Thursday, November 11, 2004

 

Slavery in Brazil provides food for our tables

Chew on this the next time you're eating any processed meat.
Slavery exists out of sight in Brazil

By Kevin G. Hall, Knight Ridder Newspapers

MARABA, Brazil - Jose Silva came to the Macauba Ranch in Brazil's eastern Amazon hoping to earn a few hundred dollars clearing jungle. Two years later, he was $800 in debt and terrified that if he tried to leave the ranch, Gilmar the field boss would pull out his .38 revolver and kill him.

"I would cry alone at night in my hammock and ask God to help me escape. I felt like a slave," he told Knight Ridder.

Silva was a modern slave, working with 46 other men and a boy to clear jungle with machetes, chain saws and tractors from sunup to sundown in the tropical heat, seven days a week, for no money. He and the others got one meal a day of rice, beans and a little chicken or beef, which they were made to eat standing up to discourage resting. There were no toilets or latrines at the workers' camp, only bushes.

Rat feces flecked the sacks of rice in the camp's storehouse. Flies covered raw meat hung on clotheslines in the tropical heat. Workers got no medical attention, even though one of them shivered with malaria, a disease spread by the Amazon's ubiquitous mosquitoes. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. Earlier this year, however, the government acknowledged to the United Nations that at least 25,000 Brazilians work under "conditions analogous to slavery." The top anti-slavery official in Brasilia, the capital, puts the number of modern slaves at 50,000.

The fruits of Brazil's slave labor end up in the United States in the form of imported hardwoods, pig iron and processed meats. Other products, such as soybeans produced on farms cleared by enslaved workers, compete with U.S. products in world markets.

Recruiters who promise land-clearing jobs that pay $3 to $4 a day find it easy to lure these men hundreds of miles southeast to clear land at the edge of the Amazon jungle. "Our situation obligates us to travel," said Jose Egito dos Santos, 43, a father of four once lured into slavery. He's a subsistence farmer in the northern state of Piaui, where he considers himself lucky to make $20 a month.

Slavery persists in Brazil - alone among South American countries - for a simple reason and a complicated one. The simple reason is that slaves are out of sight and out of mind: Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, who dominate the national political culture, are no more likely to worry about rural slaves in the Amazon than New Yorkers are to worry about illegal immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley.

By law, enslaving a worker can bring a landowner two to eight years in prison in addition to fines. However, the fines are so low - less than $110 per offense - that they're at worst a small cost of doing business. And no one has ever been imprisoned for it.

The complicated reason is that Brazil's modern slaves are cogs in the global economy. Their labor makes Brazil's exports of beef, soybeans, timber and pig iron cheaper, often much cheaper than competing U.S. products.

Brazil is the leading exporter of cooked and processed meats to the United States. Beef from cattle raised on land cleared by slave labor can end up in products such as Con Agra's Mary Kitchen corned beef. Typically, commodities produced with slave labor in Brazil get mixed in with commodities produced by its legal workers. By the time they reach the United States, it's almost impossible to determine whether a shipment is contaminated. U.S. companies, do, however, import products from areas of Brazil where slavery is widespread.

Brazilian tropical hardwoods such as cumaru, ipe and jatoba, some of it harvested or made accessible to loggers by enslaved workers, are widely sold as exotic flooring and decking. In U.S. stores such as Home Depot's Expo Design Centers, such woods are sold under names such as Brazilian cherry, Brazilian teak and Brazilian walnut. Cleared wood that has no commercial value ends up in charcoal ovens, which are often tended by slaves or by what Brazil terms "degrading" labor: workers considered slightly less abused because they're not held against their will. Degraded workers in the Amazon number in the hundreds of thousands, or by some estimates a million or more. No one in official Brazil has a precise number for them or for slaves.

Kay Carpenter, a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods in Omaha, Neb., which buys cooked beef from Brazil and sells it under the Mary Kitchen label, said her company was "several steps removed" from cattle ranches that are operating on land cleared by slaves a few years ago. At Cargill Inc. world headquarters in Minneapolis, spokeswoman Lori Johnson said the agribusiness giant had limited leverage over Brazilian soybean farmers. "I think it is unfair of folks to point at Cargill and say Cargill is solely responsible for actions other people take," she said.

American companies may see no evil, but the working conditions on some Brazilian farms and ranches may be even worse than those endured by the 3.6 million African slaves on whom Brazil depended for four centuries, said Marcelo Campos, who heads anti-slavery programs at Brazil's Ministry of Labor. "Legal slaves were property, and watched over because they were an asset," he said. "They had food and shelter because the owner needed to make sure they stayed alive. Today's slave is not a concern (to the landowner). He uses them as an absolutely temporary item, like a disposable razor."
It would be easy to sneer about the "morality" of Corporate America relying on slavery - removed from all direct responsibility by cutouts they have taken great pains to make sure they know nothing about - too easy. I eat some processed meats - how do I know they weren't produced on land cleared by Brazilian slaves? I don't. I can't.

But the fact is, Cargill has far more than "limited leverage" over the people it buys soybeans from. They could, if they wanted, refuse to buy from any suspect producers. They won't do that, of course, because the only "morality" operating in the corporate world is, lower costs (when it isn't, raise prices). And since the corporate agenda is what really motivates George Bush, whatever his "values" voters may think, we can rest assured that the US government will not undertake any steps to pressure or assist Brazil to rein in this horrendous practice even through the modest pressure American purchasers could exert if they only wanted to. Bush will never press his corporate paymasters to want to do anything that might impact their bottom line. Meanwhile, he rakes in the support and votes of so-called Christians who have no idea that he doesn't really give a shit about what motivated them to support and vote for him.
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