Slavery in Brazil

Slavery in BrazilSlavery, A Modern-Age Slur on a Country Thriving in Prosperity.

Reports of Brazil as a nation thriving with a strong economy growing healthily, cause both envy and intrigue to hang over the many countries, who far from managing to pull themselves out of recession, are plunging further into economic breakdown. Although this rosy picture of Brazil, which has been colorfully filling our television screens on recent news bulletins, is far from representative of the whole picture. In reality, slums slur the cities borders and slavery maims the rural areas. Why is the “soon to be fifth biggest economy in the world” so intensely clashing in its class divides and so powerless to impoverishing arguably the ultimate symbol of poverty and oppression – Slavery.

For more than 350 years, slaves from Africa were shipped to Brazil in droves to work in sub-human conditions on agricultural sites. In 1888, Brazil apparently abolished slavery and it was the last country in the Americas to do so. Today similar practices are plaguing modern-day Brazil, only with one noticeable difference – Brazil is a much richer and prosperous nation. Why is it as the country flourishes in wealth it does so alongside human degradation, poverty and scourge?

A human rights expert from the United Nations believes it is loopholes in the current legal system that is disabling the progression of wiping out slavery in Brazil. Ms. Gulnara Shahinian, Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery has urged Brazil to make greater efforts to eradicate loopholes that are “fostering impunity” and allowing thousands to be subjected to what can be fundamentally described as contemporary acts of slavery. During a visit to Brazil, the UN slavery expert recognized and commended the Brazilian government for its action in trying to combat slavery, otherwise known as forced labor, particularly its inauguration of publishing a “Dirty List”, which lists any company or farm using forced labor. Although she brought to light that it is lack of criminal penalties, jurisdictional conflicts and delays in the judiciary system, which are all resulting in slavery flourishing in many rural regions of Brazil. Commenting on the barbarity of this forced labor occurring in Brazil, Ms. Shahinian said:

“The victims of forced labor work long hours, with little or no pay. They are threatened with or subjected to physical, psychological and sometimes sexual violence.”

In 2002 when President Lula came into power he promised to abolish these slave-like conditions from Brazil. Initially, after mobile units of the labor ministry together with federal police swooped in on any farm or company where acts of slave labor had been reported, the inhumane practice was reduced, but there are now signs that it is on the increase once again. Whilst President Lula may be enforcing positive steps to diminish forced labor in Brazil, such as implementing a “Dirty List”, and excluding any farms found exploiting workers in slave-like conditions from accessing public funds, many of these modern forms of slavery are found in the vast Amazon region of the country, which remains frontier territory, which the State cannot adequately control or police.

Like with many incidents of people being reduced to mere machines, unable to escape the persecution through sheer terror and destitution, a lack of education and knowledge is a common trait of the victims. Recognizing the importance of education, Ms. Gulnara Shaninian has urged for a greater effort to educate and train rural people as she sees this as being the golden ticket to impeding them to becoming victims of forced labor.

Education should also include vocational training and literacy programs, which should be complemented by Government action to safeguard the right for indigenous groups and others to work without having to succumb to forced labor” said the UN slavery expert.

UNICEF’s Ms. Alison Sutton, who is based in the Brazilian capital Brasilia and is the author of a book about slavery in Brazil, reiterates Ms. Shaninian’s beliefs that better education of the rural workers in Brazil is the real solution to combat this antiquated and depraved practice.

But in accordance with giving people greater means to education, Ms. Gulnara Shaninian talks of complimenting education and training to achieve success in eradicating modern acts of slavery in Brazil, that is to pass a constitutional amendment, which would enable the expropriation of land where slave labor is exploited. The Special Rapporteur stressed: “The strongest message that the Brazilian government can send to Brazilians to show that the crime of slavery will not go unpunished is to pass the constitutional amendment which would allow for the expropriation of land where forced labor is used.”

Talking about the steps which need to be taken to help abolish slavery is of course proactive, necessary and urgent, but the root of what is causing slavery to not only exist but to be on the rise in Brazil needs to be addressed if we are to understand and hopefully prevent the inhumane practice from spiraling any further. Brazil’s ascendency into the soon to be “fifth biggest economy in the world” is arguably having a detrimental effect on the rights of people and is explicitly breeding slavery. Many anti-capitalists believe that capitalist economic systems are responsible for breeding slavery. Mr. Steve Butler from the UK is of this line of thought, commenting:

“Capitalism, by its very nature, breeds slavery. If you want to end slavery you have to come up with a better economic system than capitalism.”

Of course capitalists would argue otherwise, but the argument that capitalism and commercial greed hoist the rich to become richer and the poor to become not only poorer but reduced to desperate and destitute slaves definitely bears some significance in contemporary Brazil, whose economy grew a whopping five percent last year.

So who is to blame is the ongoing ordeal to finally wipe-out slavery from a country so “thriving” and “prosperous”. The governments of the countries where such practices still exist are the obvious body to blame, but pinning the blame solely on a government, which has in all fairness been taking proactive steps to abolish slavery from its society, would be unfair and for success to prevail in this highly complex phenomenon many different organizations have to be involved and collaborate together. Ms. Gulnara Shaninian recognizes the importance of group collaboration in abolishing slavery in Brazil as on her recent trip to the country she not only held talks with government officials but also international organizations, the private sector and non-governmental organizations, as well as local communities. Also in defense of the Lula government, it has devised a National Action Plan, which brings together all the initiatives, so that bodies are coordinated and working in collaboration, as well as having a cooperation agreement with the International Labor Organization. Could the UN be doing more? D. West Jefferson from Ohio thinks it could be doing more, stating:

“Only the spread of education, equalization of living conditions and commitment by the mature powers of the world can bring this to an end. The United Nations is potentially the largest power in the world….imagine a day, when they actually start living up to their influence.”

Imagine a day when slavery is finally reduced to a dark and sinister practice of the past. With greater cooperation, greater education and perhaps a greater financial input from their new found riches, hopefully slavery in Brazil will at last be eliminated from an allegedly modern and cosmopolitan country.

Gabrielle Pickard

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2 Replies to “Slavery in Brazil”

  1. Indeed, in the world of UN with 60+ years to its credit, there should be no “slavery” of any kind.  It is most unconscionable for the human society in the 21st century. But, unfortunately, the fact remains, the acts of slavery still continue in many forms in many countries, e.g. child bonded labour practices in some parts of Asia, treating women as some kind of second class citizens and domestic help, caste, colour and race discrimination, etc. Experience has told us that the situation requires two-prone approach (attack) – access to compulsory (primary) education – especially girls education – supported social activism and public awareness on the one side, and a set of legislations  – e.g. Right to Information and Right to Education – that are enforceable and are seen enforced without any let or hindrance.  
    Technology can help spread the existence of slavery practices, but to rely on the technology to remedy the problem may not be working.  What we need social engineering and personal inner engineering to alter our out-moded ideas and behaviours that require consistent and honest efforts from the governments and people everywhere.  
    Often, we see “fear” of punishment  seems to work better than “persuasion”, but the prudence is how to use both the education/persuasion and the fear of punishment in a proper mix.

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