Brazil Faces Modern Slavery Allegations at Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

By Scruggs, Gregory | NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, March 18, 2016 | Go to article overview

Brazil Faces Modern Slavery Allegations at Inter-American Commission on Human Rights


Scruggs, Gregory, NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs


Following nearly two decades of alleging slavery-like conditions at a plantation in the Amazon, two human rights groups had their day in court last month, where they accused the Brazilian government of gross negligence.

Since 1998, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a legal NGO serving citizens of the Americas, and the Comissao Pastoral da Terra, a Catholic NGO serving the Brazilian Amazon, have filed formal complaints with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) about the Fazenda Brasil Verde, a privately-owned cattle ranch in Para. They have argued that the Brazilian government failed to prevent a case of modern slavery through forced labor, despite repeated visits by government authorities to assess conditions at the ranch. Lawyers for the Brazilian government have countered that there were "labor irregularities" but not slavery conditions on the plantation.

The case was finally heard on Feb. 18-19 in the IACHR courtroom in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was the first time the Inter-American Court of Human Rights formally addressed modern slavery since the judicial body was established in 1979. Three days before the hearings, Brazilian judge Roberto Caldas assumed the presidency of the court, but he did not participate in the proceedings.

The court is expected to hand down its decision in the second half of 2016. If the judges rule in favor of the plaintiffs, the Brazilian government will be expected to launch a full-scale investigation of the Fazenda Brasil Verde. The government will also be compelled to pay compensation to victims and search for the remains of six workers who died or disappeared on the plantation. Finally, Brasilia will also be expected to adopt stronger legislation to prevent future incidents.

'Exploitative labor system'

In a 65-page IACHR brief from 2011, CEJIL and Comissao Pastoral da Terra accuse Brazil of violating the American Convention on Human Rights and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. Specifically, the brief alleges that an exploitative labor system operates through rural Brazil, whereby young men, usually of African ancestry and/or from the country's poorer states, are recruited for manual labor only to discover, upon arrival, that they have incurred debts for their transport to the work site. They subsequently must work to pay off these debts, but their wages are lower than the supposed interest on their debt, which makes effective repayment impossible.

The brief further says that overseers on farms and ranches that use such practices employ intimidation, including death threats, to impede workers from quitting or otherwise leaving the plantation. And it claims that Fazenda Brasil Verde has regularly engaged in this practice since 1988, in violation of Brazilian labor law, in order to operate its 8,544 hectares (1,780 acres). The brief also points out that in 1989, two adolescent workers on the ranch, Iron Canuto da Silva and Luis Ferreira da Cruz, were reported missing, but the Policia Federal presumed that they had fled the premises and declined to launch an investigation. Complaints were made in 1988 and 1992, but according to the brief, criminal charges were not filed until 1997, and the legal proceedings against Fazenda Brasil Verde were halted in 2008 due to a lack of resources (NotiSur, Jan, 22, 1992, March 16, 1993, and Sept. 17, 2004).

According to the brief, the Ministerio Publico called a 1992 investigation--launched in response to a complaint about labor conditions--"ineffective." On repeated visits to the ranch since 1989, federal authorities reportedly observed similar conditions but did not issue punitive sanctions or take other corrective measures.

Brazil responds

In the same brief, lawyers for the Brazilian government make the case that the actions of a private landowner cannot render a sovereign nation in violation of the hemisphere's human rights convention or declaration. …

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