Modern-day slavery in the Amazon

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Modern-day slavery in the Amazon

Leonardo Sakomoto writes about something close to his heart: modern-day slavery.


The human rights group, Walk Free Foundation, says about 369,000 people are modern slaves in Brazil - 1 in 555 of its population. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Peter was three years old when his mother gave him to a poor family in the Amazon. I met him in a raid to free slave workers. He was 14 and he could not read or write. He had to work to buy his own shoes, clothes, and medicine. He had dengue fever once and malaria five times. Like many boys in Brazil, he wanted to be a football player. But he was a slave on a cattle ranch in the rainforest.

We are a group of reporters. It is because of people like Peter that we started Repórter Brasil. It is an NGO to find and write about slave labour and other human rights violations. We found that supply chains use modern-day slavery to reduce costs and make people like objects.

Since 2003, we have found the supply chains of more than 1,700 farms, charcoal plants, sweatshops, and construction sites, from which the Brazilian government has freed slaves. Every year in my country, thousands of people are trafficked, in inhumane working conditions, and they are stopped from leaving their jobs. They receive threats like psychological torture, beating, and murder.

Slave labour is used to deforest the Amazon to sell wood but also to make new farms and pastures. Products from slave labour are sold in the country and abroad. From 1995 to October 2019, over 54,000 people were freed from modern slavery on cattle, soy, cotton, coffee, orange, potato and sugarcane farms; and from charcoal kilns, construction sites, sewing workshops, and brothels in Brazil.

Brazil was one of the first countries to say that there is still modern slavery. In 1995 it was the first country to have a national policy to free workers from slavery. It was the first to start a plan to fight this crime in 2003 and to publish the names of the criminals. It started a multisector business plan against slavery in 2005.

But, in 2017, Brazil was the first country the Inter-American Court of Human Rights convicted for not acting on a case of slave labour. The Brazilian government was the first to use the courts to avoid publishing the names of criminals. And recently President Jair Bolsonaro criticized the people fighting slave labour. And he defended farmers who were using slave labour.

Freeing workers from slavery is so important, but it is not the answer. We need to attack the system that leads to slave labour. That means we must make sure that the poorest people can have jobs, education, health, housing, food, culture, leisure. If not, they may easily become slaves. But it also means punishing those who use slavery by finding supply chains, both inside and outside the country, and changing their profits into losses. If that does not happen, the fight against slavery will be useless.

The problem is not easy. The UN says modern-day slavery is a global business worth at least $150 billion and affects 40.3 million people every year.

I have never again found Peter, the 14-year-old slave. But I’ve met him in many other slave faces. Again and again.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)