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Transparency Boosts Brazil's Fight to Tackle Modern Slavery on Coffee Farms

FILE - Red ripe coffee beans bloom on a plantation
FILE - Red ripe coffee beans bloom on a plantation

Poor Brazilians have been lured to coffee plantations with promises of good wages only to find themselves living in squalor and debt bondage, although the government has taken steps to name and shame farms involved in modern slavery, aid agencies said on Monday.

South America's largest country has made significant improvements in tackling forced labor in agriculture, with the Ministry of Labor publishing a "dirty list" of employers benefiting from modern slavery, said Michael Sheridan, director of the 'Coffeelands Program' of Catholic Relief Services.

Conditions "analogous to slavery" have been seen on some of the 15 farms flagged by Brazilian authorities, with armed guards preventing workers from leaving properties and laborers required to apply toxic chemicals without protective equipment, Sheridan said, citing Brazilian government data.

"Brazil is ahead of the curve when it comes to tackling slavery in supply chains," Sheridan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"There are some flaws in their [monitoring] programs, but Brazil is positioning its coffee companies to deliver the kind of transparency customers are demanding," he said after presenting a report on modern slavery in Brazil's coffee sector to U.S. business executives last week.

About 400 workers have been freed from slave-like conditions in Brazilian coffee plantations since 2002, Sheridan said, adding that total number of indentured farmers is likely far higher.

As the world's largest coffee producer, conditions on farms in Brazil face scrutiny from large, multinational firms and consumers around the world.

Two of the world's largest coffee firms, Nestle and Jacobs Douwe Egberts, admitted last month that Brazilian beans produced using slave labor may have ended up in their coffee, following reports from rights groups.

"Unfortunately, forced labor is an endemic problem in Brazil and no company sourcing coffee and other ingredients from the country can fully guarantee that it has completely removed forced labor practices or human rights abuses from its supply chain," Nestle said in a statement.

Despite problems in the industry, Brazil's government has been relatively transparent in publishing information on farms that have been caught abusing workers - unlike other coffee-exporting nations, Sheridan said.

This data allows for campaigners to better monitor the situation and suggest improvements, he said.

With Brazil's government in paralysis after President Dilma Rousseff lost a crucial impeachment vote in the lower house of Congress on Sunday, some observers worry that the fight against modern slavery will take a back seat to political wrangling.

"In the short-term, we are more likely to get more traction from the private sector than the public sector because of the political issues Brazil is dealing with," Sheridan said.

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