Deep in the humid jungles of Brazil, unsuspecting citizens are being forced into a new kind of slavery. Illegal farms, ranches and work camps hidden within the world’s largest rainforest have trapped tens of thousands who work for little or no pay, with no way to escape their conditions. Those who signed on hoping for fair employment are told that they must work off “debts” for their room and board, and are separated from civilization by miles of Amazon jungle.
In 2003, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that approximately 25,000 Brazilians were working in conditions that mirrored slavery. In the years since there is no doubt that the numbers have increased. Though Brazil’s economy and standards of living have vastly improved in recent years, the Amazon region that spans over 1.5 million square miles remains largely outside the reach of the government. Land owners are the law in the area, and the government has struggled to find ways to combat these illegal operations.
“Over 40,000 workers have been rescued since 1995,” Luis Machado, head of the ILO’s unit to combat forced labor, told the Los Angeles Times. “But not one single person in the history of Brazil has been jailed for this crime. These men feel untouchable. They feel they are risking nothing by doing this.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her staff have said they are committed to combating the abuse of workers, along with the environmental issues brought on by illegal deforestation operations. At the same time, Rousseff has been criticized for courting a new bill that would remove some of the legal protection the Amazon currently enjoys.
Enforcing the current laws in the rainforest is an arduous task, as authorities must spend hours searching for illegal operations by air, before trying to map out a route to reach them by land. Machado admitted that the process has not been effective.
“The government simply can’t be going to every farm to check. The resources don’t exist,” he said. “So we rely on trying to pressure the government to punish proven offenders and educating potential victims about the risks of taking distant jobs they know little about.”
Each year about 500 workers are rescued from the camps and file complaints against their specific operations, but the government has taken little action.