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Sugar Slaves: 1,108 freed, 14 in jail

July 2007

Much of the sweat that goes into cutting cane for sugar to eat and increasingly as a primary ingredient for ethanol comes from low-wage and slave (bonded) labor. This month, the Brazilian government freed 1,108 sugar cane cutters in the state of Pará in the Amazon region. In the western state of Mato Grosso, 14 farm workers from an ethanol producing plant were incarcerated for protesting the delay in payment of their salaries. The average salary of a sugar cane cutter is less than $ 300.00 per month.

It is worth noting that the labor used in sugar cane plantations are peasant farmers, indigenous peoples and Afro-Brazilians who cultivated the land before Portuguese colonization. Increasingly, land formerly used for food cultivation is now being used to produce “agrofuels,” more commonly and wrongfully called “biofuels”.

Bio in Latin means life. At this point, the industrial cultivation of sugar cane, soy and eucalyptus virtually represent the death of nature and people. Crops for fuel are not edible and its production has been supported by exploitation. Peasant farmers forced into wage labor have lost their livelihood and have watched the land that once produced food, now supply gas stations. The promised “development” based on the expansion of industrial agriculture is more like slavery, hunger and pollution, than life.

For starters, there were 6,075 registered cases of slavery in 2006 in Brazil. According to the report of the Land Pastoral Commission (CPT), 3,221 farm workers were freed last year, 127 of whom were minors. The current operation in Pará state is by far one of the largest operations in this decade.

The definition of slavery according to the 1926 Slavery Convention is “…the status and/or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised…”. Slaves cannot leave an owner, an employer or a territory without explicit permission. The workers freed in Brazil this month were tied to the farm because of debts accrued over the years as their “salary” cannot cover all costs of living or for the bus ticket back home. Also, in order to control escapees, it is the practice of some plantation owners to keep the workers under surveillance and threats of violence.

In Brazil, workers have the constitutional right to full benefits, including the right to organize and strike. With the scarce number of law enforcement officers to cover large portions of the national territory, many rural workers are forced to work under slavery conditions. On the other hand, companies involved in cases of slavery are well represented through lobbyists in the National Congress in Brazil. At least one senator and a house of representatives deputy have been found to be directed involved in slavery on their farms.

In a separate case, 14 farm workers have been in jail since June 23 waiting for a response from the Brazilian court to their habeas corpus. According to the Brazilian constitution, detainees in prosecution cases whose possible sentences are less than 2 years are assured the right of waiting for trial on bond. These workers were arrested for occupying the sugar mill installations and protesting the delay in the payment of their salaries.

After 30 days of detention, families are suffering doubly with their family members in jail and the lack of food and money to pay expenses. The Reporter Brasil website cites Laudeci Farias, wife of one of the detainees: “He is the one who brought the bread and butter to the table. There will be two months without any money coming in for our expenses. Thanks to my neighbors who have given us some rice and beans so we can get by”.

The prosecutor Alessandra Godoi justified the extended imprisonment of workers because “the majority of the incarcerated workers came from the state of Maranhão” and might try to escape from the prosecution process. According to Grassroots partner organizations in Brazil, workers from the Northeast region have migrated to the central plateau area to find jobs in the growing sugar cane and soybean operations. They migrate and leave behind family members because of the lack of land to grow food and sustain their families. Portraying workers and social movement members as criminals has unfortunately become a norm.

Members of the Brazilian government and National Congress need to address the chronic problem of slavery in agrofuels production.

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