Brazilian poor used as slaves, bishop charges - number of landless slum-dwelling peasants exploited may be as many as 26,000 says Bishop Herbert Hermes

National Catholic Reporter,  Sept 19, 1997  by Pat Marrin

It is difficult to imagine things getting any worse for the millions of landless peasants who inhabit the infamous favelas, the squalid slums that ring many of Brazil's big cities.

But according to an American-born Brazilian bishop, the same peasants who were forced from their ancestral homesteads into the slums by rich landholders are now being lured by the thousands, with false promises of high wages, to come to Brazil's rugged interior to clear unclaimed land for cattle ranches. Eager volunteers are getting a one-way ticket into slavery, sickness, torture and, sometimes, death.

Bishop Herbert Hermes, a Kansas-born Benedictine monk who first went to Brazil in 1962 as part of the missionary outreach of St. Benedict's Abbey in Atchison, Kan., described the slave trade during a recent visit to the United States.

"They pile a whole bunch of them into trucks or old rattletrap buses, take them way into the interior, give them a lot of liquor to drink on the way so they don't know where they are going. They're all so happy with this possibility of becoming rich and supporting their families," Hermes said.

When they get there, they take away their documents and immediately present them with an outrageously high bill for their transportation, food and drink, and they're already in debt for the rest of their lives."

Once there, the workers can buy tools, food, clothing and medicines only at the company store at highly inflated prices, and they're perpetually in debt, Hermes said.

If they try to escape, they're hunted down like animals, tortured, sometimes killed. Those who have escaped and gone to the police have been turned right back to the landholders."

Another factor preventing many from considering escape is the machismo so deeply ingrained in Brazilian men, Hermes said. "Some of these men don't even think of escaping because they couldn't go back and face their friends and families and say, 'I'm a loser, I was taken in,' and they're sick, and have nothing to show for their time away."

Hermes, 64, has served in Brazil for 35 years -- as bishop of Cristalandia in the central state of Tocantins since 1990. He said the church's efforts have mostly gone into alerting the people in the favelas.

"Our campaign is to at least cut off the source, making the people aware. We tell them, 'Do not report to the police, but report to your parish priest, to the nuns, to your farm labor union.' Get the recruiters to come there to sign a written document stipulating the wages, how long workers are going to be there, where it is, who is the supposed owner of all this -- because they go away knowing nothing, just verbal promises of wages."

Hermes works with the Pastoral Land Commission, created by the Brazilian bishops in 1975 to address rural justice issues. Hermes said the commission has tracked instances of slave labor -- including one camp holding 1,500 men -- and has published its findings in newsletters on the Internet. Fliers distributed in the cities and the group's Web site on trabalho escravo (slave labor) include 1995 estimates of 26,000 slave workers. Hermes raid these figures will be updated soon. He has offered to translate the Web site from Portuguese into English. "The world should know about this," Hermes said.

Complaints to the Brazilian ministry of Labor and Justice have led to official investigations, but the camps are alerted, even through the police, and by the time the investigators arrive, the workers have been taken two days into the interior, the camps are empty and you can't prove anything," Hermes said.

"It is hard to find honest people on these commissions, because most of the politicians, congressmen, governors and cabinet ministers are wealthy and many of them are landholders, so they are not too interested in this," Hermes said.

One major frustration has been just getting so dramatic a human rights story publicized, Hermes said. The media in Brazil is controlled by the government and big money, so the Pastoral Land Commission learned to use the World Wide Web to leap over censorship to reach the outside world.

The power of the Internet was brought home to Hermes last April when he took part in a dramatic face-off between Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardosa and the leaders of a grassroots protest group that had walked from places all over Brazil, converging on the federal capital of Brasilia, to confront the government over the failure of its economic policies.

The two-month-long, 600-mile walk by 2,000 peasant farmers from nine regions arrived in the capital on April 17, attracting national attention and broad support. Hermes and two other Brazilian bishops, along with a dozen other high profile public figures representing every aspect of Brazilian culture, were invited to witness a meeting between the march leaders and Cardoso.

Hermes said the leaders told the president, "We have been all over Brazil talking with people in schools, mayors' offices, soccer stadiums, hospitals, getting a feel for Brazil. We wore out our shoes walking, and what we found in talking and getting the feeling, seeing, hearing everything, is misery, hunger, sickness, lack of schools, high unemployment and a general discontent with your economic policies."

Hermes said the president scolded the marchers for challenging the positive economic data he was receiving from his experts, told them they were either misinformed or in bad faith. Then the president complained about the use of the Internet to "dirty the image of Brazil", his own image and that of his economic policy. "I go to Poland to be honored as an intellectual," he said, "and the first thing they ask about is agrarian reform."

Hermes almost did not get into the meeting because he is an American. When one of the group leaders told the official that the American bishop had been in Brazil longer than the leader had been alive, Hermes was allowed into the meeting.

In 1995 the newly elected president promised the Brazilian bishops that the government would intensify its efforts to resettle the estimated five million displaced families. But the reforms themselves were rife with corruption, Hermes said. Wealthy landholders enriched themselves even further by selling worthless swamp and desert land to the government at inflated prices. Even where resettlement was possible, it was doomed from the start.

The government Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform was supposed to furnish resettled families with tools and food for a year, the time it would take to clear, plant and harvest," Hermes said. "But they didn't because they had spent all the money on the inflated cost of the land. Then they say, 'See, agrarian reform doesn't work. We put all these people there and they didn't stay.' Should they stay and starve?"

At their April assembly this year, the bishops criticized Cardoso for failing to reduce poverty and curb ongoing human rights abuses.

Church challenges to the Brazilian government on behalf of the poor have solid precedent in the decades since the bishops of Latin America met in 1968 in Medellin, Colombia, to proclaim a "preferential option for the poor." Pronouncements since have condemned the wide gap between rich and poor that has characterized much of the 500-year history of European settlement in the region. Brazil's response to the church's challenge has been agonizingly slow and marked by violence.

Hermes, whose stay in Brazil has spanned 20 years of military dictatorship, a decade of corrupt civilian governments and the terrible austerities imposed on Brazil's poor by foreign debt and capitalist economic policies, said he is proud of the role the church has played in Brazil's struggle for justice.

While he acknowledged that some of Brazil's 280 bishops are "not equally sensitive to the poor," Hermes said the church has been a steady voice for reform. "Mainly through various bishops and organizations, the church has started an annual process called the 'Outcry of the Excluded,'a series of meetings beginning at the parish level, then moving to diocesan, regional and national levels, ending in a nationwide protest every Sept. 7, Independence Day in Brazil.

"One of the purposes of these encounters at all levels is to help unite people, make them aware of their potential, of alternatives. It's not automatic, you have to keep pushing, because they've been stomped on so many times," Hermes said.

When [the poor] see the rich and powerful and the supposedly intelligent politicians shaking in their boots when they get united, they begin to see what power they do have," the bishop said.

Among Hermes' goals during this stateside trip are to increase his computer skills and find ways to improve his link to the Internet. Family members -- he is one of 10 children -- have been helping him. Web sites on the issue of slavery in Brazil can be accessed through the keyword trabalho escravo. Bishop Hermes' E-mail address for now is

COPYRIGHT 1997 National Catholic Reporter

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group