Wednesday, June 08, 2005

"It makes me think of death."

This is actually a happy story, so far. Brazil has a problem with slavery. President Lula's government estimates that some 40,000 slaves are working under brutal conditions, worse than when slavery was legal in the 19th century and 4,000,000 Africans were brought to Brazil in chains. That number, 4 million, is about 8 times more than the total number of slaves brought to the American colonies and later to the US by the British and the Americans, respectively.

Lula calls modern slavery "Brazil's shame." He has more than doubled the Department of Labor Oversight's budget of 2.9 million reais (almost $1 million), which has allowed heavily armed teams of slave hunters to penetrate the jungle regions of Brazil searching for slave camps and their masters.

In this report which follows a slave-hunting team into the jungle, the slave hunters, led by a former policeman named Silva, find and free 38 men living in the forest, sleeping outdoors in hammocks with only thin plastic sheeting for protection from the elements and eating one meal a day while working to clear jungle 16 hours a day.

What follows next is extraordinary. Silva and his team feed the slaves and hold them while Silva conducts a search for their master. He finds the guy who, under duress, leads him to his employer, the landowner on whose land the slaves were working. While Silva is thusly engaged, his team members interview the slaves to determine how much money they are owed by the landowner. Silva takes the landowner immediately to court in the nearest town where the landowner is forced to withdraw $34,000 from his banks and that money is paid to the slaves. Silva and the landowner's lawyer sit down and count out the amount to be given to each of the slaves who form a line at the door, awaiting their money.

Silva tries to get the local sheriff to press criminal charges against the landowner, but is unsuccessful. He's really pissed about this and tells the sheriff, who was assigned to work with the team, that Silva will request that the sheriff not work with them ever again.

Brazil is debating a new law which will require the forfeiture of property and possessions when a property owner is found to be holding slaves. The slave hunters believe that this law, if enacted, will effectively end the slavery business. One says, ""We're putting out fires. Nothing has changed fundamentally. The only way you are going to really eradicate slave labor is by passing the law [currently languishing in Congress] that allows the government to confiscate the land of those keeping slaves. Do you think a guy ... would risk losing 14,000 cattle and all the land they are on? No way."

He's been doing this job for three years now and knows the type of men who come to the rain forest. Many of them will waste their windfall. Silva refuses to give one perennially drunk man his money until the next morning when he has sobered up. But that, he says, is beside the point. There is a special satisfaction in seeing justice. "There," he says to Araujo and hands him 3,714 reais ($1,270), an amount that would have taken him 14 months to earn at Brazil's minimum wage. "Can you write your name?"

"Yes, sir," says Araujo, as he takes the pen and scrawls his name on the receipt.

Araujo packs the money away and his eyes bulge. "I am so happy," he says as he leaves the building to head home to Porto Alegre do Norte, a small town 80 miles from here that is home to most of the slaves. "I feel like I got what I worked for. Now I am going to start a new life, buy a few calves and let them graze quietly in Porto Alegre where my brother has land. I am going to buy new clothes for my three children and I am going to buy them new clothes and shoes."

The next morning, the team heads home. The forest is still burning and as they drive onto the main highway out of town, slivers of ash fall onto the windshield like dirty snow flakes. "It's sad," says Silva, as he accelerates. "It makes me think of death."

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