Social Issues

Volkswagen facing legal action over rights abuses during Brazil dictatorship

By Carlos Meneses

Sao Paulo, Jun 2 (EFE).- Torture, hunger and forced labor at gunpoint in a remote area of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.

An investigation by the Federal Labor Prosecutor’s Office (MPT) has shined fresh light on severe rights violations committed at a large cattle ranch owned by German automaker Volkswagen during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

As part of the probe, prosecutors have collected depositions from victims who allege Fazenda Vale do Rio Cristalino, also known as Fazenda Volkswagen, was a place of rampant abuse located in Santana do Araguaia, a municipality in the northern state of Para.

Those survivors say hundreds of workers lived there during the 1970s and 1980s in degrading conditions and were subjected to extreme violence, including death threats, torture and even fatal beatings.

After many years of inaction, the MPT decided to launch a civil investigation and has summoned Volkswagen’s Brazilian unit for an initial hearing on June 14 in Brasilia with a view to reaching a settlement.

But why was one of the world’s leading automakers raising cattle in the Amazon?

In the early years of the military dictatorship, regime leaders – concerned about a purported foreign occupation of the Amazon – launched a plan to populate the region at any cost.

The dictatorship promised land to unemployed people and offered tax breaks, loans at negative interest rates and other investment incentives to businesses.

Volkswagen, which had operated in the country since the 1950s, seized on the opportunity and hired contractors to clear forest for a 140,000-hectare (540-square-mile) ranch that for many years was the largest in Para in terms of head of cattle, lead prosecutor Rafael Garcia Rodrigues told Efe.

Poor, illiterate workers were brought in with promises of a dream job that would quickly turn into a nightmare.

Ricardo Rezende, a Catholic priest who at that time was coordinator of the Catholic Church-linked Pastoral Land Commission for the Araguaia and Tocantins region, began receiving complaints of serious rights violations at the ranch from escaped workers.

Now coordinator of a research team on slave labor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, he gathered 600 pages of documentation on the so-called “Caso Volks.”

“If they demanded better conditions or tried to flee, they were “punished,” “tied to a tree and beaten for days,” Garcia Rodrigues said.

In a report compiled by prosecutors, they also documented one case of a worker who was tied up deep in the jungle “so a jaguar would eat him.”

Authorities estimate 300 employees were under contract but that hundreds of other people worked informally under inhuman conditions.

According to Garcia Rodrigues, top executives at Volkswagen were “fully aware” of the conditions at the ranch.

Rezene publicly denounced the alleged crimes in the 1980s but was ignored and the media at the time showed little interest in the matter.

But he continued to gather information until turning over his entire dossier to Garcia Rodrigues.

Volkswagen Brasil, which in 2017 already acknowledged cooperating closely with the dictatorship and providing it with “black lists” of politically suspect employees, said in a brief statement that it will “contribute to the investigations in a very serious manner.”

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