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Priest struggles against modern slavery in Brazil

ON HIS 17th birthday, Jose Pereira decided to prove he could look after himself. He set out from his village of Rio Maria in the province of Para, in central Brazil, and reached town by nightfall. There he rented a room. The next morning, his landlord found him work on a local estate, owned by a politician, and he was taken there to begin clearing the forest.

But Jose realised this was no ordinary job. His wages went directly to the landlord in return for the night's lodging and his food. Then he discovered that several other workers, all, like him, in debt, had vanished. Seeing that there was no way out, he escaped at 3am with another young man.

The estates in Para cover around 250,000 acres. Hours after nightfall, a patrol of armed guards in the pay of the landowner, caught up with them. His friend was shot in the head and died instantly, but Jose, though hit in the neck by a bullet, was able to feign death. He was dumped near a village,

No doctor would look at him, but after he had dragged himself to the police, he was treated. He was persuaded to talk to the federal police. They listened, but waited a month before investigating. They visited the farm, and released 60 men from their 'bonded labour' - a form of slavery - but no one was arrested.

Father Ricardo Rezende, a Catholic priest who works for the Pastoral Land Commission, advocates for land reform, had persuaded Jose to tell his story. Fr Rezende is in London today to receive the Anti-Slavery Society's annual award, and to draw attention to what is happening on Brazil's farms.

The high rate of unemployment - 12 million people with no land, or too little to survive on - means, Fr Rezende says, that landowners have been able to perpetuate this system of bonded labour. Intermediaries promise generous wages to people desperate for work and have no trouble recruiting workers.

They are brought to the farm at night, so they do not know where they are. Some are 'sold' on to other farms. All wages go to pay off their 'debt' which is fixed so that it never shrinks. Escape is virtually impossible, for the surrounding forest is dense, tall, and dangerous. Those caught are flogged, or made to 'disappear'.

'We believe that there are as many as 60,000 people today working in this way,' says Fr Rezende. 'They cut sugar cane, clear forest for grazing, and keep it open once it's clear. Landowners employ former soldiers for their private armies.'

Between 1984 and 1991 1,684 people were murdered, either fleeing from the farms, or in land disputes. Southern Para, where Fr Rezende's parish lies, has the highest murder rate in Brazil, because it is in a large development area. No one, he says, has been prosecuted for these deaths, although the gunmen make no efforts to conceal themselves.

Fr Rezende, 41, devotes much time to human rights, earning numerous death threats. He was given a bodyguard, but only after a close friend, another priest, was shot dead. Rio Maria, says Fr Rezende, 'has earned a sad title: the 'town of death foretold'.'