Slavery is a sensitive subject in Brazil. It is an issue almost as old as the country itself. Over the course of 400 years, Brazil imported around four million slaves from the African continent, and its economic structure was thoroughly dependent on the process. Some historians also argue that the treatment of slaves in Brazil was far harsher than the treatment of slaves in the United States. It was only in 1888 that slavery was finally abolished, making Brazil the last major country in the Western hemisphere to do so.
The legacy of slavery in Brazil persists to this very day. The country has a relatively high income inequality rate across racial lines. Racism had to be criminalised in the 1988 Constitution. And finally, there is the influence of the ‘racial democracy’ myth, first put forward by the 20th-century Brazilian sociologist, Gilberto Freyre. The theory suggests that due to close relations between slaves and masters, intermixing of races has meant there is no or minimal racial discrimination in Brazil. However, upon closer examination, other scholars have found that this concept was promoted by white elites, often to allow real forms of oppression to go unpunished.
Slavery in the Amazon today
In many ways, that same veneer also obscures the reality that today many Brazilians experience conditions, that can be suitably described as a form of slavery. Sizeable numbers of labourers are promised work and a good wage if they work in the Amazon rainforest, cutting down wood or working in cattle farms. The International Labour Organisation puts that ‘sizeable number’, somewhere in the region of 25,000 people.
People from states such as Piauí and Maranhão, known for high poverty levels, are persuaded to travel to work. Upon reaching the Amazon rainforest, they find reality to be considerably different from what they were promised. In place of a decent wage, they receive little to no pay and are saddled with debts to cover room and board. In place of decent working conditions, they find themselves working in the sweltering heat. In place of mechanisms to resolve disputes, they find that complaining could cost them their lives, with pistoleiros, hitmen, hired to murder those who speak out.
There is virtually no avenue for escape, and to attempt such, is to place one’s life at risk. In fact, those who are lucky enough to escape, narrate their experiences under the condition of anonymity.
Over the past twenty years, around 50,000 Brazilians have been emancipated from the shackle economy, operating in the Amazon rainforest. The problem has arguably worsened in the past ten years according to Mr Cazetta, the prosecutor in Pará. And with the Belo Monte project, a hydroelectric dam near the city of Altamira scheduled to be complete in 2019, the problem is likely to persist as more people come looking for work.
The situation in the Amazon rainforest is a sad indictment on contemporary Brazil. And despite much talk of ending slavery and Brazil being an emerging economy, the words of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rear their ugly head: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Social Jungle.