Sexagenarian Augusto Miranda Brasão has been cutting piassava since the age of 12 to pay off debts to his bosses. This palm tree, with coarse fibres that are used to make brooms, has marked the life of Augusto as well as that of his brother, father and grandfather.
For 100 years, various generations of the Brasão family have lived under a criminal enterprise that binds thousands of indigenous workers on the upper and middle Rio Negro (Black River), in the state of Amazonas. The brothers live in the community of Malalahá.
Just like in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, the life of piassava workers is repeated in cycles and has a dose of magical realism. They are trapped in a world of exploitation, where work is confused with debt payment.
The working relationship is based on a system of loans provided by the bosses who control piassava production. For enough food to last a month, the bosses charge nearly 1,500 real (about US$475), though some items cost 300 per cent more than similar products sold in the towns.
A kilogram of piassava, meanwhile, is worth around R$2 (US$0.60). The workers receive whatever’s leftover, if anything, after deducting the rancho loans for food, transport and basic working equipment. From the amount paid at the end of the month, employers also withhold 20 per cent for potential impurities in the piassava. And, in some cases, another 10 per cent is deducted for the ‘rent’ of their place of work.
“The goal is to keep the piassava worker indebted and subordinate their whole life,” explains researcher Márcio Meira, former president of the National Indian Foundation (Funai), who has studied the cycle of bondage in the Amazon, a system known as aviamento.
The official name for this form of contemporary slavery, according to the Brazilian Criminal Code, is debt bondage.
Many piassava workers are the first to deny that their working conditions constitute slave labour. “What would happen if they reported it? How would they get back home with nothing? It’s a trap,” says Alexandre Arbex Valadares, a researcher at the Applied Economics Research Institute, a think-tank on public policy headquartered in Brasilia. He explains that once they start working under the aviamento system, workers have no choice but to survive and pay their debts.
These conditions, however, are viewed as normal by the piassava workers themselves. Augusto, who has been trapped in the system for 48 years, says he is free and that he only works when he wants. “Nobody here forces me to do anything,” he explains. When we interviewed him, Augusto and his brother had spent the entire day working to pay off a “little debt” of R$800 (US$253) with nearly a ton of piassava.
Cutting palm leaves in temperatures that can exceed 30˚C in the autumn and carrying 60 kilograms at a time on their backs is only half the day’s work. They are also required to cut, comb, trim and tie the fibres up into bales. “But we’re not slaves, like people say we are,” he insists.
More than a million in bondage
According to the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), 1.5 million people in Brazil are unable to leave their employment due to some kind of debt.
The person giving the orders in Malalahá is a man called Edson Mara Mendonça, but there are many others like him. A 59-year-old man from Bahia state who asked to remain anonymous, owes R$400 (US$127) to another boss in Malalahá. “I’ve got product to pay for, but first I have to buy some oil and gasoline from him to collect the fibres.” In other words, to pay the debt, the worker must first take on a new loan.
For another piassava worker, Alberto Neres da Silva, aged 41, bondage appears to have robbed him of his capacity for emotion. “I lost my children,” he explains calmly. Three of his six children died before their first year due to the precarious living conditions on the piassava plantations.
Many, like Neres da Silva, take their whole family upstream with them. This allows them to reduce food costs and avoid living apart for three weeks each month. But it also leaves women and children vulnerable to poisonous snake bites, malaria and Chagas disease. For the workers themselves, umbilical hernias, lower back pain and early rheumatism are also common occupational diseases.
The debt economy was introduced to Rio Negro communities during the rubber boom of the 19th century. In Malalahá, bondage has created a situation that is unusual to say the least. Twenty-eight-year-old piassava worker Olânio dos Santos Bento says that his 88-year-old father Olavo, himself a former piassava worker, is his boss.
Olânio’s debt was R$800 (US$253) but when he caught leishmaniasis, a disease caused by parasites, the pain prevented him from working and his debt accumulated.
“My father was a great boss. He had 60 men working for him,” he says with pride. Social mobility in the debt bondage chain is possible when a worker has the means of production, which is rare.
All across Amazonas, the pejorative expression “those who aren’t Indians” used by Olânio and Olavo, is a common way to refer to the Baré indigenous people, who are the main victims of this type of bonded labour in this area.
Like so many other indigenous groups, the Baré were persecuted in the early decades of the 20th century, facing illegal occupations, massacres, cultural violence embodied by the forced introduction of Catholicism, imprisonment and slavery. To survive, they concealed their own identity, losing their rituals and their native tongue. The strategy to disappear worked so well that Funai declared the group extinct. In 1990, the recovery of their identity began.
“The alliance of so many peoples around an indigenous issue is, above all, an alliance for survival. They undertook this process so they wouldn’t be decimated,” explains the anthropologist Camila Sobral Barra, who studies the Rio Negro for Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an indigenous peoples research body based in São Paulo.
The search for identity is associated with the search for land. Some indigenous associations, like Foirn (Federation of Indigenous Organisations of Rio Negro), argue that, with demarcated lands, indigenous autonomy increases. Many lands in the region are in this process. “With demarcation, the land returns to the indigenous peoples and stops generating profit for the piassava bosses, business people [from the agribusiness and mining sectors] and for politicians,” says Barra.
On the streets, in the courts
In 2013, the Cooperative of Piassava Workers from the Upper and Middle Rio Negro (COOPIAÇAMARIN), known locally as the association of bosses, organised an anti-demarcation march in the town of Barcelos. They used a report by the anthropologist Edward Luz as the basis for the march, even though the report was commissioned and eventually rejected by Funai for failing to give a voice to indigenous people. Luz is an evangelist from the New Tribes Mission Brazil, an organisation that was banned from indigenous communities in 1991 following accusations of child trafficking, slavery and sexual exploitation.
Four piassava workers told this reporter that COOPIAÇAMARIN had paid for them to travel downstream and join the anti-demarcation march. Nearly 1,000 people came together with signs stating, “I am a piassava worker, I exist” and cars with loudspeakers. Barcelos, a town of 25,000 inhabitants, was brought to a standstill.
The intention was to defend the interests of the bosses, but it had the opposite effect, particularly in drawing the attention of the Office of the Public Prosecutor for Labour Issues (MPT).
“We thought there were only a few extractivists and all of a sudden 1,000 were there in front of us,” says the MPT prosecutor Renan Bernardi Kalil. Contacted several times, COOPIAÇAMARIN could not be located for interview.
A year later between April and May 2014, prompted by the stories they heard at the demonstration, the MPT, the Ministry of Labour, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, the Federal Highway Police and the Army conducted a field raid. The action rescued 13 piassava workers in debt bondage to a man named Luiz Claudio Morais Rocha, popularly known as Carioca. He owned the Irajá Fibras Naturais da Amazônia company and one of his workers owed nearly R$20,000 (US$6,317), a debt that had accumulated over 13 years of bondage.
A final report concluded that the workers were living in conditions akin to slavery and identified 26 labour irregularities. The conditions were classified as debt bondage on account of illegal indebtedness and remuneration below the minimum wage – the same situation faced today by the piassava workers we interviewed.
A civil lawsuit was successfully filed against Carioca for the labour violations suffered by the piassava workers. However, criminal proceedings had a different outcome and in August 2017, Carioca was acquitted due to lack of evidence. This decision is currently under appeal.
Fear of freedom
Fear is the greatest tormentor of those who stay under the aviamento system, according to José Melgueiro de Jesus, aka Zezão, president of the Association of Communities of Rio Preto. “When I was a piassava worker, life was bad but I didn’t leave because I didn’t think I could survive any other way.” He glances at the river, where he left his past behind. “To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my wife.” Laudiceia Carvalho Balbino had been insisting for years that they make a change to their life.
The same water that trapped them set them free. Laudiceia recalls the day when Zezão was trying to control their canoe during a storm. Their two small children were hanging on by themselves because Laudiceia was holding their newborn baby.
The wind blew a branch that hit her on the head. The shock and the pain gave way to anger and she gave her husband an ultimatum. “I was crying, and I swore that we’d be able to live differently,” says Laudiceia, while cooking cassava flour in a clay oven.
“After I stopped working with piassava, I got to know my wife and children again,” says Zezão, talking about one invisible impact of bondage, in which men, through no choice of their own, become mere spectators of their own futures. Zezão and his family moved to Campinas do Rio Preto. They took a course in family farming and planted cassava on a piece of land 20 minutes by boat from the community. Their workday starts at dawn and ends in the late afternoon. It is hard work, but they have no regrets.
“People who plant don’t go hungry.” Today, they help their neighbours who are trying to get out of bondage by telling them about their own journey and giving them food.
But the cost of beating the debt bondage system has been high for Zezão, who is now a community leader in Campinas where he lives.
In May 2017, Foirn (an umbrella organisation of 89 associations and more than 35,000 indigenous peoples) held a meeting in the town with local leaders to talk about the demarcations. At the meeting, the Yanomami indigenous group accused Foirn and all those from Campinas of being enemies.
According to Zezão, the Yanomami think that demarcation will close off the rivers and prevent them from working. “But they didn’t dream that up. There are people behind all this. What they want is Indians fighting Indians,” says Foirn president Marivelton Barroso.
Even Mayor Araildo Mendes do Nascimento, say the residents, has given conflicting versions about the demarcations. In the community of Campinas, the mayor has promised to check on the progress of the demarcation processes. In the community of Malalahá, however, a different promise was made.
“[The mayor] told the minister not to sign,” says Olânio, of Malalahá, referring to a private conversation he said he had with the mayor, who is from the centre-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the same party as the former Justice Minister Osmar Serraglio and President Michel Temer. Serraglio, who has connections with agribusiness, has made countless statements critical of the demarcations. Despite numerous attempts, Mayor Nascimento could not be contacted for this article.
Barroso, aged 26, has been an activist for the indigenous cause since he was a teenager. Without hesitation, he calls the environmental agenda of President Temer a “setback” and accuses the government of negligence. He has the determined voice of someone who has already denounced the government in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and this, he says, has assured him a long list of enemies – from bosses to politicians. According to Barroso, demarcation will guarantee the autonomy of indigenous peoples in the production and sale of piassava.
On the upper and middle Rio Negro, for years whole families have been subjected to exploitation through debt bondage in the extraction of piassava. Although many still cannot understand – or admit – the violations they suffer, there is a growing movement that is eager to create, for the first time, a new beginning in the dark waters of the river.