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Breaking the Cycle of Slavery in Brazil

Brother Xavier Plassat has been working to put an end to slavery in northern Brazil for more than 30 years. Freeing slaves is only part of the solution, he tells us. The only way to truly eradicate slavery is to provide laborers with alternatives, which is no easy task.

Brother Xavier Plassat

Brother Xavier Plassat. Photo by Jim Stipe/CRS

A Dominican friar, Brother Plassat coordinates the work of the Pastoral Land Commission, an organization of the Catholic bishops of Brazil formed to eradicate slavery in Brazil. With the support of Catholic Relief Services, the Pastoral Land Commission defends and promotes the rights of poor landless families and those who have escaped slavery.

Brother Plassat spoke to CRS' Alsy Acevedo about the cycle of slavery in Brazil and how he's working to break it.

How does the Pastoral Land Commission work to stop slavery?

The Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra, or CPT) was founded in 1975 to help rural families in the northeastern part of the country. Our expertise is in land reform. We knew rural families were expelled from the land where they lived and were the subject of threats and retaliation. But then we started receiving complaints from laborers running away from slavery.

That was 35 years ago, and it opened our eyes. We didn't know the reality of the situation at first. The next step was to advocate inside Brazil and outside the country, in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to get their attention on the slavery issue.

Are you making progress? Is the situation getting better?

At first, we were calling attention to this issue without much success. In the '80s and '90s, we were exposing slavery cases but also collecting very detailed information on these cases. That made it possible for us to approach Brazil's government with concrete numbers and ask for explanations. In 1995, Brazil acknowledged the reality of slavery. In 1997, we launched a campaign to educate people on how to avoid becoming a slave: Open Your Eyes: Don't Become a Slave.

Progress has been made in tracking the issue, investigating reported abuses and rescuing workers. Now there are stricter laws and industry agreements addressing slave labor, although we're still working on the implementation of those policies.

Once slaves are freed, then what?

Between 25,000 and 40,000 people in Brazil are held in slavery, where they are threatened, abused and degraded. On average, about 4,500 slaves are freed in Brazil each year. But freeing slaves is not sufficient. It does little to eradicate slavery. What I'm saying is that freeing slaves is just an emergency response, but it doesn't eradicate the roots of the problem. That's why we are working on a comprehensive approach to break the cycle.

The cycle starts with vulnerability, because people are landless and jobless. They are enticed to leave their region to work, and once they are far away from home they are forced to labor as slaves. Finally, they decide to escape or are rescued. But if they return to poverty and unemployment, the cycle can start again. We are pushing for investigation of the cases, punishment for the people responsible for this degrading treatment, decent jobs for former slaves and consolidation of these efforts through comprehensive laws and public policy.

The true way out of slavery is strong land reform that gives people who are landless the opportunity to stay in the regions where they are from and have access to work that provides them a livelihood. For example, there was a group of 40 people who were rescued from slavery and returned to their original region. There, we helped them get organized and negotiate with the local government so they could lease land. Now they have a co-op and are working the land together in a dignified manner that allows them to provide for their families.

Is that example part of the Social Mobilization Against Slave Labor in Brazil project?

Yes, it is just part of the project. CPT has a presence and representatives spread across 26 states of Brazil. It serves as a refuge for former slaves who escaped or who were rescued and who seek justice. We initiate the claims and take action on their cases. We also carry out prevention and outreach activities. Thanks to the support of Catholic Relief Services, we are multiplying our efforts.

The project focuses on three areas. The first is taking in former slaves, providing legal assistance, getting the victims medical treatment and enrolling them in school. Second, we are expanding the social mobilization and outreach efforts against slave labor, coordinating events and producing materials to raise awareness on slavery. Third, our ultimate goal is to influence the creation of new antislavery laws and public policies and create alternatives to slavery. We hope this 3-year plan will strengthen our national network and our ties in the communities, especially in remote areas where workers are more vulnerable.

What can people do to help abolish slavery?

Apart from contributing and supporting organizations that are working on this issue, people should be more aware of slavery and how it relates to their daily lives. We have to be more vigilant because, in some ways, we are all involved through the products we purchase and the politicians we support who are avoiding the issue.

As consumers—as citizens—we are part of the solution. What we decide to buy, who we decide to vote for, makes a difference.

Alsy Acevedo is a CRS communications officer covering Latin America and the Caribbean. She is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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