Volkswagen's slavery past before Brazilian justice

The premises of the Contemporary Forced Labor Research Laboratory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro are not very large and its walls are covered with bookshelves. Inside, books but above all binders, arranged by State and by year, meticulously gathered for more than forty years. Father Ricardo Rezende knows immediately where those concerning the German manufacturer Volkswagen are. In recent days, the phone of this religious and law professor has not stopped ringing. “I’ve been waiting for this hearing for forty years, so even if I’m fluy and tired, I’m happy,” he said.

Tuesday, June 14, the lawyers of the German manufacturer were to appear before the prosecutor in charge of the fight against modern slavery, Rafael Garcia Rodrigues, who was to notify them of the charges against the company. The alleged facts did not take place within the group’s factories in Brazil but on a farm in the south-east of the Amazon, which Volkswagen had acquired in 1973 as part of the “Amazonia” operation. This entirely military designation was in fact a development program for the region driven by the army.

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The junta had then set up tax rebates and public aid to attract private investors, both national and international. Volkswagen had set its sights on a property of 140,000 hectares: the Companhia do Vale do Rio Cristalino, in the locality of Santana do Araguaia, where very many workers were held against their will and without pay. “It is impossible to estimate their number, forty years after the events. But we found twenty workers and our investigation shows that Volkswagen was fully aware of the criminal practices that were taking place,” assures today Rafael Garcia Rodrigues.

Creating the “beef of the future”

In 2019, this prosecutor receives a visit from Father Rezende, armed with a heavy file built up for years. “Volkswagen had finally agreed to compensate the workers of its factories in Sao Paulo that it had delivered to the military junta. I thought it was time to take care of those of Cristalino”, says the monk. Cristalino should have been a model farm, socially irreproachable and technically at the forefront. “Volkswagen had the ambition to create the ‘beef of the future’: a breed adapted to the tropical climate. Livestock and fodder were controlled from the Zurich Polytechnic, Switzerland, and the University of Georgia, USA. Its president’s slogan at the time was ‘This world doesn’t just need cars, it needs meat,’” explains Antoine Acker, professor of history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva and author of the book Volkswagen in the Amazon (Cambridge University Press, 2017, untranslated).

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