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Brazil Hunts Down Slave Masters in Lawless Interior

Date: 09-Oct-03
Country: BRAZIL
Author: Axel Bugge

The stories told by Valdeci Alves Ciqueira de Oliveira and 21 other workers found in a government raid on the farm on a recent afternoon left no doubt that Brazil's feudal slavery traditions are alive in pockets of its hardscrabble Northeast.

As government inspectors and armed federal police descended on the farm in Maranhao state in pickup trucks, the bedraggled workers emerged one by one from the bush which they had been slashing to turn into cattle pasture.

Brazil's government estimates there are 25,000 indentured servants in this country, which imported more African slaves than any other before abolishing the practice in 1888. They are lured into their predicament with the promise of jobs on isolated farms and once there find themselves unable to pay off debts amassed for tools, clothing and sundries.

The inspectors who arrived at Good Jesus are on one of five federal government teams that scour Brazil's vast, isolated interior to liberate peasants working in slave-like conditions, relying on human rights groups for tips.

So far this year, they have freed 3,160 workers, compared to 2,156 in all of 2002. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, himself from a northeastern state where the practice formerly existed, has pledged to eradicate slavery for good.

At Good Jesus, like other farms including one in Bahia state where a record 800 workers were liberated in August, there are no chains or whips. But the laborers know and fear the man who has turned them into indentured slaves.

THE CAT

"He is evil," said Francisco Borges de Souza, 47, a slave laborer who is sweating heavily and bleeding from his nose as he clutches his scythe with a deformed hand. The temperature is easily 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius).

Borges is talking about the man known to farm workers in Brazil's lawless ranching frontiers as the "gato," or cat - a sort of foreman, often armed, who is contracted by a farmer to provide laborers to do work like clearing fields or setting fences. And then he exploits them.

"The cat doesn't let anybody leave without paying their debts," said Ciqueira de Oliveira, 46. "Nobody ever settles their account here."

The cat was not there when the inspectors arrived. But his presence was clear in the squalid makeshift shelter of wooden poles and plastic canvas where the workers live in a dusty, sun-scorched gully.

On the earthen floor near their grimy food - dry beans, rice and fly-infested pig fat - sit two wooden boxes. These contain tools, cigarettes, boots, soap, sweets and other items that offer the men some normality in their miserable lives.

The workers have to pay for everything, at inflated prices, except meals and lodging. If they have a day off, they pay for their meals too.

"They were treated like animals," said Fabio Leal Cardoso, a government prosecutor on the team.

"This we can really describe as being like slavery," said Claudia Marcia Brito, who heads the team.

The inspectors meticulously interview every worker. Most have received no pay for up to six months and many put their thumb print on the declaration because they cannot write.

WON'T SLEEP IN A MANSION

Then the inspectors return to their trucks and drive 3 miles down a dirt track to the farm house to see farmer Marcos Antonio Araujo Braga. Two armed federal police agents stayed with him while the inspectors talked to the workers.

Although Braga hired the cat to manage the workers, he is responsible for what happens on his property, Brito says.

On Braga's patio, two dachshunds play, his wife offers cool water to the inspectors and an exercise bicycle is parked in a corner as some of his 1,000 cattle moo in the distance.

Braga is told he has broken the law and must pay the workers arrears of up to $700 each, a small fortune for Maranhao's dirt-poor peasants. He also faces a large fine.

The owner says he offered to let workers sleep in a farm house but they refused. He said there were no d

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