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11 July 2010

Contemporary Slavery in Brazil: 1985 to 2009

Ricardo Resende Figueira

President of the Board of Directors of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights, priest and anthropologist, professor in the School of Social Service of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and Coordinator of the Contemporary Slave Labor Research Group of the Center for Public Policies on Human Rights of the same University.


In Brazil, 121 years after promulgation of the Golden Law, slavery, even if illegal, persists in a new form, with a new face. This is confirmed in rural and urban areas by several studies. Given the persistence of the problem, the paths to a solution seem overwhelming. But what are the well trodden roads taken to combat or eradicate contemporary slavery?

During the Dictatorship, the action of the State was irregular, without a national plan for combating the crime and even without formal recognition of its existence; the little that was done depended on sporadic actions by the Federal Police (PF). It is not without reason, then, that the anthropologist Neide Esterci stated, in her research in the 1960s, before the known claims made in the following decades by pastoral agents, such as Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, that “members of the Federal Police most often furnished information on these practices” (2004: p. 22).

Information on this crime is not news. Since the middle of the 19th century it has been possible to find someone writing about the subject (Davatz, 1980)
For claims preceding the 1960s, see Figueira e Prado (2008: p. 92-93).. Also, the fiscal auditors of the Regional Labor Courts, even on carefully indicating what they found on the farms and ranches – armed men intimidating workers, torture and assassination of persons, the debt system present at the worksite, degrading situations regarding housing and food – often concluded that they found no signs of slavery.

For example, at the beginning of the 1990s, in the municipality of Floresta, south of Pará state, workers who tried to escape from a ranch were captured by the police who intended to return them to their employer. In another case, the police found out that a worker had been murdered while escaping from slave labor, and buried the dead man. In spite of having found the victim’s documents, the death record only shows the word “Dog.”

Nevertheless, how are social pressure and the State’s response manifested since the New Republic? To better understand this, we will divide the period into three movements, with the understanding that these are not rigid and, at certain times, one period can overlap another. The division is as follows: a) 1985 through 1994; b) 1995 through 2002; c) 2003 through 2009.


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