Volkswagen do Brasil faces its dark days in Amazon – DW – 06/13/2022

Volkswagen do Brasil faces its dark days in Amazon – DW – 06/13/2022

“Volkswagen’s Brazilian subsidiary is responsible for serious human rights violations and heinous crimes,” Brazilian prosecutor Rafael Garcia Rodrigues told German public broadcaster ARD. “We are sure that Volkswagen will recognize its responsibility and that an agreement will be reached so that the workers at that time will be compensated.”

Garcia has been coordinating an investigation into modern slavery throughout Brazil since 2015. And the Ministry of Public Works (MPT) summoned Volkswagen representatives in Brazil for the first time for a hearing this Tuesday (14/06), in Brasília. This is a possible out-of-court compensation settlement.

VW’s controversial agribusiness in Amazon

The investigation began during the Brazilian military government (1964-1985). At the invitation of the generals, Volkswagen bought 140,000 hectares of land in the Amazon region in 1973. Fazenda Vale do Rio Cristalino, known as “Fazenda Volkswagen”, in the municipality of Santana de Araguaia, in Pará, was to open a new home. business area for the group.

Is it a car manufacturer raising cows in the middle of the forest? What today seems like an extraordinary project was part of the national development strategy at that time. Volkswagen should contribute to the development of the Brazilian rainforest and not only earn money from them, but also follow the motto of the army “include not bring”.

Large parts of the property had to be cleared to make way for the Volkswagen ranch. To cut forests and pastures on the site, the farm hired “cats” – as the contractors were called – to hire temporary workers in remote villages in the region and transport them to the farm.

Brasilien Para l VW-Rinderfarm, Rinderzucht mit VW Logo
Volkswagen bought 140,000 hectares of land in Pará in 1973Photo: Wolfgang Weihs/photo association

“You must pay your debt”

But instead of the lucrative jobs they were promised, temporary workers were forced to work to pay off debts, were subjected to violence and threats, and were also prevented from leaving the area.

“In the farm you only bought food at a high price”, remembers former worker José Pereira. “When we cleared the first 100 hectares, we had a lot of debt with the labor employers. One of them said, ‘Do you want to leave? No! Now you have to pay your debts’.”

José Pereira and his colleagues are key witnesses in the investigation of the Ministry of Public Works (MPT) about Volkswagen. They say they were arrested after trying to escape, worked at gunpoint and even killed on the spot.

“If someone tried to run, the guards would follow him and shoot him,” Pereira says. “They beat those who escaped. In the street, in the huts, everyone saw it.”

the priest recorded the abuse

The documents were presented to the Ministry of Public Works (MPT) by priest and professor Ricardo Rezende Figueira. At that time, Figueira was coordinator of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) for the region of Araguaia and Tocantins of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB). Because of his work, he frequently received death threats.

Figueira has documented several hundred cases. But nothing happened for more than 40 years. But when Volkswagen accepted its responsibility for human rights violations in Brazil during the military dictatorship and paid compensation to the victims in 2020, Figueira saw a new opportunity and entrusted all its resources to the Ministry of Labor Public (MPT).

On May 22, the Rio de Janeiro City Council granted Figueira honorary citizenship because of his commitment against modern slavery. The priest, who researches and teaches on the subject at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), is now known throughout Brazil.

Screenshot of Weltspiegel
Pereira in an interview with the program Weltspiegel, on the German TV ARD: “If someone tried to escape, the guards would come and shoot”Photo: ARD

Modern slavery still exists

Almost 40 years after the end of the military dictatorship, the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) is still fighting against the modern conditions of slave labor in the country.

“Modern slave labor is a reality in all Brazilian states, rural and urban,” the CPT said in a statement. “Since 1995, more than 58,000 people have been rescued from poor working conditions, debt slavery, forced labor and grueling hours.”

For former farm manager Friedrich Brügger, allegations of modern slavery on the Volkswagen farm are “pure nonsense”. Speaking to German public broadcaster Weltspiegel, he said: “This is nonsense. As if nothing is more important today than improving the past.”

A Swiss agronomist began managing the farm in 1974, where he stayed for 12 years. In 1986, Volkswagen sold the farm because the business was no longer profitable. Brügger returned to Switzerland after 40 years in Brazil.

“Things weren’t always right”

For him, “the responsibility of the company ends somewhere” and the situation should also be taken into account: “Things are not always smooth when there are more than 1,000 men in a place. That is clear. Especially in the middle of the jungle “. said Brugger.

At Volkswagen, the former manager’s comments have sparked nothing but enthusiasm. In a statement to DW, the company said: “We would like to point out that Mr Friedrich Brügger does not speak for Volkswagen and that his statements conflict with Volkswagen’s values.” The German international organization also said that it takes “extremely seriously the events described in Fazenda Vale do Rio Cristalino”.