Home Institution

Washington University in St Louis

Publication Date

Fall 2006

Program Name

Brazil: Culture, Development, and Social Justice


This research project addresses the reality of contemporary slavery in the Amazon of Maranhão. Through observations at the Center of Defense of Life and Human Rights (CDVDH) in the municipality of Açailândia, it gains a sense of the combat against the usage of slave labor today. Interviews with staff members at the Center and its Cooperative explain their objectives and methods in this struggle. In addition, interviews with former slaves allow for a deeper understanding of the day-to-day life of a modern slave. Over the course of three weeks of field research, the hypothesis of the gravity of slavery and the effectiveness, though on a small scale, of the CDVDH proved correct. It also came to my attention that those in the struggle are the highest authorities as to how to further improve the situation, so their suggestions are listed with recommendations to enact them. I found that Açailândia, located in the Amazon of Maranhão, is considered an area of conflict due to the contemporary clash between slave-owners and those combating the usage of slave labor. Its very existence is due to projects of industrial development on land that is falsely owned. In this context, the CDVDH operates, combating contemporary slavery, which has been its central line of action since its opening in 1996. The causes of modern slavery in the Amazon of Maranhão are misery, greed inherent in the capitalist system, and the impunity of the offenders. Until these causes are alleviated or solved, slave labor will continue to exist in this region. Slave labor in this region includes a combination of degrading conditions and treatment with a lack of payment and the inability to leave the location of work. The modern slave is treated like an animal in the way he is fed, housed, and worked to an extent not humanly possible. They often cannot escape due to armed guards, miles of wilderness separating the farm from civilization, and an honor code that binds them to an invented debt to the farmer. In order to eradicate contemporary slavery, three areas of combat have been identified by the CDVDH: prevention, repression, and the generation of alternatives. In the area of prevention, the CDVDH runs cultural activities for children to teach them about the existence of slave labor and their rich culture, as well as keep them off the streets where abduction, prostitution, and drugs are a harsh reality. They also hold neighborhood meetings in five different areas of high risk, which in a Freirian style, allows the citizens to participate in their own conscientização. In the area of repression, the CDVDH attends to former slaves who recount their stories to the social educator in hopes of receiving some form of compensation for their labor and moral damage. The social educator then sends the testimony to government agencies which enact investigations of the farms and carvoarias and begin the process of punishment. In the area of generation of alternatives, the CDVDH has initiated two cooperatives for former slaves or those at risk of being abducted into slavery: a toy workshop and an ecological coal factory. In order to further prevent slavery, my informants suggested a wider public education program, simply to pay the workers, agrarian reform, eradicating misery, and ensuring that the government makes combating slave labor a priority. From firsthand experience in a region where the combat of slave labor is as much of a reality of the persistence of slavery itself, it is apparent that the CDVDH has made a large impact on the community, but on a wider scale much more effort is necessary from other organizations, civil society, and the Brazilian government.


Inequality and Stratification


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