by Mario de Queiroz
(IPS) -- These are the faces of slavery in the early 21st century:
African, Latin American or eastern European women searching for a better life in the European Union. Children laboring in clothing and footwear factories in southeast Asia. Young single men who lack skills and training or even the ability to read and write.
Every year, between 500,000 and 700,000 women and children fall victim to human trafficking rings and are forced into sexual slavery, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), based in Geneva. Many of those who manage to escape later report that they were lured into the trap by friends or even relatives.
The fall of socialist governments in central and eastern Europe in the early 1990s led large numbers of women from these countries into lives of forced prostitution in the European Union (EU). Their ranks swelled even further as a consequence of the wars in the Balkan region between 1995 and 1999.
The IOM points to high rates of unemployment, large migration flows, and the effects of globalization, including the increase in "personal services" offered on the Internet, as among the factors that have contributed to this phenomenon.
In 2004, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) organized a series of activities and events to mark the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."
Brazil, a former Portuguese colony, is a case in point. Not only was it the destination for millions of slaves shipped from the coast of West Africa by Portugal, but it is still dogged by modern-day slavery.
At a conference in the Brazilian city of Curitiba, Brazilian parish priest Ricardo Rezende, who is active on behalf of landless peasant farmers, praised a decision adopted last year by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to create an interministerial commission to combat slave labor.
But the problem persists. "The 'gatos' (cats), the name given to the labor contractors hired by the 'fazendeiros' (large landowners), target areas plagued by drought and unemployment, and offer work clearing the jungle, promising health care and good wages," said Rezende. "They even give an 'advance' to persuade the workers to leave their families."
But "the next day they are told that they can only leave the estate once they have paid off their debts: the cost of transportation to the area, the liquor they drank on the journey, their meals and the advance. They are also told that they will have to buy their working tools and food in the plantation store.
"The debts are generally not paid off because the stipulated work period comes to an end, and the men are released without receiving any pay," he added.
The workers do not escape because "they are brought to these enormous estates late at night, when they are already drunk (from the liquor they are given on the journey), they don't know the way home, they have no relatives or friends there, and they are afraid of the humiliations (or outright abuses) suffered by those who are captured trying to run away," said the priest.
Discussing early attempts to fight slavery, Portuguese Professor Jose Moreira da Silva of the University of Minho in northern Portugal points out that one of the obstacles to eliminating the practice in Europe or the Americas was the fact that "there is nothing in the Bible that condemns the practice."
The biggest enemies of those who fought slavery "were found among the Christians, the great majority of whom approved of slavery," says Moreira da Silva.
For centuries, the slave trade was a source of inexhaustible wealth for Portugal. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, it was based on the direct capture of Africans in coastal regions, and on exchanges of Muslim prisoners of war seized by the Portuguese for African slaves from the interior provided by rival Arab chieftains.
The most valuable slaves were sent to Brazil. The rest of those who had been captured were quickly bought up by loyal British, French and Dutch clients, who either had the human "merchandise" delivered to their colonies or picked the slaves up from the Portuguese islands of Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe, the biggest slave markets of that era.
Between 1580 and 1640, Spain and Portugal formed part of the same kingdom, and the trasnsatlantic slave trade was dominated by the Portuguese.
A January 2002 essay by Portuguese writer Manuel L. Pontes, based in St. Louis, Mo., says the slave trade was an excellent way to obtain fast and easy profits.
In the name of God, Christianity provided the Portuguese with the right to piously "save" the souls of Africans in order to destroy their lives, despite the fact that Portugal never had any reason to declare war on the people of Africa, says Pontes.
The writer recalls that in the 16th century, Lisbon had a monopoly on trade based on the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which divided the world outside of Europe between Spain and Portugal. He also points out that the pope gave his blessing to the trade in slaves from West Africa, who began to be shipped to Europe itself before they were sent to Brazil.
In 1444, a Portuguese ship delivered 235 African slaves to a port in the southern Portuguese region of Algarve -- the start of a trade that would last more than three centuries.
Pontes points out that although slavery was not new in Europe, since it had already existed for centuries, the Treaty of Tordesillas gave it a whole new dimension in Portugal.
After1444, half a century before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, the capture of slaves in Africa had become so barbaric and inhumane that the countries involved themselves were forced to take measures to make the practice more humane, says Pontes.
The trade in human beings gradually became more organized, with the acceptance, support and protection of the kingdoms involved. At the same time, Portugal began to feel the competition of slave traders from France, Britain and the Netherlands, due to the discovery of new lands that had expanded their empires, which drove up the demand for more slaves.
Lisbon, however, continued to have a corner on a large part of the trade. Even today, small Portuguese forts known as "enterpostos" pay testimony to the horrors of the slave trade all along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, not only in the former Portuguese colonies.
In the enterpostos, the Africans captured or obtained in trade with the Arabs were bound together with wooden yokes fastened around their necks, with their hands tied behind their backs. Before they were shipped out, they were baptized by the bishop of Angola.
In 1550, Portuguese chronicler Cristov o de Oliveira reported that around 10,000 people, or 10 percent of the population of Lisbon, the richest city in Europe at the time, were slaves.
As the city grew, that proportion shrank, but in absolute terms, the number of blacks and mulattos in Lisbon grew to 30,000 in the early 18th century, and continued to grow until 1761, when Portugal abolished slavery.
But while Portugal and the rest of the countries around the world abolished slavery long ago, slave labor is still found in a number of countries, in the form of bonded and forced labor and even slavery by descent, notes Anti-Slavery International, one of the world's oldest human rights organizations.
December 7, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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