The dictionary definition of a settler, “one who emigrates to populate and/or exploit a foreign land,” does not just apply to the Brazilian colonial period. Even in the 21st century, the term settler is alive and well for families that have migrated from the south and northeast to the Brazilian Amazon, in the state of Pará. Lured by the promise of a prosperous life in agriculture made by the government during a period of military dictatorship, settlers arrived in droves in the 1970s. Nearly fifty years later, many of the descendants of these settlers have become hostages to working conditions analogous to slave labor.
This is one of the conclusions of the report “Underneath the Forest: Pará’s Amazon plundered by slave labor” produced by Brazil’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) and the Carmen Bascarán Center for the Defense of Life and Human Rights. The culmination of an investigation into slave labor practices in Pará’s timber industry led by the Integrated Action Network to Combat Slavery (RAICE), the report’s findings show how the federal government played a role in pushing generations of workers into the trade of logging forests under conditions that align with slave labor practices as defined by Brazilian law.
“The promise was as great as the abandonment,” says social scientist Maurício Torres, who took part in the research for the report.
After being “abandoned” by the Brazilian government in a region surrounded by rainforest and lacking social support, these workers were thrown into a world without prospects, according to the investigation. Their only option was to accept the first offers that came in. In a place where the law at times goes unenforced, they became easy targets in the networks that exploit slave labor.
“The law of silence rules here,” said Egidio Alves Sampaio, of the Pastoral Earth Commission. “The peasant knows about this situation [of slave labor practices], but is afraid of reporting it for fear of consequences.”
According to testimony documented in the report, workers allege that logging camp bosses would hire gunmen to intimidate them into not demanding the payment they were owed.
Life in a Forest Under Destruction
Data on settlers that work cutting down trees in the Amazon is limited. What little is known comes from federal labor inspectors and non-governmental institutions. According to data from the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), Federal Public Ministry and Ministry of Labor, 931 workers recruited to cut down trees have been rescued in the state of Pará since 2003 — just a bit more than one-fifth of total Brazilian rescues in the sector. The majority were between 15 and 30 years old, according to the inspectors’ records, but the elderly and children were also found to be taking part in this activity.
Lack of payment was a common element uncovered by investigations of sawmill sites. During one of the rescue operations conducted by the Ministry of Labor, inspectors asked the workers what they thought were the worst things that could happen to them while on the job. They expected to hear about fears of accidents or death, but most the workers replied they were most worried about not getting paid.
Investigators found it was common for workers to go through months of arduous and dangerous labor without receiving any wage. If the wood was not sold at the rate expected by the employers, their loss in profits was often recouped by not paying workers. Since the business was operating illegally, there was no one to whom the workers could turn for help.
In Pará, the mission of these timber operations is not to cut down large numbers of trees. Instead, their focus is on specific species that appeal to the international market — like ipê, or Brazilian walnut, a dark hardwood used for flooring, decks and veneers. When they no longer can support themselves from the land, the report found, settlers began to accept offers to make a living cutting down trees in protected areas. The work offers tended to come from neighbors, generally ex-employees of the loggers locally called “toreiros.”
Without workers’ rights, the settlers-turned-loggers remained out of contact inside the forest for weeks to months on end, according to the investigation. The sun sets the workday. As long as it is light out, which is the case from 4:30 am to 6:30 pm, the chainsaws were running.
The risks inside the forest were significant due to poor working conditions, the researchers found. Logging was done without any type of protection, such as safety glasses, utility uniforms, helmets, work boots or insect repellent. This equipment is regarded as essential for protection, not just from accidents, but from poisonous animals.
“It happens a lot that any kind of jerky movement on the log or tractor can cut off the helper’s fingers or hand. Logs roll over and crush guys,” said one rescued worker quoted in the investigation’s report.
The most shocking scene for workers, said researcher Torres, were the makeshift structures used for housing. Lacking walls and built from small logs, they covered the workers with only a tarp. The stove was often a campfire made in a paint can or old cooking pot. The meat, caught or brought by the employees themselves, rested unprotected on string clotheslines. Hammocks hung from the tree trunks — often fewer in number than the workers, so for some, there was only the ground. Water, often captured from rainfall, was stored in improvised containers without a lid or treatment. After getting a layer of sludge in the first few days, it was used for quenching thirst and cooking during the long months of work.
Forced work, debt bondage, isolation, exhausting working hours and life-threatening conditions defined workers’ lives at many of the sawmill sites investigated by RAICE. These elements are included the Brazilian Penal Code and used by inspectors from the Ministry of Labor to define slave labor.
The Beginnings of Colonization
In the 1970s, families settled on tracts of land of up to 100 hectares, near recently constructed highways — the first ones in the region and by which the dreamed-of progress was to arrive. Over time, new migrants showed up, colonizing the forest yet remaining isolated within it.
Aggravating the situation was a lack of unawareness of the environmental conditions of the Amazon, both on the part of the settlers and of the government that divided the land among them. The farming experience they brought with them from northeastern Brazil did not bear fruit in Pará. To make matters worse, according to the report, lots were drawn up from the map in equal, rectangular shapes that did not take into account soil quality.
Without expansion of roads, schools, medical facilities, credit systems and technical assistance, the settlers became vulnerable, according to Larisa Bombardi of the São Paulo University Laboratory of Agrarian Geography. Bombardi said that in order to remain in the places they were living, the majority stripped themselves of dignity without noticing. It was under these circumstances that the logging companies showed up in the 1970s.
The loggers built roads out to the settlers and offered others small favors — like money to take the bus, Torres said. Under what the investigation’s researchers describe as an exploitative relationship disguised as benevolence, settlers came to see the logging companies as friends. Since then the cycle has repeated itself.
Today, the settlers live in small communities with little infrastructure, such as schools, access to health, basic sanitation and electricity.
“What chances do they have for not starving if they do not rely on the loggers’ favors, which makes them slaves?” Torres said.