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SÃO PAULO – Brazil’s Amazon region is seeing a rising tide of human trafficking, and the Church has been trying to raise awareness among vulnerable communities, but activists say it’s a battle of David against Goliath.

“There is a great connection between deforestation and human trafficking in the Amazon. The people employed in illegal logging and mining are most of the times suffering labor exploitation,” said Graziella Rocha, Project Coordinator at the Brazilian Association for the Defense of Women, Children and Youth (ASBRAD), a non-governmental organization that combats human trafficking.

Often, the organizations involved in the destruction of the rainforest also promote the sexual exploitation of young girls and boys trafficked from other regions, including from indigenous villages.

“There has been a terrible regression in the State system to deal with human trafficking over the past few years. In fact, public policies have been all dismantled – and that is certainly contributing to increase the problem,” Rocha said.

The chronically high rate of unemployment in Brazil and the lack of social protection for the poor, made worse after rightwing populist President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, has made it easier for human traffickers to entice victims with promises of paid jobs, she added.

In border areas, drug and gun trafficking usually involve human trafficking too, often for prostitution. On indigenous reservations, outsiders often try to obtain infants – seen as “exotic” – who are later sold for adoption, Rocha said.

The number of victims is unknown, since the State is often not fully present in indigenous areas.

“The role of the Bishops’ Conference has been important in that scenario. The Church is able to reach places where the State is not present. Many congregations and Church movements have been giving visibility to those problems,” she said.

Sister Roselei Bertoldo is part of Um Grito pela Vida (A Cry For Life), a Catholic movement that works to prevent human trafficking. She said that the number of cases reported to the group and to the authorities greatly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic – and has not gone down now as the health crisis subsided.

“People are unemployed and suffering with extreme poverty. The enticers take advantage of that situation, promising jobs or educational opportunities to them. They have well established networks,” she told Crux.

Bertoldo, who is also part of the Brazilian branch of the Latin American and Caribbean Ecclesiastic Network of Migration, Displacement, Asylum and Human Trafficking (known as Red Clamor), said that immigrants are often targeted by human traffickers in the Amazon.

“Groups of people who want to reach the United States usually cross the border between Brazil and Colombia in the Amazon. There have been many cases of extortion and human trafficking involving those people,” she said.

Venezuelan immigrants in the Amazonian State of Roraima have been lured by human traffickers with false promises of work or education in the south of the country – and end up being prostituted in cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

“I have heard many Venezuelan women say that they do not want to be prostitutes, that they only want to get a job,” Bertoldo said. Most cases are not investigated by the police, so underreporting is a big problem, she added.

Bertoldo said that the Brazilian Church has been increasing its involvement in the fight against human trafficking over the past few years. In 2016, the Bishops’ Conference created a special committee to deal with that problem, and since then a number of meetings have been organized in order to strengthen the Catholic support for victims.

“We have been focusing mainly on prevention, training pastoral agents to properly handle risky situations in their regions,” she said.

In October, the committee published a pamphlet to help train Church workers on the issue.

Francisco Alan Lima, another member of the committee, coordinates the Land Pastoral Commission (CPT) in the south of the Amazonian State of Pará. He has seen a growing number of cases of people brought to the region to work as slaves in illegal mining and logging operations.

“CPT visits the communities where those people come from and raise awareness on the perils of fanciful work opportunities presented by unknown people that include moving to other regions,” he told Crux.

The Church workers teach vulnerable people about the different forms of slave labor and how they can report them. Their effort includes talking about it to school children and training local leaders.

Lima said that 1,821 rural slave laborers have been rescued by the authorities since January, despite the fact the Bolsonaro administration underfunded governmental agencies that combat slave labor in the country.

“The public policies to struggle against slave labor are being kept despite the governmental boycott – due to the efforts of civil society. Budget cuts have been great lately,” he said.

With the election of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Lima and Bertoldo hope that the government will resume the programs to combat human trafficking that have been suspended by Bolsonaro.

“We need things to get better,” Bertoldo said.