Oh Brazil. I thought this sort of thing was supposed to have ended…in 1888!
More than 1,000 labourers have been freed in Brazil by the government’s anti-slavery team.
They were said to be working in inhumane conditions on a sugar cane plantation in the Amazon.
An ethanol-producing company which owns the plantation has denied allegations of abusing the workers.
Human rights and labour organisations believe that between 25,000 to 40,000 people could be working in conditions akin to slavery in Brazil.
Many farmers in the Amazon region who incur debts are forced to work virtually for free in order to repay the money they owe.
This is a situation eerily similar to that described by Eduardo Galeano in his book, Open Veins of Latin America–published in 1971:
The Brazilian Northeast is today the most underdeveloped area in the Western hemisphere. As a result of sugar monoculture it is a concentration camp for 30 million people–on the same soil that has produced the most lucrative business of the colonial agricultural economy in Latin America. Today less than a fifth of Pernambuco’s humid zone is used for growing sugar; the rest is not used at all. The big sugarmill owners, who are also the biggest planters of cane, permit themselves this luxury of waste. It is not in the Northeast’s arid and semi-arid interior that food conditions are worst, as is erroneously believed. The sertao, a desert of stones and sparse vegetation, has periods of hunger when the scorching sun produces drought and the semblance of a lunar landscape, forcing the people to flee and sowing crosses along the roadsides. But in the humid littoral–that coastal fringe still so ironically known as the “forest zone” in tribute to the remote past and to the pitiful remnants of forestation surviving from centuries of sugar–hunger is endemic. Where opulence is most opulent, there–in this land of contradictions–misery is the most miserable; the region nature chose to produce all foods, denies all. The sugar latifundio, a structure built on waste, must still import food from other areas, particularly from the centre and south, at escalating prices. The cost of living in Recife is the highest in Brazil, well above Rio de Janeiro. Beans cost more in the Northeast than in Ipanema, the capital city’s most luxurious beach resort. The price of half a kilo of manioc starch equals the wage an adult sugar-plantation worker recieves for working from sunrise to sunset: if he complains, the foreman summons the carpenter to measure the man for the length and breadth of the boards that will be needed. In large areas the owner’s or administrator’s “right of the first night” for each girl is still effective. A third of Recife’s population lives in miserable hovels; in one district, Casa Amarela, more than half the babies die before they are a year old. Child prostitution–girls of ten or twelve years old sold by their parents–is common in Northeastern cities. Some plantations pay less for a day’s work than the lowest wage in India.
Like sugarcane, cacao means monoculture, the burning of forests, the dictatorship of international prices, and perpetual penury for the workers. The plantation owners, who live on the Rio de Janeiro beaches and are more businessmen than farmers, do not permit a single inch of land to be devoted to other crops. Their managers normally pay wages in kind–jerked beef, flour, beans; when paid in cash, the peasant receives the equivalent of a litre of beer for a whole day’s work, and must work a day and a half to buy a can of powdered milk.
Today Sao Paulo is the most developed state in Brazil, containing thte country’s industrial centre, but its coffee plantations still teem with “vassal inhabitants” who pay rent for their land with their and their children’s toil. In the prosperous post-World War I years the coffee growers’ voracity virtually ended the system under which plantation workers could grow food crops on their own. Now they can only do it by paying rent in the form of wageless labor.
This is the situation we see at work right now. I feel like we’re living in a time warp when I read things like this. And I sure hope Lula can kick the Brazilian senate’s collective ass to see that something gets done.
However, I also know just how a certain pundit would fart it…
…if this were 150 years ago.