Posted on Sun, Sep. 05, 2004
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.
"Silva" isn't the ranch worker's real name. When a Knight Ridder reporter encountered him, he was an informant leading Brazilian labor department investigators, accompanied by heavily armed federal police, back to the Macauba Ranch. He may be called as a witness in court cases, and labor officials insisted that he not be identified for fear of reprisal.
While landowners don't own Brazil's modern slaves, the workers toil at gunpoint and the threat of violence, hidden by the vast Amazon jungle and, in many cases, beyond the reach of the law.
Most are unschooled men from Brazil's northern states, where their families live in tiny dirt-floored homes without running water. Their infants squabble with cats and dogs and pigs over food.
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.
The eastern Amazon region, where most Brazilian slavery occurs, is remote, and its ranchers feel few restraints in how they treat their workers.
"Landowners believe it is the most normal thing in the world to deny someone their liberty and even their life," said Marinalva Cardoso, leader of a government anti-slavery team.
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.
On the Macauba Ranch, where Silva worked, some slaves cleared jungle with machetes to make tropical hardwoods accessible to loggers, pastureland for cattle and farmland for soybeans. They also did the logging and manned clay ovens that turned wood from the cleared land into charcoal that's used to make pig iron.
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.
Blast furnaces in the eastern Amazon combine the charcoal that they produce with rich local iron ore to make pig iron, which is to finished iron and steel products what baking chocolate is to chocolate cake and fudge.
U.S. companies imported virtually all the 2.2 million tons of pig iron that northern Brazil produced last year. One of the biggest buyers was Nucor Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., America's leading steel-maker, whose products end up in everything from cars to steel beams. Executives of U.S. companies contacted by Knight Ridder said they were unaware of links between Brazilian slavery and their products, had language in their contracts with suppliers to assure that what they bought wasn't slave-tainted, or didn't consider the problem significant.
Nucor buys pig iron from Ferro Gusa do Maranhao (Fergumar), a Brazilian pig-iron maker that labor inspectors determined was buying charcoal from a ranch that used slave labor.
"We're not familiar with it, not involved with it. It's something for the Brazilian government to handle. . . . Nucor doesn't have the ability to influence the issue," said Dan DiMicco, Nucor's president and chief executive officer.
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."
Egito dos Santos, the subsistence farmer from Piaui, said matter-of-factly, as though it were just another labor condition, that his foreman threatened to kill workers if they tried to escape.
Another abused worker, Gilvado Mendes Soares, 27, a muscular, dark-skinned jungle-clearer at the Aguilar Ranch in southeastern Para state, said he hadn't been fed in three days, but he wasn't complaining about that.
What worried him, he said, was that the landowners at his ranch might treat him like the worker they'd beaten a week earlier and sent off without pay.
He'd asked repeatedly to be paid, he said. "They always say tomorrow, but then tomorrow never comes."
Jose Silva and the other workers at the Macauba Ranch never saw the $3 to $4 a day they'd been promised. Gilmar, the field boss who recruited many of them, deducted money from their wages to pay for the train and truck rides that brought them to the ranch. Their midday meal, which he'd promised would be free, cost them a dollar a day. They had to pay him for machetes, gloves and soap, too.
Before they could sleep, sardine close, in a wall-less shelter with a thatched roof, they first had to buy their hammocks.
Because the men had never learned arithmetic, they let Gilmar keep their tabs, which he converted into days of labor owed. When Silva fled the Macauba Ranch, he owed Gilmar more than 260 days of work. Silva waited until after midnight one night, put a curved log in his hammock to gain some extra time and fled. He walked four days without food to Maraba, the nearest significant town, where he found help via a rural civil rights arm of the Roman Catholic Church.
(Stella Hopkins of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this story from Charlotte.)
Brazilian authorities bring charges against ranch owner
By Kevin G. Hall
Knight Ridder Newspapers
MARABA, Brazil - A small convoy of Labor Ministry inspectors and heavily armed police headed to the Macauba Ranch recently to free and pay off enslaved workers and bring charges against the ranch owner and his field boss, Gilmar.
As the group approached the ranch, the lead pickup stopped abruptly. In the road lay the body of a bare-chested young man whose head had been beaten in with a nearby board.
The ski-masked informant who was leading the team to the ranch got out, leaned over the body and shook his head. No, the dead man wasn't a co-worker from the ranch.
A passing bicyclist gave the corpse a wide berth. That's a wise policy in the vast and lawless depths of the Amazon jungle, where killings often go unsolved, at least officially, and big landowners often are allied with local police.
Gilmar, the Macauba Ranch's wily gato (cat), or field boss, carried a .38 revolver in the waist of his pants whether he was in the field or doing bed checks, workers there said, and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to flee.
Not long ago, a worker fled anyway, they said. Some days later, his small bag of possessions turned up on the ranch. The man didn't. Fifteen days after he disappeared, an unidentifiable corpse was found just outside the ranch.
Federal police in the recent convoy never got a chance to question Gilmar, however. As they drove up, he tucked his .38 into the thatched roof of the workers' hut. Moments later, as the inspectors reached the shelter, the revolver fell at their feet. Gilmar dropped his attempt to blend in with the workers and bolted into the jungle, pursued by a hail of gunfire.
The landowner's wife blocked the road to Gilmar's house with a tractor, stalling his pursuers for almost an hour and enabling him to escape.
Landowners usually keep their distance from their ranches and their field bosses. That way, labor investigators said, they can plead ignorance when something goes wrong.
The inspectors at the Macauba Ranch got lucky. When they arrived, owner Altamir Soares da Costa had just driven up in his new $33,000 silver Ford F-250, a turbo-diesel four-door pickup with leather seats.
A small pudgy man with Coke-bottle glasses and a thick gold necklace, Da Costa was unfazed by the gunfire of police chasing Gilmar. He said no one on his ranch had been enslaved.
"I am sure of it," he said. "It's not a question of whether or not I think it. I'm a guy with a clear conscience."
So why hadn't his workers been paid?
Da Costa said he'd come to pay them.
Then why wasn't he carrying a bundle of cash?
He was going to pay them by check, Da Costa said.
That made the investigators laugh. Da Costa's workers have no identification, let alone bank accounts or anyplace to cash a check.
Da Costa then said he'd come to tell the workers that he would pay them soon. He couldn't afford to do so right now, he said, although investigators noted that he owns two vast ranches and at least two sawmills. A week earlier, they added, he'd been charged with using fake environmental documents to transport hardwood logs.
As darkness fell, the inspectors told the ranch workers they'd be bused to the town of Maraba and paid what they were owed in wages, overtime and holidays. Da Costa leaned against his pickup, his wife fixing an angry stare on him. His mouth was turned down in the shape of a bitter new moon.
At around 3 a.m., he was jailed - the first landowner in the state of Para to suffer such ignominy - for Gilmar's misuse of firearms and his wife's obstruction of police. Da Costa was charged with violating health, labor and weapons laws.
Two days later, da Costa's lawyer settled with the Labor Ministry, paying more than $37,000 for a multitude of labor violations. Much of the money went to pay his workers' back wages.
Da Costa was released pending trial. Gilmar hasn't been apprehended.
Brazil's legal definition of slave and degraded labor
By Kevin G. Hall
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Article 149 of Brazil's penal code defines slave labor as exhausting work forced through violence or the threat of it, under degrading working and living conditions.
The law prohibits landowners from holding workers' documents or using control over their transportation to and from remote farms to imprison them.
In addition, Article 149 defines a slightly lesser form of worker abuse as "degrading labor." Degrading labor is modern slavery without reliance on violence or distance to retain workers.
Both offenses carry prison terms of two to eight years. In addition, fines are levied for a range of conditions that contribute to slave labor, such as the lack of decent housing or provisions for emergency medical care.
Brazil's Congress recently passed variants of a constitutional amendment that would permit federal authorities to seize land from owners who are found to employ slave labor. Final passage of the amendment is expected later this year.
Where does the responsibility lie?
By Kevin G. Hall
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Who's responsible when Brazilian workers are found to be enslaved?
Landowners, exporters, U.S. importers and their U.S. customers all deny roles.
Here's a sequence of responses, starting with a soybean farmer in the Brazilian state of Para who sold charcoal on the side and ending with the Ford Motor Co. in Michigan.
"I didn't have enough money to do it. I was doing it bit by bit." - Brazilian landowner Jean-Clesio Aguilar, when asked why he'd built no housing for his allegedly enslaved workers.
"We don't have any record of him." - Altair Jose Damasceno, a lawyer for Fergumar, a Brazilian maker of pig iron. Fergumar - short for Ferro Gusa do Maranhao - loaned Aguilar $6,000 in return for charcoal shipments, according to a contract obtained by Brazilian labor inspectors.
"Fergumar never had management of that supplier's charcoal ovens." - Fergumar company director Vagner Brugnara.
"We're not familiar with it, not involved with it. It's something for the Brazilian government to handle. . . . Nucor doesn't have the ability to influence the issue." - Dan DiMicco, the chief executive officer and president of Nucor Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., which buys pig iron from Fergumar.
"We don't comment on supplier relations." - Paul Alwood, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., which buys Nucor steel.
Brazil's Congress is looking to toughen fines for slavery
By Kevin G. Hall
Knight Ridder Newspapers
PARAUPEBAS, Brazil - The pro-labor government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is the first to move seriously against modern slavery in Brazil. It's vowed to end the practice by 2006.
"This government is determined to relentlessly combat slave labor and all forms of degrading labor," Ricardo Berzoini, Brazil's labor minister, said in an interview with Knight Ridder.
But it's been 116 years since Brazil abolished slavery. And although the Labor Ministry's mobile anti-slavery teams managed to free 6,465 Brazilians in Lula's first 19 months in office, another 25,000 to 50,000 workers remain enslaved.
A proposed constitutional amendment pending in Brazil's Congress would permit authorities to seize land if slaves are found working on it. But the powerful Brazilian landowners who've defied existing laws and made enslaving workers a rural tradition won't easily be brought to heel.
For now, Brazil's proposed remedies, plus doubling the number of slaves freed in 2003 over the previous year, have made the country a reform leader compared with India, Pakistan, Thailand, the Ivory Coast and Mauritania - the world's other known slaveholding countries.
"Never have there been so many cases before the courts, nor were there ever so many rescues as those carried out by anti-slave teams in 2003," said Patricia Audi, the anti-slavery coordinator in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, for the International Labour Organization.
Brazil, Audi added, is now the ILO's "reference country," the one that shows others what can be done.
Toughening Brazil's penalties won't be hard. Administrative fines start at about $107 per slave worker. By comparison, the country's updated environmental laws carry fines of $1,700 or more for capturing an endangered parrot. While more than 100 landowners face criminal charges for allegedly holding slaves, none has been imprisoned for it.
The more drastic measure, allowing confiscation of land worked by slaves, has passed both houses of Brazil's Congress, and final passage is expected late this year.
"The possibility of losing property is a heavy instrument to end the economic advantage of those who use slave labor," said Congressman Tarcisio Zimmerman, who's shepherding the amendment for the ruling Workers' Party. "This kind of crime only exists because it brings economic advantage to those who practice it. Before practicing slavery, they will now think hard."
But even if confiscation becomes legal, it will require lengthy, slow-moving court procedures. And if the past is any indication, landowners won't go down without a fight. They've used violence and threats of violence against labor inspectors, activists and even priests in their efforts to discourage the enforcement of anti-slavery law.
In January, three Labor Ministry inspectors and their driver were ambushed and murdered along a remote road not far from Brasilia. On Aug. 13, Norberto Manica, said to be Brazil's largest bean grower, was arrested near the border with Paraguay, where authorities feared he was fleeing. He and seven others are under investigation in the inspectors' killing.
Land barons also target Roman Catholic priests who are involved in agrarian reform programs, the priests say.
"You are seen as taking sides," said Erwin Krautzer, an Austrian-born bishop who oversees parishes across the backwaters of Para, Brazil's second-largest state and a center of slave labor.
Krautzer's face and left eye are scarred from a mysterious traffic accident in 1987 that he thinks was an attempt to kill him. In 1995, gunmen came for him at his home, discovered he was out and killed a houseguest instead. The case remains unsolved.
Another activist, Adilson Prestes, stood up to landowners in the town of Novo Progresso in southern Para, denouncing a chain of illegalities involving land seizure, slavery and illegal logging. He was shot to death in front of his home July 3. Two timber businessman, Jose Paulo Abreu and Claudimir Ramos, were ordered held in connection with the slaying.
"In Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo or Santa Catarina we live in a democracy, but here in the Amazon it doesn't exist," said Tarcisio Feitosa, the head of the Altamira office in Para for the Pastoral Land Commission, the Catholic Church's rural social-work arm. "Tomorrow I can wake up and somebody can shoot me in my home. Here the state does not offer protection."
State authorities sometimes need protection themselves.
Fredson Capelini, a federal investigative judge in Novo Progresso, continued looking into slave labor and violent land seizures despite warnings from locals. On Jan. 26, a key witness who was feeding him documents was riddled with bullets less than 100 yards from the judge's chambers. That killing hasn't been solved.
In Para, one of Brazil's most lawless states, police often side with landowners.
In February, state police intent on harassing an activist removed a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer from a pickup near Paraupebas by pointing automatic rifles at their heads. They drove off after they saw the photographer's professional camera and gear.
During a federal raid in mid-May on the Paradise Ranch, near Vila Rica in the state of Mato Grosso, pickups carrying six state police officers roared in just after dark. The police jumped out with rifles drawn and faced off against six federal police who were guarding the Labor Ministry's anti-slavery team. Farm workers and a Knight Ridder reporter-photographer team fled in all directions before a cool-headed federal officer calmed the invaders.
An hour later, Sebastiao Curado, the head of the regional Ranchers Association, arrived. Six feet six, wearing boots, a cowboy hat and a John Wayne swagger, Curado handed his car keys to the top federal lawman as though he were a valet parking attendant.
After the lawman refused to speak with Curado privately, Curado began calling lawmakers on his cell phone.
"This is an injustice!" Curado thundered, referring to slavery allegations against Antonio Claret Ferreira, the handcuffed landowner. "This man is a pioneer!"
No slaves were found, but the landowner faces charges of possessing an arsenal of unregistered firearms.
Lawmakers and big landowners who allegedly work slaves are sometimes one and the same.
In 2002, voters in the state of Pernambuco re-elected Inocencio Oliveira to the lower house of Congress. Earlier that year, while he was the ruling coalition government's leader in the lower house, a federal anti-slavery team raided his cattle ranch in the state of Goias and rescued 53 workers deemed enslaved.
Last February, an anti-slavery team in southern Para found alleged 32 slave workers on land owned by Joao Ribeiro, a federal senator from the state of Tocantins.
Brazil's Congress has yet to sanction either conservative rural lawmaker. Oliveira and Ribeiro pleaded ignorance of their workers' alleged mistreatment.
"They always say they didn't know," said Marcelo Ribeiro Silva, a labor prosecutor who's accompanied a number of anti-slavery raids.
In mid-August, anti-slavery inspectors freed 32 slaves on one of Brazil's largest cattle ranches, in Mato Grosso state. During their raid, they said, Congressman Marcelo Ortiz harassed them. Ortiz told the inspectors he was at the remote ranch in his capacity as a private lawyer to the landowner, Telerson Penido, a Sao Paulo transportation magnate. Brazilian law prohibits elected officials from defending clients in cases involving the federal government.
Ortiz is a member of Brazil's pro-labor Green Party.
Products of Brazil's slavery find way to U.S. markets
By Kevin G. Hall
Knight Ridder Newspapers
BETHESDA, Md. - Products tainted by Brazilian slavery are finding their way into U.S. stores and homes more often despite the efforts of concerned trade groups, activists and consumers.
Some U.S. companies turn a blind eye in order to buy Brazilian products at the lower prices that slavery helps make possible. Other companies are like most Americans: ignorant about Brazilian slavery, let alone which of its exports are tainted by slavery or what to do about it.
Dealing with Brazilian slavery is tougher than the classic Nike boycott in 1997-8, which ended when the athletic shoe company moved to improve labor conditions at its Asian plants.
Slavery in Brazil raises more subtle questions, and they're harder to act on. For example:
- Most Brazilian slaves clear Amazon jungle for cattle or soybeans for landowners who export them. Are U.S. companies that buy them tainted?
- Only a fraction of any Brazilian export bears any taint of slavery. Enslaved and "degraded" workers in the Amazon produce much of Brazil's charcoal, but not all of it. Companies in northern Brazil use the charcoal to make pig iron, most of which U.S. steel companies import.
What's their responsibility? And what's a U.S. consumer to do?
As Thomas Donaldson, a business ethics specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, put it: "If I am buying a car and the strut under the left wheel came from pig iron produced in Brazil, I can care but it is a caring that doesn't have a way of helping."
Donaldson thinks U.S. companies can police their supply chains effectively if they choose. Indeed, some U.S. companies, such as Atlanta-based Home Depot, have stopped purchasing most wood products from Brazil unless they can be certified by independent auditors not to harm workers and the environment. Other companies Knight Ridder contacted said their contracts with suppliers barred illegal activities. But they appeared to exert little control over suppliers to ensure they weren't partners in environmental and labor crimes.
"We ultimately rely on our suppliers to abide by the terms of our contract and we rely on governments to enforce their laws," said Dorothy Brown Smith, a spokeswoman for Armstrong World Industries, based in Lancaster, Pa., which sells tropical hardwood floors under the brand names Hartco and Bruce.
Dan DiMicco, the president of Nucor Corp., based in Charlotte, N.C., said that if his company didn't import Brazilian pig iron, someone else would.
"It's a commodity traded openly on the world market, and no one company is going to be able to influence that situation," he said. Nucor, he added, can't be expected to police its suppliers to see if they benefit from slave labor.
"That is the responsibility of the people we do business with. If there are violations of laws at those companies, it's the responsibility of the legal entities involved to straighten it out," he said. Nucor imports more than 2 million tons of pig iron annually, much of it from Brazil.
Tommy Calvert, the chief of campaigns for the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, which fights contemporary slavery, wasn't impressed by Nucor's position. "This method of trying to put levels or barriers between themselves and subcontractors is becoming a patent tactic of industry," he said.
The International Labor Rights Fund, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group backed by organized labor, proposes a measure that isn't likely to get far in Congress: a federal law forcing corporations to reveal their supply chains.
The possible role of slavery in a U.S. import "is virtually impossible (to know now) because there is no disclosure requirement on the packaging," said Terry Collingsworth, the fund's executive director. "There is a requirement to tell you how much sugar and carbohydrates are in there, but not slave labor."
Individual U.S. consumers can vote with their dollars on only one Brazilian product: Amazon rainforest hardwoods, used for floors, decks and docks. Exotic hardwood floors are the fastest-growing segment of the $1.87 billion-a-year U.S. flooring market. Jatoba, a Brazilian hardwood sold under the Americanized name of Brazilian cherry, accounts for 3 to 5 percent of U.S. hardwood-flooring sales, according to the National Wood Flooring Association in Chesterfield, Mo. Another Amazonian hardwood, ipe, is increasingly used for outdoor decks and docks. It's sometimes called Brazilian walnut.
Almost all of Brazil's $372 million in hardwood exports last year came from the Amazon state of Para, where slave labor and illegal deforestation are rampant. Slave labor sometimes cuts the trees; more often it clears land so loggers can get to trees and fell them. U.S. deck and flooring salesmen are unlikely to say that - and may not know it - leaving many concerned consumers at a loss or worse. Biomedical researcher Robert Kotin, for example, who works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., said that when he purchased his elegant Brazilian cherry floor, he asked about conditions at the lumber's source. He was told there was no problem.
"We took them at their word," said Kotin, 48, who'd bought from Pennington Hardwoods of Sellersburg, Ind.
Owner Kevin Pennington said he was unaware of the problem of slavery in the Amazon. Anyway, it wouldn't touch his products, he said, because he buys only from companies in the south of Brazil, thousands of miles from the rainforest.
But his southern Brazilian supplier - Triangulo - later confirmed that its hardwoods come from the Amazon rainforest.
"We're basically relying on the integrity of the company we are working with," Pennington responded. "Being such a small company we don't have the resources to police that and know whether they are telling us the truth."
Murilo Gramman, the company's export manager, said in a phone interview from Curitiba in southern Brazil that 80 percent of his wood came from property Triangulo owned, so he could be sure it wasn't tainted by slave labor. The other 20 percent, he said, comes from suppliers who have the required documentation.
"If I get the proper paperwork, why shouldn't I trust the supplier?" he asked.
There are several good reasons, said a top regional inspector for Brazil's natural resources agency, known by its Portuguese acronym, IBAMA, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
For one thing, IBAMA has only six inspectors to patrol a region as large as the states of Florida and Georgia combined. For another, rainforest-lumber document fraud and forgery are rampant, he said. Asked what percentage of exported hardwoods are in some way illegal, he replied: "I would say 100 percent."
Nonetheless, BR-111, a Laurel, Md.-based distributor of exotic Brazilian flooring sold in Home Depot's high-end Expo Design Center stores nationwide, assures customers on its Web site that its Brazilian timber operations are "strictly monitored" by IBAMA. BR-111's marketing manager, Erica Biser, said her company relied on the assurances of its Brazilian supplier.
But Marcos Ducatti, forestry engineer for BR-111's Brazilian supplier, Indusparquet, based in Sao Paulo state, told Knight Ridder that Indusparquet has no auditing system to monitor its suppliers independently or make it aware of labor or environmental problems involving the wood it buys. The two companies have an exclusive supplier-distributor relationship.
Home Depot spokesman Jerry Shields didn't respond to repeated phone calls and e-mail messages asking how Expo Design Center sales of BR-111's products squared with Home Depot's position against buying Amazon hardwoods unless it was clear they'd been harvested properly.
Another big exporter of Brazilian tropical woods, Nordisk Timber Ltda., a subsidiary of Denmark's DLH Nordisk, boasts on its company Web site that it sells wood certified by the international Forest Stewardship Council, the most trusted guarantor that timber has been cut without slave labor. But less than 5 percent of what Nordisk exports is certified by the council, according to Flemming Schjaerff, Nordisk's Brazilian director.
In an interview at his office in Belem, Schjaerff said it was impossible to police the labor and environmental practices of his 150 Amazon suppliers.
"We cannot tell companies what to do; we do not have the authority for this," said Schjaerff, whose company has import operations in Greensboro, N.C.
Tim Keating, the executive director of the New York-based activist group Rainforest Relief, said companies needed only to check with Brazilian non-government organizations and their U.S. partners to gauge if they were contributing to slavery and environmental destruction.
"If you are doing business in the Amazon and you don't call up an NGO in this day and age, it is not due diligence," he said. U.S. companies, he added, "are taking a very, very easy route, shoveling the responsibility off to their suppliers. Are you at the mercy of your supplier? No, you actually are not."
At an Expo Design Center in Rockville, Md., a salesclerk looked baffled when she was asked whether the Brazilian cherry floors sold there might have come from slave labor or contributed to the deforestation of the Amazon.
"People cut down trees in other countries. It is not a problem," she said.
Asked what a concerned consumer can do, she responded, "You'll have to do your research."
(Stella Hopkins of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this story from Charlotte.)
U.S. consumers concerned about slavery in Brazil have some options
By Kevin G. Hall
Knight Ridder Newspapers
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Concerned U.S. consumers can choose not to buy some Brazilian products that might be tainted by slavery, such as tropical hardwoods. For products that few people buy directly, such as soybeans or pig iron, the best way to express an opinion is to write to the heads of U.S. companies that do buy them.
Among many active U.S. importers are:
- Nucor Corp., 2100 Rexford Rd. Charlotte, NC 28211; Daniel R. DiMicco, president and CEO (pig iron).
- Cargill Inc., P.O. Box 9300, Minneapolis, MN 55440; Warren R. Staley, chairman and chief executive officer (soybeans).
- ConAgra Foods Inc., One ConAgra Drive, Omaha, NE 68102; Bruce C. Rohde, chairman, CEO and president (processed beef).
- BR-111, 9590 Lynn Buff Court, Laurel, MD 20723; Ricardo Moraes, owner (rainforest hardwoods).
- DLH Nordisk Inc., 2307 W. Cone Blvd. #200, Greensboro, NC 27408; Stewart Sexton, president (rainforest hardwoods).
In the case of Brazilian hardwoods, only wood certified by the international Forest Stewardship Council (www.fsc.org) can be presumed to be free from the slavery taint and to come from sustainable forestry. The council's approval, indicated by a check mark whose long end extends to form a tree, will be on a label accompanying the wood. Expect this wood to cost about 10 to 30 percent more than uncertified equivalents.
The oldest and largest U.S. supplier of FSC-certified hardwood is EcoTimber in San Rafael, Calif. Conscious Flooring of Holbrook, Mass., sells EcoTimber's wood on the East Coast.
More generally, opponents of Brazilian slavery can write Brazil's ambassador in Washington, Roberto Abendur, to express their support for Brazil's efforts to stop it. His address is Brazilian Embassy, 3006 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20008.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is Congress' leader when it comes to global working conditions. His address is 731 HSOB, Washington, DC 20510. The American Anti-Slavery Group offers material on enslaved charcoal workers in Brazil. Go to www.iabolish.com/index.htm, click on "Slavery Today," then on the map of South America, then on Brazil. London-based Anti-Slavery International (www.antislavery.org) reports regularly on slavery in Brazil. Write "Brazil" in the home page's search box.
Other groups concerned about modern slavery in rural Brazil include: - The U.N. International Labour Organization (www.ilo.org).
- The International Labor Rights Fund (www.laborrights.org). Groups that are trying to halt Amazon deforestation and related ills such as slavery include:
- Greenpeace International (www.greenpeace.org) Go to the "Campaigns" link, then click on "Protect Ancient Forests," then on "Amazon."
- Environmental Defense (www.environmenvaldefense.org). Go to "Our Programs" and click on "Learn More," then on "International."
- Rainforest Relief (www.rainforestrelief.org).
- World Wildlife Fund-Brazil (www.wwf.org.br).
Posted on Thu, Aug. 12, 2004
Amazon jungle settlement has armed land-grabbers out in force
By Kevin G. Hall
Knight Ridder Newspapers
RIOZINHO DO ANFRIZIO, Brazil - A stranger armed with a 12-gauge shotgun marched in and set up his tent inside Francisca Soares' little dirt-floored house on the bank on this remote tributary of the Amazon River.
The stranger is a land squatter, and his presence is the beginning of the end for a jungle teeming with wild monkeys and macaws. If past experience is any guide, within a decade the jungle that surrounds Soares, a 70-year-old grandmother suffering from glaucoma, will be transformed into millions of acres of soybeans growing in fields as tame as those found in Kansas or Minnesota.
These 32,000 square miles of virgin rainforest, called Terra do Meio, Middle Lands, are the last ecologically pristine zone in the Amazon's eastern basin. But Tarcisio Feitosa, the head of the Altamira office of the Pastoral Land Commission or CPT, a social welfare arm of the Roman Catholic Church, believes the Middle Lands are as marked for development as a jaguar in the scope of a hunter's rifle.
"What you're seeing is how the process of deforestation and occupation begins," he said.
"The first thing is you expel the local inhabitants . . . with intimidation and the power of weapons, and then you open some paths in the forest to claim your areas," he continued. "Then comes slave labor, plus deforestation, plus the illegal sale of wood, illegal logging. It is a coming together of ills that happens in sequential fashion."
The squatter who seized Soares' house works for a mysterious Dr. Celso - his last name is unknown to locals - who's betting that a dirt road through the thick jungle about 30 miles from Soares' home will soon be paved. If that happens, soybeans will be much easier to market, and land values will soar. In the meantime, Dr. Celso's squatters are taking over jungle land by the cheapest possible method: seizing it at gunpoint.
"It fills me with tremendous sadness," said Herculano Porto de Oliveira, 60, a neighbor of Soares whose father is buried on land recently posted with a squatter's "No Trespassing" sign. It's hard to imagine the remoteness of the Amazon jungle area that's drawing speculators. The nearest streetlight and doctor are about 300 miles away in the shabby riverfront town of Altamira. Getting there takes two days in a boat with a 40-horsepower outboard motor. By the ferries that Soares and most other people use, it takes a week.
Yet teams of squatters, whose only claim to the land is their audacity, are measuring and marking plots for private sale here. You can buy Middle Lands rainforest on the Internet, if you're not put off by Web sites stating that no land title comes with the sale.
The ads stress that the land is flat. Translation: It's ideal for soybeans, which require flat land for mechanized planting and harvest. There must be lots of takers: Jungle acreage worth $50 a year or two ago now sells for $200.
It doesn't seem to matter that the land involved is government-owned and slated to become an ecological preserve. In fact, most steps entailed in claiming, clearing and developing Amazon jungle land are illegal. What matters is that the new squatters are heavily armed and unopposed.
"Man, even the cook had a gun," said Jose Pereira do Nascimento, 13, after he was detained briefly at an encampment of men protecting a clandestine landing strip a day's paddle from Francisca Soares' riverbank home. Illegal mahogany loggers cut the strip out of the jungle four years ago, locals said, but it was taken over by soy-minded squatters in a recent gun battle.
The Brazilian government in April reported that between August 2002 and August 2003, jungle equal in area to the state of Vermont was lost to development. Since the mid-1970s, an area more than one and a half times the size of California has been deforested - about 16 percent of Brazil's Amazon rainforest.
The planet's ability to absorb carbon dioxide and resist global warming also is threatened by the jungle's clearing, as are species of plants and living organisms yet undiscovered.
The Middle Lands are already being lost, warned Steve Schwartzman, an anthropologist and recognized Amazon expert for Environmental Defense in Washington.
"It is business as usual on steroids: the land fraud, threats, deforestation, illegal logging. The whole nine yards is happening at an accelerating pace there," he said during an interview in the Middle Lands.
"This region here is the last reasonably intact piece of forest in the eastern Amazon. It's very clear that cattle ranching, soy production, logging are pretty much going to take over" if the Brazilian government doesn't intervene.
Marina Silva, Brazil's environment minister, acknowledged in an interview that the Middle Lands are especially endangered.
"There is no doubt that this is a challenge," she said, stressing that Brazil's current government is committed to ending squatting, land theft and other illegalities in the Middle Lands. A new and sophisticated satellite surveillance system is giving Brazil real-time knowledge on where deforestation is occurring, she said.
On Aug. 6, Silva's ministry signed a deal to have Brazilian troops provide protection and encampments for environmental inspectors conducting anti-deforestation raids in remote areas.
Afonso Alves da Cruz, 68, employed by Brazil's equivalent of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, is an outspoken critic of the soybean revolution in the Amazon - a position so embattled that after two foiled ambushes and squatters' death threats, he travels only at night.
"It's only started in the past two years or so. This whole region is now under invasion," he said in a candlelight interview on an Arara Indian reservation along the Iriri River in the Middle Lands.
The main provocation is the proposed paving of a 1,071-mile federal road known as BR 163. The road passes within 30 miles of parts of the Riozinho do Anfrizio river and marks the western border of much of the Middle Lands.
The dirt road, which connects soy farms in northern Mato Grosso State to the deep-water Amazon River port at Santarem, was cut out of the jungle decades ago by development-minded Brazilian military leaders who promised to give "a land without people to people without land."
More than half of the road remains unpaved, mostly in the state of Para, and it's virtually impassable during the rainy season, which stretches from November until June.
Keen to pave the road and usher in year-round truck traffic is a consortium that includes Minneapolis-based commodities giant Cargill Inc., owner of a new $20 million soybean export terminal in Santarem. "If they pave it, the price of land will go up. If it is paved, movement (of grains) will triple," predicted Helio Franco da Cruz, a soy farmer from Parana in southern Brazil. He bought nearly 1,000 acres of titled land outside Santarem in 2002 and moved his family there.
Brazil, which exported less than 6 million tons of soybeans a decade ago, aims to export 20.5 million tons from its 2003-2004 harvests. That ranks it second to the United States, which exported 24.5 million tons. Brazilian soybean exports, worth $8.3 billion last year, are expected to surpass U.S. exports in the next two years. The main reason is that while U.S. producers have run out of land, Brazil still has plenty of Amazon jungle land to clear and exploit.
Meanwhile, squatters continue pressing into protected native territories in the Middle Lands, home to the region's few remaining mahogany stands, and threatening some of the world's most primitive and isolated tribes. Bulldozers are plowing illegal dirt roads into 1.8 million acres belonging to the Arara, practicing cannibals until the 1970s who still hunt barefoot with homemade bows and arrows. There have been several confrontations, including one in which invaders killed an Arara.
"They are looking to take our lands," said Thoxthoxgulo, a stout one-eyed chief.
He was seconded by Idomeruk, another tribal leader, who recounted how an invader recently told him: "Buddy, Indians don't own land, no! "Indians will die and the whites will occupy this land."
Smalltime farmers in and around Santarem are facing the same intimidation, said Nilo de Almeida Camargo, the top federal prosecutor in Santarem.
"They are told leave your land or be buried under it," he said. "This isn't expansion of the agricultural frontier, it is extortion."
In March, he brought a federal lawsuit seeking to block all farm financing from government development banks to anyone without clear, complete title to their land.
Critics charge that Cargill has been a catalyst for deforestation. Cargill's terminal manager in Santarem, Antenor Giovannini, confirmed that the agribusiness giant has provided more than $1 million in startup money to area farmers. He insisted that the money is lent only to farmers with clear title to their land and said the company is repaid in bags of soybeans.
At Cargill's world headquarters in Minneapolis, spokeswoman Lori Johnson disputed critics' claims that Cargill's river terminal and road-paving consortium are sparking deforestation in the eastern Amazon.
"I think that is attributing way too much to this terminal. It was built primarily for the Mato Grosso area and some local production around Santarem," said Johnson. "We believe there is room for soybean expansion in an environmentally appropriate way."
Jose Francisco Marcel do Oliveira, 58, a farmer who'd recently sold his small plot near Cargill's terminal to soy growers, disagreed. "The high trees bring the rains and when they are cut what will you have?" he asked. "If they pave the Cuiaba (in Mato Grosso) to Santarem road, it will destroy everything."
Copyright 2004 Knight Ridder Newspapers
CONTENT COPYRIGHT Knight Ridder Newspapers. THIS CONTENT IS INTENDED SOLELY FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES.