For Many Brazilians the Dream of Prosperity in the Amazon Ends Up in Slavery

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.

This story was produced by Thais Lazzeri for Repórter Brasil, with translation by Benjamin Blocksom.


By Tania Caliari and Ana Aranha – Repórter Brasil

A rookie in the trade of cutting down trees, João (not his real name)* asked himself how life led him to this “terribly wrong” way to make ends meet. Camped out in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest in the state of Pará, 90 kilometers from the Trans-Amazonian Highway, João regretted taking the job, the first to come along in months.

He and his colleagues had finished cutting down the first of many massaranduba trees for the day when they heard the roar of cars. “Come on, let’s hide in the forest,” João heard from one of his more experienced colleagues, and followed. Peering through the leaves, they saw armed men appear clad in vests marked “Federal.”

“Oh God, get me out of here. Don’t let me die,” João pleaded as he ran further into the woods. His fear was rooted in stories told by his more-experienced colleagues, tales of how state authorities handle workers like him: with repression, prison and even physical violence.

After he was found by the inspectors, João said the idea of the state being there to protect him never crossed his mind. But this was, in fact, the goal of the team led by Ministry of Labor auditor José Marcelino and comprised of representatives of the Ministério Público do Trabalho (an independent branch of the Labor Justice Department), the Federal Public Defender’s Office and escorted by the Federal Highway Police. A team of journalists from Repórter Brasil also followed the team and interviewed the workers.

The operation was trying out a new strategy for bringing the law to the frontlines of rainforest destruction. Instead of treating workers as enemies, the idea was to recognize them as victims, even as possible allies in the fight against illegal logging.

When the group was finally found, João and his colleagues gave lengthy depositions, helping authorities understand how timber extraction works and unveiling myriad possible crimes committed by local sawmill owners.

Because of the risks to their lives workers endured on the job and the degrading conditions in which they lived, the inspectors rescued the workers and framed the case as slave labor, in accordance with the Brazilian penal code.

João talked about how he would work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., off the books and without protective equipment. Even though logging is a risky activity, with one of the highest death and amputation rates in Brazil, neither guidance nor minimal protection was given. He described fatal accidents as banal events.

“There was this guy who did the same thing as me. He died. He got distracted while rolling up a cigarette. The tree fell off the truck and on top of him. He ended up in the cemetery,” João said.

Neither first aid nor medicine waited back at the communal tent. Just a rifle for protection and hunting. As well as an old motorbike to take the workers to the city, more than 100 kilometers on a dirt road away, in case of an animal attack or an accident. But workers did not count on the possibility of being rescued.

“There are no accidents over there, only death,” João said. “If you mess up, you’re all done for.”

João is a weathered worker with a long resume at some of the toughest jobs available for migrants like him.” He left a poor region in the northeast of Brazil still young and cut his teeth in construction sites and coal mines, where his lunges hurt when he coughed. Even so, he considered logging as his worst labor experience so far.

In the blue-tinged shadows of the tent, the workers had hung up their colored hammocks and backpacks with their belongings. Without walls and just a dirt floor, there was nothing kept out the cold morning wind or visiting insects and venomous snakes.

“Thank God everyone was already in their hammocks,” João said. “Then one of the men turned on their flashlight. There was a huge snake there, more than two meters long, thick. This guy grabbed a piece of wood and struck it on top, killing it.” Jaguars also occur in the area, with reporters observing tracks on the ground near camps.

With a nervous laugh, the group’s cook said she wasn’t scared and didn’t have anything to complain about. She described how she prepared meals on two camp stoves improvised from 18-liter cans.

Rice, beans, and spaghetti were the most common meals, with occasional pieces of sun-dried beef that were hung to dry from a clothesline at the camp and frequently visited by flies.

The camp water came from the city in barrels and, according to worker testimony, always had a little “grime on the bottom.”

The camp’s washtub was shielded by an impromptu partition made from palm leaves and a black tarp. The cook took her bath when the workers were in the forest. For all other necessities, the forest was the only bathroom.

Ministry of Labor raids have revealed that it is common for vulnerable workers in Brazil to experience serious labor violations, such as the ones described above. Based on the conditions at the camp, inspectors framed the case as slavery-like conditions in accordance with Brazilian legislation.

Ultimately, the Ministry of Labor found the sawmill company that operated the site, M.A. de Sousa Madeireira, responsible for the criminal conditions in which its employees worked and lived. However, in his dusty office in Uruará, company owner Manoel Araújo de Sousa asserted he was not responsible for the workers.

He said he was aware of the extraction of wood, but he had nothing to do with the site’s operation since it was a self-directed effort by one of his former employees. He did admit, however, that he kept a portion of the harvested wood and that he was the “owner” of the land where they were working.

As proof that he could extract wood from the location, Araújo de Sousa claims to have a purchase contract, with no registered title or authorization for extracting timber.

As part of its penalty, M.A. de Sousa Madeireira had to pay workers’ rights fees amounting to 31,000 reais (US$ 9,950). The sawmill’s attorney declared her disagreement with the ruling holding the company responsible for the labor violations. Araújo de Sousa and his brother are allegedly working to raise the capital.

Crimes Against the Forest, Workers and Communities

Manoel de Sousa’s sawmill is a small fish in a sea of illegal activity operating in the region. The city of Uruará comprises one of the largest centers of expansion in the Amazon’s logging industry – and government investigations indicate illegal activities are growing more explicit.

Trucks without license plates carrying away loads of large native tree trunks are commonly seen entering the city by way of the Trans-Amazonian Highway.

According to data from the Ministry of Labor and Pastoral Land Commission, 931 workers were rescued from slave labor conditions while harvesting trees from 2003 to 2016.

A relationship between employment practices analogous to slave labor and some illegal logging operations in the Amazon was uncovered by a research led by the Integrated Action Network for Fighting Slavery.

The study indicates that the conditions endured by João and his colleagues may affect many workers in the sector.

Places like the logging camp from which João was rescued often do not appear on maps that track deforestation. This is because they engage in selective logging that causes changes in canopy coverage that aren’t large enough to be detected remotely.

This illegal practice has been growing in the past few years, specifically because it outwits satellite monitoring, as shown by several studies conducted by Greenpeace and Instituto Socioambiental (ISA)

Satellite data from the Brazilian government show this area of Pará lost nearly 400,000 hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2015. Small logging camps like that from which João and his colleagues add to this toll – but often log too selectively to show up via satellite monitoring.

The illegal logging industry also takes specific measures to ensure the timber they extract isn’t traced back to where it was harvested. Previous investigations revealed that after the most market-valuable trees are cut down, the timber is taken to sawmills on trucks without license plates. At the sawmill, the illegal origin is “laundered” with handling documents that change the harvest location to legal sites.

In an area south of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, days before the operation that uncovered João and his colleagues, the same rescue team discovered small roads opened up by loggers within the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Territory, where the Arara community lives.

An indigenous group only recently contacted by the outside world, the Arara report hearing chainsaws and are avoiding hunting in portions of their land for fear of encountering loggers.

Along the makeshift logging roads within the indigenous territory, the inspectors and reporters saw logs piled up, swaths of scorched earth and tents just like the one João slept in – but they failed to locate any workers.

When they came across someone on a motorbike going down the road, the inspectors were informed that they should give up in their search; the team’s presence had been made known through a radio system used by the loggers to communicate.

The practice of worker-exploitation in the illegal logging industry appears widespread. While the inspectors were processing João and his colleagues, the team discovered another case and rescued seven more workers cutting down trees in slave labor-analogous conditions.

This time, the employer was Eudemberto Sampaio de Souza (no relation to Manoel Araújo de Sousa), owner of Betel sawmill, which was found responsible for labor crimes and required to pay compensation to its workers up to 50.000 reais ($15,800).

Sampaio de Souza, however, placed the blame squarely on the workers.

“We ask for the documents for each supposed employee,” he told Reporter Brasil. “They say that they’ve lost them, or don’t have them, or will see about it later. You ask for their name, they give you a nickname.

“Plenty are boozehounds, many are drug addicts. They are people who come out of states like Mato Grosso, Maranhão, Bahia, and Pernambuco. Nobody knows their story, nobody knows their past. Many times, by taking them out to work, it’s saving their lives.”

“Really scared”

Days later, still more workers showed up at the hotel where the labor inspectors were staying. This time, the reports were heavier, mentioning death threats and the hiring of hit men to intimidate workers.

“We came here, but we are scared. Really scared,” said one of the men who knocked on the inspectors’ hotel door. His face ticked nervously as he talked about how his boss hired a gunman after he tried to collect his payment.

“If the end of the month comes and a lot is owed, they will send someone out to kill you. I’ve seen that happen. It was inside the city itself. He came to collect and they shot him. There’s plenty more stories like that.”

Other workers also noted not being paid for the job, and then being threatened when attempting to collect upon what they were owed.

“It’s better to pay three thousand for a gunman than five or six thousand to an employee,” said another man, quoting his boss.

The entities that reportedly hired gunmen are currently under investigation, and their names could not be released at the time of publication in the interest of the investigation and for the safety of those involved.

While the definition of slave labor in Brazil extends beyond lack of payment, this group of workers only recognized their situation when they weren’t paid.

According to one of the men, “even today slavery hasn’t ended. It just modernized itself. Back in the day you would get beaten, nowadays you don’t. But you don’t get anything for all of your work.”

Another worker interviewed also alleged corruption of local authorities has had a role to play in illegal logging activities.

“The military police here is dangerous,” said one of the men. “They go to his sawmill and grab money, they grab wood, both the military and civil police. If any one of us turns one of them in to the police, it’s suicide.”

The workers also spoke of the total isolation of the logging camps and the impossibility of leaving them.

“On election day [2016 municipal elections], we spent five days out in the woods without food,” said one of the men who worked as a tractor driver. “They didn’t come out to get us to go vote, nobody came out.”

Another worker claims his employer forced him to remain on-site, and didn’t allow communication from the camp to the outside world.

“There isn’t even a way to go out and come back, because the boss won’t allow it. If you don’t stay in the forest for thirty days you lose the job. Only the boss will come over and pass along messages, see how things are. We only receive news,” said the man who has young children in the city of Uruará.

These complaints and the conditions discovered by investigations of logging camps have led to an ongoing investigation into slave labor in the logging sector.

Ministry of Labor prosecuting attorney Allan Bruno, who was also part of the operation, received the cases and sent them along to the federal attorney general’s office, which is investigating the possible crimes of withholding salary, threatening lives, as well as for environmental, landholding, and tax issues.

Auditor José Marcelino says labor inspectors are just beginning to understand how the illegal logging industry operates in the region. However, what is known is that it is a trade full of economic risk.

“Just cutting down the trees does not guarantee selling the wood,” Marcelino said. “And, since the entrepreneur doesn’t have adequate cash flow, he doesn’t meet the costs of paying the workers what they have the right to.”

This economic risk is coupled for the workers, who may have no choice but to resume working for these illegal operations. Even after receiving his compensation, João said he would go back into the woods, under the same conditions, if he could not arrange for other work in the following months.

*The names of the workers have been changed in an effort to avoid further violence as interviewees remain at risk.


By André Campos – Repórter Brasil

Products derived from timber extracted by workers living in conditions analogous to slave labor in Brazil are connected to a complex business network linked to the U.S. market – possibly reaching the shelves of large retailers and being used in renovation of landmarks.

After purchasing from suppliers held liable for that crime by the Brazilian government, local traders exported timber to companies like USFloors, which supplies the retail chain Lowe’s, as well as Timber Holdings, which supplied timber for construction projects at Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge in New York.

The commercial network linking retailers to sawmill companies was identified by a three-month investigation and confirmed by the companies. The wood products were mixed at Brazilian intermediaries, so the investigation was unable to track the exact destination of each piece of wood.

However, its findings reveal that large retail and construction groups are sourcing the product from companies whose supply chains are contaminated by the alleged use of criminal practices, with the conditions of workers rescued from sawmill sites aligning with slave labor practices as defined by Brazilian law.

Bonardi da Amazônia

The cases investigated by Repórter Brasil began at sawmill companies based in the state of Pará – an important hub for the timber industry in the Brazilian Amazon.

One of them is Bonardi da Amazônia, a sawmill company that recruited nine people who were rescued from conditions analogous to slave labor exploitation in October 2012. The workers were located by the Brazilian Ministry of Labor and Bonardi da Amazônia was formally held responsible for the crime.

The investigation found that workers slept in shacks in the forest at night, in makeshift facilities made of logs removed from the forest itself and covered with tarps, 110 kilometers (over 68 miles) from the nearest town.

There were no walls to protect them from the dangers of the forest such as snakes, scorpions and even jaguars. They bathed and washed their clothes in a stream shared with local animals; there was no bathroom. The workers had no formal contracts and told investigators they were paid based on their productivity.

Because of the degrading accommodation and hygiene conditions found by Labor Ministry inspectors, Bonardi da Amazônia was held responsible for using slave labor in accordance with the conditions for that crime outlined in the Brazilian Criminal Code.

Between August 2012 – two months before the crime was discovered – and July 2015, Repórter Brasil found Bonardi supplied timber to Tradelink Madeiras, a company belonging to the London-based Tradelink Group.

One of the companies that buys wood products from Tradelink is USFloors – a leading floor manufacturer for the North American market. Tradelink confirmed the commercial relationship by email and, in reply to Repórter Brasil, stated that field inspections were conducted at this supplier but no labor irregularities were found at Bonardi da Amazônia in June 2012. That is, the Bonardi site was visited by Tradelink employees four months before criminal activity was uncovered by labor inspectors.

In justification of its business dealings with a sawmill held responsible for slave labor practices, Tradelink maintains that Bonardi pledged to change its labor conditions.

According to Tradelink, the decision to continue purchasing from Bonardi was based on an agreement the company signed with the Ministério Público do Trabalho – an independent branch of Justice in Brazil.

When contacted by Repórter Brasil, Bonardi asserted that it met all authorities’ requirements.

Bonardi remained a supplier for Tradelink until July 2015, even after the sawmill was included in the government’s “transparency list” in March of that year. The list discloses the names of companies caught by the federal government engaging in working conditions analogous to slave labor.

Companies are included on the list after the Ministry of Labor completes an administrative procedure on the results of inspections, which guarantees the right of defense to those held responsible.

The “transparency list” is used by several companies that have formally committed to fighting slavery in their supply chains. It was disclosed by the Ministry of Labor at the request of Repórter Brasil and the Institute of the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labor (Inpacto) through the Access to Information Act.

USFloors and Lowe’s

Tradelink Madeiras’ products have international reach. In 2015, one of its clients in the United States was wood flooring producer USFloors. Its products have been sold by the retailer chain Lowe’s – the second-largest construction material chain in the U.S. Lowe’s has more than 1,700 stores in the country and also operates in Mexico and Canada.

USFloors confirmed by email that the timber purchased from Tradelink was subsequently sold to Lowe’s. However, both USFloors and Tradelink claim that this specific material did not come from Bonardi.

In its response to Repórter Brasil, Tradelink states that the timber sold to USFloors came from a different sawmill. A USFloors representative who responded to Repórter Brasil stood behind Tradelink.

“I personally went to Tradelink factory in Brazil and we felt that among other factories we visited, Tradelink was the only company with adequate procedures for due diligence to ensure compliance with local and international regulations,” said Philippe Erramuzpe, chief operating officer of USFloors.

He added that all of the company’s suppliers are required to “certify that the material is not harvested in violation of any local laws or requirements” (see USFloors’ full statement).

Repórter Brasil tried to contact Lowe’s by telephone and email several times, but the company did not respond.

Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park

Another regular client of Bonardi da Amazônia, from 2012 to the present day, is Ronardi Comercial Exportadora de Madeiras, a Brazilian trading company based in the state of Paraná.

Its clients include U.S. companies such as Timber Holdings USA, a wood flooring manufacturer that has supplied raw material for major urban projects such as the Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey, restoration of the Brooklyn Bridge, and construction projects in Central Park.

Many of these projects include the use of the Brazilian ipê, or Brazilian walnut (Handroanthus spp). With its colorful canopy, this tree stands out in the forest. But with a high value in the market, the ipê is ever more difficult to find in Brazil. It is the same type of timber that Timber Holdings purchased from Ronardi in 2016, and which Ronardi has also purchased from Bonardi.

In a statement obtained by Repórter Brasil, Ronardi stated it “vehemently repudiates any violation of labor laws.” The company says it requested clarification from Bonardi on the issue and reproduced the company’s statement in which Bonardi mentions to have improved working conditions and has no pending labor issues.

Repórter Brasil also contacted Timber Holdings. In its first response, sent by email, the company stated it purchased two containers of ipê flooring with papers saying that the timber came from Bonardi da Amazônia. In a later email, however, the company changed its response, stating that the timber acquired from Ronardi came from other sawmills.

“Our company is completely against any kind of slave labor and illegal timber trade, and it should be noted that Timber Holdings was one of the first companies in the world to invest in an outsourced audit for every shipment of timber imported from Brazil,” Timber Holdings said in its statement.

According to the U.S.-based importer, no shipment of timber is approved if a company with which it is dealing is listed on the Brazilian government’s “transparency list.” Timber Holdings stated it conforms to this standard at every stage of the supply chain, from the source to the direct seller.

Tramontina and Walmart

Another supply chain investigated by Repórter Brasil revealed links between slave labor exploitation and Tramontina, one of the largest manufacturers of kitchen utensils in Brazil. The group’s products are sold to the nation’s top retailers, including Brazilian Walmart stores.

The case begins with Madeireira Iller, a company held liable for using practices analogous to slave labor in December 2012. The Brazilian Ministry of Labor rescued 31 people who worked in the processing, cutting and transportation of native wood for the company, in the city of Santarém, Pará.

Workers were living in similar conditions as those in the Bonardi case and most other cases linked to slave labor in the industry: tarp or straw shacks with no walls, meals prepared below minimum hygiene standards, no toilet, and water taken from the local stream.

Although they worked in an occupation in which the risk of accidents is high, Madeireira Iller workers were not wearing protective equipment at the time of their rescue, had no formal contracts, and their earnings were based off their productivity.

They were not guaranteed the legal minimum wage – it all depended on the number of trees they harvested.

According to the Ministry of Labor, the company’s owner told 23 of the people working at the facility to flee and hide from inspectors, allegedly to avoid being caught committing violations. The inspectors’ account states the workers were forced to hide in the forest for five days.

Three years after the inspection, in 2015, Madeireira Iller was charged with environmental crimes and the company’s owners arrested. The government operation “Clean Wood” dismantled an operation allegedly engaging in illegal logging and land grabbing.

Madeireira Iller was fined over US$ 578,000 for having timber stored without proof of legal origin as well as for entering false information in the official forest control systems.

Repórter Brasil contacted Írio Luiz Orth, a member of the family that owns Madeireira Iller. According to labor inspectors, he was the primary representative in charge of the company’s administration when the slave labor case took place. However, Orth declined the request for an interview.

As with Tradelink and Bonardi, Tramontina’s press office stated that consultants personally assessed the supplier’s labor conditions in 2012 – the same year in which slave labor was found by the Ministry of Labor.

The company reports that an internal evaluation showed a reality that is quite different from the one observed by federal inspectors: “During visits by Tramontina’s staff, it was possible to see the existence of eating facilities, accommodations, uniforms and personal protective equipment.

In case there were workers in other places, the company was not aware of it,” the company said in a statement issued to Repórter Brasil.

Madeireira Iller continued supplying Tramontina until June 2015, according to Repórter Brasil’s investigation. The supplier was excluded only after it was found that it “probably processed timber from some legal projects and from other projects of dubious origin,” according to Tramontina’s statement.

Three months before that, however, Madeireira Iller had been included in the government’s slave labor “transparency list.”

When asked by Repórter Brasil if Tramontina used the “transparency list” when monitoring its suppliers, the company claimed that it does.

“We have always used it and will continue to use it,” said a company representative. Tramontina stated that from 2016 on, it started updating the records it provides for the de-accreditation of suppliers found to be involved in slave labor practices and environmental crimes every three months instead of the previously used six-month period.

Walmart, as well as two other retail groups in Brazil – Carrefour and Pão de Açúcar – have also pledged to restrict their business with companies included in the “transparency list.”

They are signatories of the Brazilian Pact to Eradicate Slave Labor, a multistakeholder initiative created 12 years ago advocating this kind of restriction. As the three of them are all Tramontina clients, Repórter Brasil asked for their stance on the case.

Carrefour says it rejects any form of labor similar to slavery or any practices that are not in accordance with environmental legislation. Walmart and Pão de Açúcar underscored that Tramontina had already taken steps to exclude Madeireira Iller from its supply chain.

André Campos is a reporter with Repórter Brasil. Translation by Roberto Cataldo Costa.


By Ana Aranha and João Diaz – Repórter Brasil

Miners in Ghana, fishers in Bangladesh and loggers in Brazil have two things in common: many are vulnerable workers often submitted to slave-like conditions while engaging in an activity destructive to forests, rivers and oceans. Another common element is that they often work extracting products destined for markets in Europe and the U.S.

“There’s always been a moral case to end slavery; now there is an environmental reason too,” says Kevin Bales in his latest book “Blood and Earth.”

Co-founder of the advocacy group Free the Slaves and professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham (UK), Bales gathered seven years of research to unveil a cross-border and cross-industry connection between labor rights and nature protection.

“The key thing is how some groups are operating illegally. People are under violent control in forests that are supposed to be protected,” he said in an interview with Reporter Brasil, using cases of illegal logging in the Brazilian Amazon as examples of the same system he saw operating in Africa and Asia.

Hiding out in illegality, small logging companies – which Bales refers to as slaveholders – are committing various crimes to extract resources at the lowest costs.

In this interview with Repórter Brasil, Bales discusses the fragile regulations that are failing to cut the flow of money between consumers and the networks facilitating human rights abuses and environmental destruction. And he tries to answer the toughest question: how to stop it.

Repórter Brasil: How are slavery and environmental destruction connected?

Kevin Bales: Environmental destruction creates enormous vulnerability, especially when we think about people who live in a greater harmony with the natural world. Those who work in agriculture, who live in cost lines, who are caught up in places where climate change and environmental destruction take the land out from under their feet.

Either literally disappears under the sea level rise or through erosion, deforestation and sometimes, there will be a project where someone is building a dam and there are areas that are going to be flooded and the poor people who live there will be pushed away.

That all just creates a lot of vulnerability. They are poor, roofless and maybe they are refugees. It creates [a] situation where people can be enslaved.

On the other side, people in slavery are being used, being forced to particularly cut down forests from protected forests all over the world. Slavery is the root of a significant part of environmental destruction, especially in terms of CO2 emissions.

Based on the deforestation rates and doing it very conservatively, we determined that if slavery were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of CO2 after China and the United States.

Repórter Brasil: What connects slavery in the logging sector in Brazil with realities such as Congo’s coltan mining or India’s shrimp farms?

Kevin Bales: One of the things that has happened in all these places is that environmental protections brought in laws and treaties, except virtually none of them actually have any sort of muscle in their protection.

They state: “This is a protected forest,” but no one is hired to protect it. When they do hire, you have cases like in Africa, where two men [on] one bicycle have to cover hundreds of thousands of kilometers of forest, while the criminals have helicopters, trucks, airplanes and whatever they need.

When you look in illegal logging in Brazil, it is happening in places where the forest is supposed to be protected. I appreciate that, at local level, that is an issue often controversial. Because some will claim: “we need to open these places up to development.” But the key thing is that people are working under violent control in forests that are supposed to be protected.

Repórter Brasil: You say that we can change this system by adopting small inconveniences, like paying attention to what we buy. But do we have enough information to make this choice?

Kevin Bales: In many cases no. Every day someone asks me: “How do I find out? Where is the list?” There are some lists available, and there is some research going on. But not as much as you need to be able to make these choices.

But we are getting there slowly; it’s a very difficult area to police and to research. Often the criminals are hiding behind “front” people. Even the people who are inspecting supply chains will find it difficult to penetrate down to the bottom level. And once criminals are exposed, they will move to a different supply chain. So it’s about constant vigilance.

But I do feel optimistic in that so many people are saying: “I want to know more, I want to find out,” and more and more organizations are working to make it possible.

Repórter Brasil: This interview is being published as part of a wider investigation, in which we discovered that sawmills held responsible for slavery in Brazil were connected to the supply chains of big brands in the U.S. The companies allege that the specific product is not the same as the one extracted by slave labor, but they do not open the tracking information. Shouldn’t this information be public?

Kevin Bales: Of course this should be public information. There is no way around that. If they are claiming that to be the case, they should be able to demonstrate it. Are you just supposed to take their word for it?

Repórter Brasil: There are also the certification groups that monitor the supply chain. But, in these cases, they failed. Who audits the audit companies?

Kevin Bales: There is not much auditing of auditing. There are few groups that are trying to promote ethical investments that will dig into this. We are in the beginnings of a period of time that can take 20 to 30 years as we work out precisely how to keep these things transparent and under control.

Repórter Brasil: What is the most effective regulation to ban products linked to slave labor?

Kevin Bales: The “Dirty List of Slave Labor” in Brazil, if it was done correctly [The “Dirty List” is a list of companies held responsible for slave labor, the publication of which is currently suspended by the Brazilian government]. I would like to see more countries using this system; it is very powerful.

Also, the system that was [introduced] in the state of California and now in the United Kingdom, where you require a certain transparency from very large companies. The law applies to companies that are above a certain size. These companies have to report, every year, what they are doing to both investigate and to remove slavery and trafficking from their supply chains.

It is a good place to start, but not a good place to finish, because that’s all they have to do: report. If they find slavery in their supply chain, they are not punished. That sounds maybe weak, but the reason we were able to pass that law in California is because business groups were willing to support a law that did not have penalties.

If they were able to talk freely about their problems instead of keeping them a secret, then they had an opportunity to come clean, everybody playing on a level field. That created a context where you could begin to open the whole thing for discussion and get people to start doing what needs to be done without feeling threatened.

The idea was to create a situation where they wouldn’t feel like they are just putting a gun to their heads. They were, in fact, having an opportunity to become visible, and begin to move in the direction of the next step.

Repórter Brasil: Do you see any real perspective of when this next step is?

Kevin Bales: Not exactly. Except that in a lot of countries people are debating slavery in supply chains. Some country is going to say: “reporting is not good enough, we are going to put a little bit more teeth into the law.” I think that these laws will simply continue to grow teeth overtime. But I would like it to be faster.

I have been following a bill that is aiming to put US$ 250 million into anti-slavery work: the Corker bill [End Modern Slavery Initiative Act, introduced by U.S. Senator Bob Corker, Tennessee]. [It is a] recent bill in the U.S. congress that is said to do that kind of remarkable investment in anti-slavery.

They [U.S. government] are going to allocate US$ 250 million over time, and expect other organizations and countries also to kick in. I know they have talked to the government of the UK, for example.

Repórter Brasil: Are there other international regulations that are already more effective in banning products connected to slavery?

Kevin Bales: I don’t know if I can point to someplace that is doing a great job. It’s interesting that in the United States they have a number of laws on the book and some of then go back to the 1930s that are very strong, but not necessarily understood to be enforced.

In most countries there are equations about jurisdiction, so they say: “we don’t want anything to be imported that has slavery,” but their jurisdiction does not reach to other countries – in the sense that they can’t go to other countries to inspect.

So they have to rely on businesses paying auditors. I am sorry to say it, but I feel like we are still in the early days here.

Repórter Brasil: Are the labor and the environmental policy-makers joining efforts?

Kevin Bales: They are beginning to join together. Some very senior people in the environmental world have said that, in the moment, the environmental movement can’t seem to move forward.

A lot of countries are beginning to turn against environmental protection, like the United States. We know that everyone is against slavery. Since slavery is being used to hurt the environment, then let’s focus on slavery and have a win-win protecting it from both directions.

The big thing that is missing in the entire solution is the role and resources of governments. It is a huge problem, but most governments devote virtually no resources to solving this.

It is as big as murder in many countries, where there are more people in slavery than are people getting murdered. But, for every 100 dollars spent to fight murder, they will spend 1 penny on slavery – or less.

This article appeared originally in Mongabay –


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