Fr Xavier Plassat, op is dedicated to fighting modern-day slavery in the Amazon rainforests of Brazil

Fr Xavier Plassat, op

In this small town on the edge of Brazil's somewhat lawless agricultural frontier, streets turn to mud under tropical rains and laundry hangs limp in front of cement-box houses.

There's one bank and two churches. But for most folks here, if you want a job, you have to head to one of the nearby cattle ranches - only recently carved out of the steamy Amazon jungle.

Luiz Cardoso da Silva, a 69-year-old ranch hand, has worked on half a dozen. But he hopes to never go back.

'Treated like animals'

Just three days earlier, Seu Luiz was sleeping on the floor of a cattle corral, surrounded by fetid mud.

He and six relatives had been living and working on the ranch for two years, building fences and weeding pastures. There was no bathroom, just a single outdoor spigot to shower and wash clothes and dishes. Nearby bushes served as a toilet.

That's how they were found when an eight-car convoy, lights flashing, pulled into the ranch. One of the Brazilian mobile units tasked with cracking down on worker exploitation across the country was following up on a tip.

Seu Luiz tells inspectors that they haven't received any money for the last two years. He says the ranch owner provides them with food, deducts it from their wages and claims that they ended up owing him money.

"You can't leave because you owe money for the food he's given you, you have a debt." He says he was afraid for the safety of his family if he left.

An uphill fight

In fact, more than 50,000 workers have been rescued from what Brazil defines as slave-like conditions since the mobile units were created in 1995. A third of them came from ranches.

But it's an uphill fight with roughly 25,000 Brazilians lured into slavery every year, according to the Catholic Pastoral Land Commission, or CPT. They also end up working in coalmines, sugar cane fields, urban construction sites and garment factories.

Cattle country

In northern Brazil, cattle roam the rolling pastures.

Huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest were cut down to create these ranches. At first, farmers were encouraged by the government to settle the land. Then they seized more territory illegally.

The famous grass-fed beef produced on these ranches is a staple at home and an important export for Brazil, accounting for $4.35 billion in revenues in 2016.

Few consumers suspect that extreme labor exploitation is an ingrained part of this culture.

But Xavier Plassat, a French Dominican friar, has dedicated his life to fighting what he calls modern-day slavery in the region.

"The main point about slavery is that someone wants to make a profit with zero cost," he says. "Here, more than anywhere, it is easy to make a profit with zero cost. You are on the frontier of farming, of ranching."

Plassat, 66, works with the Pastoral Land Commission, coordinating their national campaign against labor exploitation.

He has a network of agents and informants who talk to ranch-hands and send reports of labor abuses to federal authorities. Initially, their tips lead to about a quarter of the mobile unit raids.

This has gotten some of the church activists killed - most notably Dorothy Stang, the American-born nun who was shot and killed in 2005.

"I don't say we want to be martyrs," Plassat says. "But we try to be present to share the suffering and help the workers."

'Impunity, greed, vulnerability, misery'

Plassat shows us a safe house run by the Pastoral Commission where workers who have been rescued by the mobile units can eat and sleep while they fight for compensation.

He says conditions have improved in the region, but says modern-day slavery is far from being eradicated.

"Slavery is a system and it has several roots: impunity, greed, vulnerability, misery. If you don't address all of it at the same time you will probably have the same persons coming back to the same cycle of enslavement," he says.

He is concerned that Brazil could actually be sliding backwards on the issue.

An increasingly powerful rural lobby in the national congress has pushed to relax the country's very broad definition of slave labor while the resources to fight it have shrunk.

One of the main tools used to shame employers into compliance has also been undermined - every year the Labor Ministry publishes a "Dirty List" of companies caught exploiting workers. But recently, its publication has been repeatedly blocked or delayed.

Return to slavery?

For Seu Luiz, good news finally comes. The ranch owner's family has agreed to pay the equivalent of $38,000 in back wages and penalties for pain and suffering - to be divided among the seven workers.

Seu Luiz says he'll use it to move out of the one-room house he rents and finally buy a home of his own. Something he hopes will protect his children in the future.

In the meantime, a federal prosecutor has filed criminal charges against the ranch owner. Those charges are currently being reviewed by a judge.

For Wagner, the raid was a success. But he says you can never really be sure that you've saved someone.

"It's possible Sue Luiz won't return to these working conditions," he says. "But it's also possible he will. Given his age and his limited professional qualifications, he will continue to be a potential victim of slave labor."

By Shasta Darlington, Miguel Castro and Flora Charner, CNN


(4 May 2017)