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For Brazil’s Indigenous people, slavery born of colonization still hasn’t ended

  • Since Brazil began recording cases of workers found working in slavery-like conditions in 2004, 1,640 Indigenous people have been rescued from these situations.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 Indigenous people have been found working in these conditions.
  • Sugarcane harvesting, which a decade ago was the worst offender in terms of enslaved Indigenous laborers, has now been eclipsed by apple harvesting in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, where native peoples endure degrading work conditions.
  • Mato Grosso do Sul in Brazil’s south is the state where the most people have been rescued, but numbers of Indigenous slaves are rising in the Amazon in the north, especially at the illegal mines operating inside the Yanomami Indigenous Territory.

At least 1,640 Indigenous people have been rescued from slave-like work conditions in Brazil since 2004, or an average of 90 rescues every year over the past 18 years. That’s the key finding from a Mongabay analysis of official records, corroborated by interviews with labor inspectors.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic alone, 115 Indigenous workers have been rescued from modern slavery in Brazil, according to data from DETRAE, the division within the Ministry of the Economy responsible for tackling slave labor practices.

The data show that forced labor among Indigenous people is closely linked to the farming and cattle-ranching sectors: of the 303 Indigenous people rescued between 2010 and May 2022, 287 fell into the DETRAE category of “agricultural, forestry or fisheries workers.”

Of those rescued in 2022, 77% worked in farming and cattle ranching; 18% were migrant laborers (general helpers in agriculture, such as fence builders, bark peelers, weeders, etc.), and 5% were sex workers.

The Brazilian state with the highest number of Indigenous people subjected to forced labor is Mato Grosso do Sul. Lúcia Helena Rangel, an anthropologist with the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), says the main factor here is the historic process of expropriation of Indigenous lands for use by agribusiness.

“Historically, agribusiness has pushed Indigenous communities onto small pieces of land. Over the years, the situation has worsened as Indigenous populations have grown but their territories haven’t,” Rangel says.

A case in point is that of the Guarani-Kaiowá people. A report by the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous and traditional peoples, shows that the traditional territory of this group once covered 40,000 square kilometers (15,400 square miles). Today, their land is limited to 22 small villages on a sliver of land extending about 150 kilometers (90 miles) along the border of Mato Grosso do Sul and Paraguay.

“Without land, Indigenous people have neither a place to plant, nor food to eat. This means they have to work to earn money. Seasonal harvest work ends up being their only option,” Rangel says.

But the problem isn’t limited to Indigenous people in Mato Grosso do Sul. “Indigenous communities in many parts of the country, especially the South and Central West, are living under very precarious conditions, oftentimes alongside highways, because they have no demarcated territory,” Rangel says.

Mongabay reached out to Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, for comment on the data, but received no response.

Housing for Indigenous workers rescued from forced labor in Ponta Porã municipality, Mato Grosso do Sul state, in April 2022. Image courtesy of the Mato Gross do Sul State Labor Office.

Underreported problem

The records in the DETRAE database go back to 2003, the year when people rescued from slave labor became eligible for three months of unemployment benefits. And while the first official record of an Indigenous worker in forced labor appeared in 2004, the practice goes back earlier; DETRAE’s Special Mobile Monitoring Unit, which leads the raids to rescue enslaved workers, has been operating since 1995.

“We found Indigenous people working under these conditions during the unit’s second operation in 1995,” says Mauricio Krepsky, the head of DETRAE.

Reports from labor inspectors collected in a 2011 book on the fight against modern-day slavery in Brazil also refer to rescues of Indigenous people since the beginning of the project.

“During one operation in Mato Grosso, we arrived to inspect a farm and found many families of Indigenous people collecting Brachiaria [signal grass] seeds — manual work in which they were required to squat the entire day,” says one of the reports in the book, by a labor inspector named Mário Lorenzoni.

Lorenzoni goes on to describe how underaged Indigenous workers were also found working in inhumane conditions at the time. “One of the girls working there was 15 years old and had a 3-month-old baby … The father was 17. The baby’s mother had no milk and the farm was very isolated — the parents had to walk 30 kilometers [19 miles] to buy milk for the baby. So they were boiling beans and straining the broth to let the baby suck it through a sock. The child was dehydrated and vomiting quite a bit. We took that baby and another six workers needing medical attention to the hospital in the nearest town,” Lorenzoni’s report says.

The DETRAE data indicate there have been 627 such rescues since 2004. But according to Krepsky, the data only include those rescued workers who went on to receive unemployment benefit after they were rescued.

He also noted that Indigenous workers don’t always identify themselves as “Indigenous” when filling out the “ethnicity” field in official forms, nor do the labor inspectors.

Accounts from other labor inspectors also suggest the official numbers are low. “More than 1,000 Indigenous laborers were rescued at one time in one of the biggest inspections we ever carried out in Brazil,” says Antonio Parron, a labor inspector and expert on modern Indigenous slavery.

The operation in question was carried out on a sugarcane farm owned by the company Agrisul Agrícola Ltda. in the municipality of Brasilândia, in Mato Grosso do Sul, in 2007. There, officials rescued 1,011 Indigenous laborers. Images taken by the inspectors showed that the workers had no beds, no place to store their clothing, and no bathrooms in the overcrowded buildings where they lived. Instead of a toilet, they used a rusty chair with a hole in the seat.

Another reason for the underreporting of the number of Indigenous people working in slave-like conditions is the fact that, as a demographic, they are already subjected to a high degree of social vulnerability and invisibility, experts say.

“We find many Indigenous people without documentation, just an administrative birth certificate from Funai,” Parron says. “Without any personal documents and bank accounts, workers have no way to receive the benefits to which they have rights, nor do they have access to government programs.”

Rangel from CIMI says that in some cases the Indigenous workers don’t speak Portuguese very well, and are easily taken advantage of by farm recruiters. Known as “cats,” these recruiters are sent by farm owners into Indigenous villages to hire workers.

“Many don’t speak Portuguese, which makes it easier to exploit them,” Rangel says.

Living conditions for Indigenous people rescued in Ponta Porã, in Mato Grosso do Sul state, in April 2022. Image courtesy of the Mato Grosso do Sul State Labor Office.

Sugarcane, apples and mining

José Carlos Pacheco, president of the Mato Grosso do Sul State Indigenous Workers Association, points to another reason for the prevalence of modern Indigenous slavery in the state: until recently, most of the sugarcane harvesting in Mato Grosso do Sul was done manually — an activity that required a large labor force.

The mechanization of sugarcane harvest over the past decade failed to end the practice of Indigenous slavery, Pacheco says, because the workers ended up taking other jobs.

“Many Indigenous people in Mato Grosso do Sul need to leave their villages in search of work to be able to feed their families. They work the harvests, they collect rocks, harvest yucca, cut eucalyptus and work on cattle farms,” he says.

“We also receive repeated reports of Indigenous people working as slaves in the charcoal kilns in Mato Grosso and in Mato Grosso do Sul,” Rangel says.

The mechanization of the Mato Grosso do Sul sugarcane harvest also drove Indigenous laborers to seek work in other states, especially in Brazil’s south, where there’s high demand for workers in the apple harvest.

“They [Indigenous people] subject themselves to these conditions because there is no land ownership policy in the regions where they live,” a report from CIMI says. “Their territories have not been demarcated and they live under precarious conditions — no public sanitation, food production or legal structures. In general, they are people living in camps alongside the highways or on degraded land.”

According to CIMI, there are currently more than 13,000 Indigenous people working in the apple orchards under exhausting conditions. Shifts can last more than 12 hours a day, with pay at the minimum wage. (As of this year, the monthly minimum wage in Brazil is 1,212 reais, or $229.) Most of the Indigenous laborers are ethnic Kaingang people (who live in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná) and Terena and Guarani-Kaiowá people, who are from Mato Grosso do Sul.

CIMI doesn’t use the word “slavery” to identify the 13,000 apple harvest workers. Instead, it speaks of “exhausting workdays.” Brazil’s Penal Code defines slave labor as any activity falling into one of four categories: forced labor; exhausting workdays; degrading work conditions (for example, a lack of bathrooms and sanitary facilities or a lack of potable water during the workday or during rest times); and restrictions by any means of the worker’s mobility because of debt to the employer (for example, retention of documents or personal objects, geographic isolation, etc.)

Further north, in the Amazon, a study carried out this year by the Hutukara Yanomami Association found Indigenous Yanomami individuals drawn to work in illegal mines, where conditions are unhealthy, in exchange for food and clothing. Sexual exploitation of Indigenous girls also goes on inside these operations.

“We are seeing a general increase in employment of Indigenous people in situations equivalent to slavery and the practice of sexual exploitation of Indigenous girls,” Rangel says. “What is happening with the Yanomami is an even worse form of exploitation than what happens with seasonal work. In general, the mining sector treats the Indigenous population very poorly. We will only be able to understand how widely the Indigenous population has been enticed by mining a few years from now,” she adds.

A mining camp on the banks of the Rio Uraricoera, inside the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in the state of Roraima. Image courtesy of Bruno Kelly/HAY.

‘Treated like animals’

Parron, the labor inspector, says it’s common for Indigenous workers to be treated worse than their co-workers on the same farm. It’s also common for employers to force Indigenous people to hunt their own food to eat.

“We commonly arrive at a farm where the non-Indigenous workers — those who work directly with the cattle — are well-treated, while the Indigenous workers — who usually have general service jobs — are living in tarp tents in the middle of the forest and have to hunt their own food,” Parron says.

He adds that when questioned about this unequal treatment of Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers, employers most commonly respond that the former “like to live that way.”

“In 2021, we held an inspection at a soybean farm and found 24 Indigenous people housed in tarp structures in the middle of the forest,” Parron says. “It was rainy and the water was running through all the tents — the red mud was soaking into everything, including their mattresses and their clothing, which was kept on the ground. Extremely degrading conditions.

“Indigenous workers that we rescue are treated like animals on these farms,” he adds. “How could someone like to live that way?”

Parron says it’s also common for an Indigenous person rescued from slave-like working conditions to end up in a similar situation later on because of the dire living conditions that they face in their home villages.

“This year, we rescued a person whom we had rescued in 2017, stuck in almost exactly the same job, but on a different farm,” he says.

A history of Indigenous slavery

The invasion of Indigenous lands by non-Indigenous people was ratified by the Portuguese colonizers in this part of the world in 1530, when the possession of 20% of all the known territories were parceled out as hereditary fiefdoms known as captaincies. The other 80% of these territories were divided and conceded to third parties under the concessions system.

Aside from taking possession of the land, the members of the Portuguese aristocracy and cronies of the Portuguese king who were granted the concessions also earned the right to enslave the Indigenous people.

In later years, when the Bandeirantes — groups of slavers, explorers, adventurers and fortune hunters — were making incursions into Brazil’s interior between 1628 and 1632, more than 60,000 Guarani people were taken as slaves to the city of São Paulo.

Resistance to Indigenous slavery only began in 1758 because of a decree by the Marquis de Pombal, secretary of state for the Portuguese crown. Yet the same document made it a crime to speak Indigenous languages inside Brazil.

According to the 2010 census (the last one to count the Indigenous population; the results of the newest census will be published this year), there some 900,000 Indigenous people in Brazil — less than 0.5% of the total population.

Data from the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare show that there were 72,861 legally employed Indigenous people in Brazil in 2020 — 1,080 fewer than in 2019 and 7,554 fewer than in 2018.

Banner image: The village of Ypoi, located on Guarani-Kaiowá territory in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Image courtesy of Mídia Ninja.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on July 12, 2022.

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