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Crossing Continents Tuesday, 30 July, 2002, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Brazil's rainforest slaves
A worker gives his details to a federal inspector

Unscrupulous Brazilian cattle ranchers are using slave labour to clear rainforests, a BBC investigation reveals.

Working outside the law, labourers are often refused payment. If injured, they may be refused medical treatment. Some of them die.

The forest is cut to make way for enormous cattle ranches producing beef - Brazil's number one export to the UK.

Dangerous conditions

Evandro Rodriguez has spent his life cutting mahogany trees and was earning twice as much there as anywhere else. Then it went wrong.

"They kill people instead of paying them"

Evandro Rodriguez

"We were cutting mahogany deep in the rainforest in a place which you cannot reach except by plane. The power saw slipped and went into my leg.

I was bleeding and couldn't walk. But the foreman said you'll have to walk 30 km to the farm or die. So I walked all night, with my shirt tied around my legs. My boots were full of blood."

Amazon forest-clearing workers
Freed workers are likely to stay as they may have nowhere else to go
When he reached his village after a week there was a man who was sent to shoot him. They were afraid he would denounce their logging to the authorities."

"I know of workers there who haven't been paid for months, some have never been paid and they will never go home. They kill people instead of paying them."

"When you work in the forest you see skeletons of people and skulls lying on the ground. It's dangerous work - there are lots of accidents so after a while you don't notice anymore. But I know some of them were murdered. "

A cycle of debt

Dominican Friar Xavier Plassat
Friar Xavier Plassat campaigns for workers' rights
Dominican Friar Xavier Plassat explains how the system works.

"When new land is about to be cut down, or the ranches need workers, the logger or the landowner hires a "gato" (which literally means cat). He recruits workers and promises them a lot of money.

"When he has 50 or 60 he loads them on a lorry for a 3 day journey, gives them alcohol and delivers them to the site, drunk and tired."

"There they are told they owe money for their transport, their lodgings and their food. They will have to work for months to pay the debt. They are miles away from home, they have no idea where, there is nowhere to escape."

The government's response

A leaflet produced by the CPT
The CPT warns of the dangers of illegal working
Squads of Labour Ministry inspectors known as the Grupo Movil - acting on tip-offs from the CPT (a Catholic organisation campaigning for the landless and poor), raid farms where they suspect slave labour is being used.

"It's a very bad labour situation here" one of the inspectors tells me on a raid. He is taking a risk. His bosses in Brasilia have forbidden him to speak to the BBC. They are frightened of the bad publicity.

"The workers here are paid 8 reais a day - that's about 3.00. There is no clean water here, no toilet, their conditions are dangerous. The employer has provided no safety masks".

"Now we will force the farmer to employ them legally. We will provide them with an official work-book which the employer will have to fill in. He'll have to pay them properly and that includes sick pay and holidays."

Difficult to prosecute

Some of farm owner Zucatelli's many business involvements
Zucatelli has business interests all over Para
The owner of the ranch, Reinaldo Zucatelli, is summoned, but we are told he is in Sao Paolo. "We won't pay any fine. We have done nothing wrong. It's the custom of the region to employ people casually. No-one here does it by the book." says Elmo, the ranch manager.

It does seem to be the custom that whatever the law the landowners, farmers and loggers usually get away with it. The law doesn't work, the fines are never paid.

The local criminal prosecutor, Zilmar Drummond, tells me "we can never get the evidence we need. The farmers fight for years in the courts, the slaves disappear and can't testify. Besides it's not clear which courts, which judges, which prosecutors have the authority to pursue these cases."

The government has pledged to eradicate slavery by the end of next year. From what I've seen here in Para, unless they begin to enforce the law, prosecute and punish offenders, they can't even pretend they mean it.

Crossing Continents - Brazil:
Thursday 1 August 2002
on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 BST
repeated on Monday 5 August 2002
at 20.30 BST.

Reporter:Olenka Frenkiel
Producer: Arlene Gregorius
Editor: Maria Balinska

Loris Rocha Pereira Jr, labour prosecutor
Legal loopholes in the Brazilian justice system
Glauber Maciel Dos Santos
Brazilian ministry offical in charge of anti-slavery talks about how to stop it
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