25,000 rural workers live like slaves, Brazil church estimates

After Brazilian authorities raided a sugar plantation where more than 1,000 workers laboured in horrendous conditions, Brazil's Catholic Land Pastoral said that there are currently some 25,000 workers living in slave-like conditions in the nation.

Brazilian authorities said the labourers were found working 14 hour days cutting sugar cane for ethanol production, the International Herald Tribune reports.

Authorities said the raid was Brazil's biggest to date against debt slavery, a practice that lures poor labourers to remote spots, where they rack up debts to plantation owners who charge exorbitant prices for everything from food to transportation.

But the Amazon plantation's owner - the biggest ethanol producer in the northeastern state of Para - vigorously denied the charges on Tuesday and said the workers make good money by Brazilian standards.

The raid was in the remote town of Ulianopolis, the government-run Agencia Brasil news agency said late Monday. The company running the plantation said the government action started Friday and lasted three days.

Police found 1,108 poor workers working from 3 am until 5 pm with only a short break for lunch, Humberto Celio, coordinator of the Labor Ministry's special unit that frees debt slaves, told Agencia Brasil.

Many of them were sick because of spoiled food or unsafe water, slept in cramped quarters on hammocks and did not have proper sanitation facilities, Celio said.

The company, Para Pastoril e Agricola SA, has been in operation since 1969 and each year produces 50 million liters (13.2 million gallons) of ethanol, often billed as an environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline.

A Para Pastoril executive said allegations of abuse at the 10,000-hectare (24,700-acre) plantation are "totally false."

Brazil is a huge user of ethanol because eight out of every 10 new cars sold are "flex-fuel" models that run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of the two. Ethanol currently sells for about half the price of gasoline in Brazil.

Brazil is also a major ethanol exporter and is receiving billions of dollars (euros) of investment amid rising international demand for the alternative fuel.

Brazil's Labor Ministry has been monitoring farmers and ranchers with a group it calls the Mobile Verification Task Force, which conducted the raid on the Para state plantation.

Founded in 1995, the group says it has freed more than 21,000 workers from debt slave conditions at more than 1,600 farms across Brazil.

Brazil stages raid against debt slavery at Amazon sugar cane-ethanol plantation (International Herald Tribune, 3/7/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Amazon Rainforest (Wikipedia)
Catholic Bishops Conference of Brazil

"Five minutes to midnight" for Amazon, bishop warns (CathNews, 25/5/07)
Latin America "continent of hope", Benedict believes (CathNews, 14/5/07)
Green pope says save Amazon (14/5/07)
Five face trial in Brazil for nun's murder (CathNews, 31/7/05)
American nun assassinated in Brazil (CathNews, 14/2/05)

4 Jul 2007