Logging and slavery in the Amazon: The responsibility of Brazil and international trade

André Campos | Researcher, Reporter Brasil*

Logging is a major contributor of deforestation in the Americas and illegal extraction still occurs in an enormous share of the exploited areas. Much of these crimes take place on indigenous lands and within environmental protection territories, thus threatening the preservation of the Amazon’s wildlife and the survival of many traditional communities.

This is a relatively well-known and well-documented reality. Certainly, much more exposed than the lives of the men behind the chainsaws, who make a living by filling up trucks with precious logs. These workers, often described as cold criminals, are often subjected to contemporary forms of slavery while laboring at the very bottom of a complex supply chain, with many global ramifications.

Since 1995, when the Brazilian government acknowledged before the United Nations the persistence of modern slavery in the country, timber extraction is one of the key economic sectors where the problem has been identified. According to data from the Ministry of Labor and the Catholic’s Church Pastoral Land Commission, 931 extracting workers were rescued during federal inspections from 2003 to 2016. They surely account for a minor part of the problem, since many cases are never reported or inspected at all.

One of the reasons is that slave labor is almost always associated with illegal logging. For fear of being charged with environmental crimes, exploited victims rarely seek
authorities. 

But even when they do, inspectors must deal with sawmill owners’ “counter-intelligence” expertise to avoid investigation. When they realise that inspectors or the police are arriving in a region, they even use radio communication to disperse groups working in extraction areas.

Inside the forest, men and women are subjected to a tough routine, including months of isolation in precarious shacks with dirty floors and no walls. Risk of snake bites, and no access to clean water or decent food are commonplace. The payment is calculated based on the amount extracted, which encourages exhausting working hours. It is no surprise that many serious accidents, including amputation and crushing deaths, are linked to worker fatigue.

Worker’s testimonies also reveal situations where they are forced to remain on-site until the task is finished. Commonly they find themselves in isolated camps from where it is simply impossible to leave by your own means. Lack of payment after the job is done is also a common complaint – as well as death threats when people attempt to collect what they were owed by their employers.

Slavery hidden in wood exports

The sawmills who recruit these workers are usually small fish in a big business. Their role is to saw the trees into boards, planks or beams, which are then sold to larger Brazilian industries, which use this as raw material for producing higher value-added products – like decking. Much of this is sold overseas. Europe and the United States together account for more than half of the Amazon’s timber exports. Trading companies in these countries distribute timber products to local retailers, furniture makers, and construction sites.

With so many middlemen between workers and the final buyer, cases of forced labor might easily remain hidden along the way. But an investigation from Repórter Brasil revealed how major multinationals are at risk of having products derived from forced labour on their shelves. These multinationals had bought wood products from traders supplied by a fragmented network of industries, including sawmills officially caught using modern slavery by Brazilian inspectors.1

The global wood market has barely started to wake up to the problem. One first and basic step for dealing with it is developing traceability systems accounting for all the manufacturing steps of their products. This is particularly challenging in an industry operating largely under the shadows, where documentation fraud is widespread.

The illegal logging industry takes specific measures to ensure the timber they extract isn’t traced back to where it was harvested. When market-valuable trees are cut down in indigenous lands or protected areas, the logs are taken to sawmills on trucks without license plates. At the sawmill, the illegal origin is “laundered” with handling documents that change the harvest location to legal sites. That’s how not only environmental crimes, but also slavery, can be washed-out of global supply chains.

The Brazilian government dramatically fails to avoid this fraud on a large scale. From the companies’ perspective, this means that a different approach to sourcing policies is needed. Necessary steps include an independent tracking process of extracting areas, as well as establishing labor standards capable of reaching all of the supply chain, including workers inside the forest. For this to become a reality, importers must go beyond simply relying on information provided by their immediate supplier.

(*) André Campos is a researcher from Repórter Brasil, a Brazilian NGO who investigates modern slavery in global supply chains

Footnotes

1Repórter Brasil n.d., “Wood and Slavery”. Available from http://reporterbrasil.org.br/loggers. [18 April 2018].