper investigation.
They also worry that a recent decline in slavery in Pará may soon be reversed. For the past four to five years, unskilled labour in the region has had an alternative, much more attractive source of employment — the Belo Monte project, a giant hydropower dam near the city of Altamira. But the construction work is scheduled to end in the coming months. That will release thousands of people desperate for work back on to the market.
Faced with utter destitution, many of Brazil’s poorest people still take their chances and sign up for work in remote farms in the Amazon — despite the debts, the threats and the risk of forced labour.
It is a desperate choice that Paulo Ferreira and his family are all too familiar with. “Otherwise how will we live?” asks Maria, the daughter-in-law of the weather-beaten worker. “By eating the walls of our homes?”
To find out more about the FT’s Seasonal Appeal partner, visit Stop the Traffik.
Get alerts on Americas politics & policy when a new story is published