For more than a year, Antonio slept with a wasp nest humming above his head – not in the open, but inside a small brick house on a farm a couple of hours from Brazil’s capital, Brasília.
Outside, a dozen charcoal kilns burned wood day and night, filling the air with smoke, next to piles of logs illegally cut from the endangered Cerrado biome, South America’s largest savanna.
Antonio, who asked for his real name not to be disclosed, worked feeding native trees into the kilns to make charcoal.
That fuel, used by steel mills and for the traditional Brazilian barbecue, has links to both labor rights abuses and environmental violations.
Antonio and several other men were hired in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais for jobs in center-west Goiás state where they were forced to work in conditions labor inspectors who found them in December described as “slavery-like”.
The two-bedroom house Antonio shared with five other men lacked electricity, clean water and a functioning bathroom. He worked from about 4 am until 10 pm, he said, while taking medication for depression.
The wasps were the least of his worries. “I suffered worse than this,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “(The wasps) won’t sting you if you don’t mess with them.”
Globally, the wood fuel sector is a substantial source of the greenhouse gases heating up the planet and is estimated to account for up to 7% of total emissions from human activity, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In 2015, Brazil was the world’s top producer of charcoal, the most recent available FAO data shows.
Brazil’s steel mills rely on charcoal, much of which is made from native forests, said Roberto Kishinami, energy coordinator at the Rio de Janeiro-based Institute for Climate and Society.
“We do not consider charcoal as sustainable because charcoal from reforestation and from native forests mix, and … there is no control process in the steel industry for it,” he said.
Instituto Aço Brasil, a steel mill association, said all the charcoal its members use comes from forests the mills grow for commercial purposes or from vetted third parties that are required to provide proof the charcoal was produced sustainably.
The body said these rules allow its members – which account for about 85% of Brazil’s steel – to make “carbon-neutral” steel, as the greenhouse gas emissions from their production are offset by the forests planted by the mills.
In addition to the climate cost of charcoal production and use, a human price is being paid, labor officials say.
Since 1995, about 2,830 people have been found working in slavery-like conditions at charcoal production sites in Brazil, with 2,080 of them using wood from native forests, according to data supplied by Mauricio Krepsky, the head of Brazil’s anti-slavery department DETRAE.
Beyond being an environmental infraction, deforestation for the charcoal industry is often linked to slave labor, he said.
While there is no hard data, at least 1,324 workers have been rescued from slavery while felling wood from native forests since 1995, according to DETRAE data.
Around 2004, Brazil’s steel sector tried to introduce self-regulation, as mills were increasingly concerned about buying charcoal produced with slave labor, said Mercia Silva of InPACTO, a supply chain-monitoring non-profit in Brazil.
They started an initiative to track where charcoal was purchased, and slavery cases fell. But a decade later, a crisis caused by tougher competition from Chinese-made steel put a stop to that effort, said Silva.
Meanwhile, the charcoal price increased, which led more farms to set up production sites. Some use eucalyptus wood they have planted or bought, while others burn native forests.
In 2021, about 40% more workers were rescued from charcoal production sites than in 2020, said Krepsky, who attributed the rise to the current high charcoal price.
This year, 66 workers were found in slavery-like conditions at just one site, something not seen for a decade, he added.
On December 6, labor inspectors from Brazil’s anti-slavery mobile enforcement group rescued Antonio and 11 other workers from three locations.
To reach them, officials spent hours traveling on muddy farm roads near the cities of Cristalina and Luziania in Goiás state. To access the first site, the inspectors had to take off their shoes and cross a stream.
They found workers living in a dilapidated brick building, where they covered holes in the walls with plastic bags to keep out scorpions and burned firewood inside to drive out mosquitoes.
At the third site, they found a 16-year-old helping with charcoal production, which is prohibited under Brazilian law. It was his first job, and he had stopped going to school to do it.
“I have to work. I don’t like to rely on my mom and dad,” said the teen, who is the oldest of three siblings and could not be named for legal reasons.
But it was the second site – where inspectors found Antonio and the wasp nest – that shocked even those with decades of experience, like Marcelo Campos, who led the operation.
“I’ve never seen anything like it – it (shows) complete neglect… Everything was wrong in that place,” said Campos, who determined that the men were being made to work as slaves.
In Brazil, slavery is defined as forced labor, but also covers debt bondage, degrading work conditions, long hours that pose a risk to health and any work that violates human dignity.
Finding illegally deforested wood being burned to produce charcoal is common, added Campos, who notified local environmental authorities of the discovery.
He is still investigating whether the charcoal found on the recent raids was being sold to steel mills.
Whenever workers are rescued in Brazil, they receive three months of unemployment insurance – 1,045 reais (US$ 187.68) per month. Labor prosecutors and public defenders also broker deals with employers to pay damages.
Antonio is expected to receive about 6,600 reais in compensation, according to public defender Marcos Teixeira.
Campos has referred the laborer to social workers, meanwhile, to get help for his depression.
Officials also aim to break the cycle of labor abuse. Inspector Shakti Prates Borela, who took a deposition from the 16-year-old youth, told him he could find legal work elsewhere.
The Brazilian state funds apprenticeship programs for adolescents aged 16 and above, she said, adding she could not guarantee him a spot but could sign him up.
For that, she noted, he would need to go back to school.
“Of course,” he replied with a smile.
COAL USE EXTENDED TO 2040
Brazil will continue to use and subsidize coal as an energy source until at least 2040, according to a so-called “just energy transition” law published recently, which policy experts said goes against the climate and consumers.
Broadly, “just transition” is a process aimed at ensuring the benefits of a green economy shift are shared widely, while supporting those who may lose out economically, whether nations, regions, industries, communities, workers or consumers.
But Brazil’s new law – far from promoting the adoption of climate-friendly clean fuels – benefits coal producers in southern Santa Catarina state by prolonging the activities of coal-based power plants in the region for a further 18 years.
Under previous policies, Brazilian subsidies for thermal coal-powered plants were supposed to end by 2027, and the authorization for three large plants in Santa Catarina to operate was meant to expire in 2025.
The new law reverses that, stating the government must buy, at a set cost, energy generated by a group of thermal plants in Santa Catarina. It mandates 80% of the energy be produced from coal mined in the region.
“This is bad news for consumers and the environment,” said Ricardo Baitelo, a project coordinator at the Institute of Energy and Environment (IEMA), a Brazilian non-profit.
Nearly half of Brazil’s electricity currently comes from renewables, including wind and hydropower, with the rest from planet-heating fossil fuels, government data shows.
Today, coal produces about 3% of all power in Brazil, noted Baitelo.
According to Abrace, an industry group of big energy users in Brazil, the new law will cost consumers an extra 840 million reais (US$ 147 million) per year because coal in the country is more expensive than clean energy like solar and wind.
When the bill was approved in the Senate on December 13, Abrace and other industry bodies wrote in an open letter to Congress that it was “on the wrong side of the movement towards energy transition, with significant environmental impact, extending inefficiency costs to all energy consumers.”
Santa Catarina politicians, however, celebrated the bill as a reprieve for the coal industry.
Its author, Senator Espiridião Amin, said in a social media post that Santa Catarina had made “an important achievement” as the bill “creates a policy to help the coal sector”.
The law is part of a recent trend of politicians interfering in national energy planning to benefit more expensive and polluting forms of power generation, said Baitelo.
Last year, a bill privatizing Brazil’s main power company, Eletrobras, mandated it should buy energy from natural gas power-plants in several regions for more than 15 years.
That will require Brazil to build new fossil fuel power plants, experts say, which would boost carbon emissions from the energy industry by at least 25%, according to an estimate by the IEMA.
Under the U.N. process to tackle climate change, Brazil has pledged to cut its total greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, and to become carbon neutral by 2050.
“(Electricity) was seen as a predictable sector, with clear rules,” said Baitelo. “But this is being subverted right now.”
While boosting market demand for coal, the law also establishes a “just energy transition council” to work on a plan to shift the Santa Catarina region away from coal.
The council, however, is set to be formed by government agencies, companies and unions that are all pro-coal, said Nelson Karam, a just transition project coordinator at DIEESE, a union body that works on labor statistics and research.
If all coal-related activity were to shut down in Brazil, DIEESE estimates that about 40,000 jobs would be lost. This would disproportionately impact some cities in Santa Catarina state where coal is still a big employer, said Karam.
Employment in the industry should decline anyhow because most processes are now mechanized, said Karam, who believes the law appropriates the concept of “just transition” to delay discussion of an effective move away from coal.
“A real just transition needs to be built … by presenting alternatives. There has to be a heavy investment in that,” he added.
Fabio Teixeira is the Brazilian trafficking and slavery correspondent for Thomson Reuters Foundation. He has worked for national newspaper O Globo and has a post-graduate degree in Investigative Journalism from the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism.
This article was produced by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit them at https://news.trust.org/