Father Ricardo Rezende, 70, is a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who coordinates the research group on contemporary slave labor. In the eighties, he toured the estates of the State of Pará, in the Brazilian Amazon, advising farmers to organize and defend their rights. Brazil was a dictatorship and “that region was the epicenter of the agrarian conflict and slave labor,” explains the priest, who belonged to the Episcopal Conference’s land pastoral commission, over the phone. His were the first complaints that warned that in the so-called Volkswagen farm, a huge livestock farm owned by the German multinational, farmers suffered serious abuses. Many worked as slaves for debts that only increased. The testimonies and documents that the priest gathered four decades ago have served as the basis for the Brazilian Public Ministry to now initiate a process against the company.

Rezende says that the victims were laborers who had come to Pará from other states, poor people seduced by false promises of a well-paid job. The reality is that, to the debts contracted on the trip, others were added that were accumulating due to the abusive prices charged for the tools, boots, the rest of the supplies and food. They lived trapped, victims of a system that practically made it impossible to settle the account. It is what specialists call debt bondage.

“A worker tried to escape, but the gunmen caught him. As punishment, they kidnapped her wife and raped her. Another tried to run away and was shot in the leg. And another was tied up naked”, explained the prosecutor in the case, Rafael García, to France Presse. Others who reached the jungle in their flight were killed.

The Volkswagen farm was dedicated to raising cattle, occupied 140,000 hectares and employed hundreds of people. The Prosecutor’s Office now accuses Volkswagen of “serious human rights violations” that were allegedly perpetrated in the livestock farm, among which it details “the lack of treatment against malaria, the prohibition to leave the farm by armed guards or because of debts contracted, unhealthy accommodation and precarious food, “according to a statement. The Public Ministry has summoned the company on the 14th to a hearing in Brasilia in which the judicial body seeks that Volkswagen assume its responsibility and reach an agreement. The multinational has said, through a spokesman in Germany, that it takes the case “very seriously”.

A cowboy takes care of the cattle on the farm of the multinational that the Public Ministry is investigating for alleged abuses in the 1980s.
A cowboy takes care of the cattle on the farm of the multinational that the Public Ministry is investigating for alleged abuses in the 1980s. picture alliance (picture alliance via Getty Images)

The company, in tune with the weight of guilt that Germany carries from Nazism, has already examined its conscience about its complicity with the Brazilian dictatorship. Two years ago he admitted that he collaborated in the persecution of several leftist workers at his factory in São Paulo and compensated them.

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And what was Volkswagen doing raising cattle in the Amazon in the eighties? With projects like this, the company, which was the largest car manufacturer in Brazil, was contributing to the dictatorship’s effort to colonize and economically develop Pará, which is in the eastern Amazon and is twice the size of France. With generous tax exemptions, the military managed to get many companies installed.

That was a lawless territory, the scene of bloody conflicts over the possession and use of the land. “There were many murders, the atmosphere was very harsh,” explains the priest. “We couldn’t count on the police, the Judiciary or the Public Ministry, nor with civil society, nor with the press”, he says about the times of the military regime. For the generals, “the Catholic Church was communist, subversive. Our word was worth nothing in court.” Therefore, they worked cautiously. It was essential to impeccably document each complaint. Liberation theology was on the rise.

Pará remains hostile territory for human rights and environmental defenders. And fertile territory for agrarian conflicts and deforestation.

Although it was known as the Volkswagen estate, Rezende refers to it by its real name: Companhia Vale do Cristalino. He had heard many rumors about the atrocities that were taking place there until he got the first evidence. It was the testimony of three men who, with the excuse that they had been called up, managed to get permission to leave the farm. In total, they interviewed “about 16 survivors” and obtained documents that swelled several volumes. About 600 pages.

In 1983, Rezende made a public complaint and managed to get Volkswagen to agree to open the doors of the farm to a group of deputies. While the manager of the cattle farm, a Swiss man, was explaining to his lordship how modern everything was, a Brazilian worker appeared shouting for help. That only had an echo in the foreign press.

“While Volkswagen used slave labor in Pará, it paid historians to investigate whether it had used slave labor in World War II, recognized its crimes and compensated the victims,” recalls Rezende. He, like a meticulous detective, continued to collect evidence. He was confident that one day “the social and political conditions would exist in Brazil for the complaint to prosper”, as had happened in Germany. So it was. Almost four decades later.

When the German multinational acknowledged its complicity with the Brazilian military regime, Rezende told himself that the time had come. His team traveled to Pará in search of survivors from the farm. They managed to locate several who were still alive and lucid. They were interviewed and their testimonies filmed. With the updated material, they went to the Public Ministry, which listened to them. The accusation against Volkswagen, published last weekend by German media, has also made headlines in Brazil. It’s been a long time since the farm was sold. Only the ruins remain.

The last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, 134 years ago, is shaken from time to time by lurid cases, such as that of Doña Maria, who worked as a maid for 72 years without pay or vacations in Rio de Janeiro.

In the 1980s, Rezende had no plans to end up as a university professor specializing in contemporary slave labor. Volkswagen’s is one of hundreds of folders that he treasures, one for each farm where he suspects serious abuse.

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