Brazil Frees Nearly 3,000 Slaves

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Brazilian authorities rescued almost 3,000 people from conditions of slavery in 2012, as the country continues to strengthen its efforts to tackle the entrenched practice.

The freeing of 2,849 people, announced by the Labor Ministry on its website, represents an increase of 14.4 percent on the year before.

The Amazonian state of Para, where pig iron suppliers are known to use charcoal produced through forced labor, saw the greatest number of people freed – 563, of whom 150 were working for an iron producer. A total of 495 people were rescued from two other Amazonian states, Tocantins and Amazonas. In Parana state, also home to sub-tropical forest, 256 people were rescued, mostly from a sugarcane liquor plant.

Urban workers were also rescued – 239 in São Paulo state, 92 of whom were working in civil construction. 

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Brazil was the last country in the hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1888, and continues to have huge problems with forced labor. Estimates of the number of people working in slave-like conditions range between 25,000 and 40,000, typically on cattle ranches, sugarcane plantations, large farms producing corn, cotton, soy and charcoal, and in logging and mining, according to the US State Department. A Greenpeace investigation last year found car manufacturers Ford, GM and BMW were using pig iron (a major Brazilian export) made with charcoal obtained through slave labor and illegal logging in Para state.

The location of those freed last year indicates that forced labor in charcoal production is still in full swing – likewise the use of slaves in Amazonian cattle ranches and sugarcane plantations in south-central Brazil, where more than 90 percent of sugarcane is produced. The government has made important strides towards combating the practice, such as strengthening the penalties for employers found to be using slave labor to allow for the expropiation of land, and upping the number of rescue operations. However the State Department noted in its most recent Trafficking in Persons report that there are very few prosecutions of employers, and a 2011 study suggested those rescued represented only around 13 percent of the country’s total slaves.

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