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How You Can Help Free Slaves in Brazil

Leonardo Sakamoto is founder and president of Repórter Brasil, a journalism and education project he founded in 2001 to expose and denounce human rights violations of rural workers in Brazil. During the past decade, the nonprofit organization has investigated slavery and human trafficking in the South American country.

Leonardo Sakamoto

Leonardo Sakamoto is founder and president of Repórter Brasil, a journalism and education project launched in 2001 to expose and denounce human rights violations of rural workers in Brazil. Photo courtesy of Leonardo Sakamoto

One of the main obstacles to eradicating slavery today, though, is a lack of awareness. Catholic Relief Services is partnering with Repórter Brasil in "Slavery, no way!"—an educational campaign to raise awareness about how free people are trapped into slavery and how to get them out.

Leonardo spoke to CRS' Alsy Acevedo about slavery, what causes it and how everyone can take part in stopping it.

What is slavery and how is it different from slavery during the 16th to the 19th centuries in Brazil?

There are many differences. Slavery was legal in Brazil until 1888. Nowadays, it is illegal, but still exists.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, acquiring slaves was costly; you could estimate a person's wealth by the number of slaves he owned. Ethnicity also played a role in slavery: Africans, indigenous people and their descendants were subject to slavery. Slavery was often, in effect, hereditary.

In modern slavery, people are not purchased. In fact, sometimes the only expense the employer has is the transportation from the villages to the place of work. It is a very lucrative model. People are disposable because there are so many unemployed; they can be easily replaced. These days, ethnicity is not relevant to becoming a slave. People who become slaves are poor people, no matter the color of their skin. Still, many of the modern-day slaves are of African descent because they tend to be poorer than white people in Brazil.

The common denominator between slavery from the 16th to the 19th centuries and today is the way order is kept: through threats, psychological violence, physical constraint, punishments and even assassinations.

What are the causes of slavery?

First, I want to point out that there is still slavery in virtually every country in the world.

In Brazil, the lack of opportunity to work the land, unemployment and insufficient income to support a family prompt rural workers to leave their towns in search of better jobs. Too often, rural workers are promised employment and recruited to work in other regions of the country. But once they arrive, they work for months without pay while accumulating debt.

What is Repórter Brasil's approach to slavery?

Repórter Brasil has two main components: journalism research and education. We have ongoing research in human rights, slavery, supply chains and the biofuel industry, just to name a few.

We identify the farms where people are in slavery, trace their labor through supply chains to national and international markets and press companies to address human rights concerns. Some companies have signed the Brazilian Pact to Eradicate Slave Labor after learning about slavery in their supply chains. By doing this, they agree to seek practical solutions to the problem of slave labor.

In terms of education, we have projects to fight slavery and create awareness in high-risk communities. One such campaign is Slavery, no way!

These initiatives have the support of CRS. The idea is to start actions that will result in the eradication of slave labor.

How does 'Slavery, no way!' work?

Slavery, no way! has very strong support from CRS. It started in 2004 as the first Brazilian national project to prevent slavery. Through the program, we've trained teachers and local leaders to fight slave labor in Brazil. We are in places where slave labor exists, and right now we have projects in 42 cities in six Brazilian states. This project is so beautiful because it teaches children to protect themselves from slavery. Children learn their rights. In 6 years, we've trained more than 2,000 teachers, and more than 100,000 people have benefited from the project.

How can people take action against slavery in Brazil?

If you're buying a product, ask the company what they are doing to fight slavery. Put pressure on the companies that have some connection with forms of slave labor through their supply chains. If everybody asks that question, sends one e-mail to the company asking it to sign agreements such as the Brazilian Pact to Eradicate Slave Labor, companies will feel the pressure to act.

Slave labor is used in more than 20 industries. That means there was slave labor at some point in their supply chains. Since 2003, we've identified the supply chains of more than 600 farms and charcoal camps. But because supply chains extend all over the globe, requiring the cooperation of many governments, it's not easy to shut down those chains.

The Brazilian government has put in place several initiatives to combat slave labor. Every 6 months, it updates a "dirty list" with the names of farmers and landowners who use slave labor. Companies on the list can't receive public funds and often are denied credit from private institutions. Repórter Brasil helped create a free tool to search this public database online. Anyone can access it.

Another example is the Brazilian Pact to Eradicate Slave Labor, which is an agreement to increase efforts to improve work relations in the supply chains. It has been signed by more than 150 companies that represent about 20 percent of the Brazilian gross domestic product, as well as nonprofit organizations like CRS that are committed to the eradication of slavery. Check the list online and give preference to the companies that signed the pact.

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

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