Brazil: Slaves Freed From Biofuel Plantation

Authorities in Brazil say they freed over 1,000 workers who were being held captive as “debt slaves” at an ethanol producing sugarcane plantation.

The Brazilian Ministry of Justice said that police from the Mobile Verification Task Force freed 1,108 workers who were cutting sugarcane for 14 hours a day: from 3 a.m. until 5 p.m., with only a short break for lunch. Those who were in debt were “living in a horrifying condition in cramped shelters with poor sanitation.” Humberto Celio, co-ordinator of the Mobile Verification Task Force, told Agencia Brasil that many workers were sick due to spoiled food and contaminated water.  

Debt slavery is common in Brazil, especially in the ethanol trades, where laborers come from far away to work on plantations and are forced to pay high prices for the costs of living. Those who fall in debt are forced to work overtime or without pay to compensate.  

The 10,000 hectare plantation, located in Ulianopolis, a town in the state of Para in the Amazon region, is owned by Para Pastoril e Agricola SA. The company, which is the largest ethanol-producer in the country, has been in operation since 1969 and produces nearly 50 million liters of ethanol every year. The company denied that workers were in conditions of slavery. 

The Brazilian Ministry of Labor Ministry says that more than 21,000 laborers have been freed from slavery in Brazil in over a decade. Though this was the government agency’s biggest raid against debt slavery to date, estimates say that more than 25,000 to 40,000 laborers still live in slavery on ethanol producing plantations in Brazil.  

The biofuels “gold rush,” often touted as a “green” alternative to gasoline, has international corporations scrambling to see who can come out on top of the industry in Latin America.