Of Soy, Slavery and Smoothies


Princess Isabella of Spain outlawed slavery in Brazil on May 13, 1888. And that would seem to be that. But it’s not. Raj Patel, in his book Stuffed and Starved, writes that there are somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 people enslaved in Brazil.

Though sugarcane and cattle ranches are known culprits, slavery happens on soy plantations, too. In 2003, the last year for which figures are cited, 4,932 slaves were freed from farms in Brazil – and that’s just the farms that were inspected.

As we saw in our last piece on soy, deforestation for biofuels, soy, sugar cane, cattle ranches, and other uses ruins the land that indigenous people once lived on. Combine that with massive inequalities in land ownership, and you have a recipe for slavery. As the rural poor are left with few options to make a living, they are vulnerable to promises of good jobs with decent wages on faraway plantations. What they find instead once they arrive is that they owe money for meals and transportation as well as their housing and clothing. The good wages they were promised never materialize and pretty soon they find themselves in debt bondage – stuck with no way home.

This article details some of the conditions workers endure on Brazil’s soy plantations. Workers often toil 7 days a week for more than 12 hours a day, without adequate shelter, toilets, or drinking water. They are exposed to pesticides and beaten if they try to leave. (Here’s a graphic that illustrates the problem geographically.)

This is tragic, but there is hope:

Brazil’s Landless Rural Worker’s Movement, or MST after its Portuguese name (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), is a huge and successful social movement comprised of rural farm laborers and peasant farmers ousted from land they once farmed. According to Patel’s book, in 2002 there were 5 million landless families in Brazil, with 150,000 camped out on the side of the road. The MST secures land for these families – land that they can live on, work, and begin to build a functional society upon.

Here’s how MST works: A group of people occupies unused land and works to build a society from scratch complete with farms, schools and clinics, while petitioning the government to win title to the land. After years of struggle, often violent, these groups sometimes do win title to the land.

Though some of the settlements are farmed collectively, the movement is built on democratic ideals with a highly egalitarian structure. Importantly, there is also a strong foundation in sustainable agriculture. One key tenet assures the rights of farmers to save their own seeds, which preserves biological diversity and ensures that the farmers don’t become dependent on companies like Monsanto.

Farmers on the settlements grow a variety of crops for local, human consumption and eschew the IMF and World Bank encouraged model of primarily growing cash crops for export, a practice that has led to food insecurity and famine in other developing countries. (Climate change is likely to reduce the demand for soy, incidentally.)

From the website of MST: Since 1985 the MST has won land titles for more than 350,000 families in 2,000 settlements. As a result of MST actions, and 180,000 encamped families currently await government recognition. Land occupations are rooted in the Brazilian Constitution, which says land that remains unproductive should be used for a “larger social function.”

Forget the smoothie. Put down that soy protein powder and look for Friday’s recipe using miso, one of the traditional, fermented soy products that are good for your heath.

Note: Slavery figures come from the International Labor Organization.

Image: Peter from Wellington

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.