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Where the Danwatch exposé on slavery in Brazil falls short

2016-03-08 Comments

Yesterday, we shared our perspective on the many ways in which this hard-hitting exposé on modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector hit the mark. Today, where it may miss the mark. Or at least, where it may leave readers wanting more.



Context: The scope of the problem

Yesterday we praised the journalism behind the Danwatch report—the ability of the researchers and writer to convey with accuracy and power a nuanced understanding of what modern slavery actually looks like on Brazil’s coffee farms. This critique is the flip side of the coin: Danwatch may have done excellent work at the farm level with its zoom lens, but its report may have benefited from some complementary wide-angle work.

We would have liked to see Danwatch contextualize its field reporting—give readers some sense of the scope of the problem. We have found that the labor conditions described by Danwatch are isolated within Brazil’s coffee sector, and not isolated to Brazil’s coffee sector.  Readers of the Danwatch report would not have come away with that understanding, which we believe is critically important to any fair treatment of this issue.


Perspective: How Brazil compares to other origins

Danwatch gives Brazil credit for reducing the incidence of child labor by half between 2003 and 2013, but in this context it feels like damnation by faint praise. At the very least, Danwatch fails to make these bigger points: that it was only able to generate its exposé because Brazil has sustained a tenacious campaign to eradicate slave labor for more than 20 years.  Because leaders in the country’s public and private sectors have worked tirelessly to adopt progressive policies, develop innovative programs and continuously improve operating procedures to better protect workers.  And because Brazil’s commitment to transparency runs as deep as its commitment to workers.  In other words, because Brazil is the good guy.  Again, it was hard to see how readers would have come away with that impression.

These first two shortcomings are mutually reinforcing. Readers are led to understand that Brazil has a coffee farmworker problem, instead of understanding that coffee has a farmworker problem and Brazil offers solutions to that problem, or at least, deeper protections to workers and clearer handles for industry action than any other coffee-growing country.


Recommendations: What can be done?

Finally, after reading about distressing conditions on Brazil’s coffee farms, we hoped for clear recommendations on what can be done to improve those conditions. Danwatch marshaled more than 50 pages of evidence and made a compelling case for action—we were ready to follow, but the report didn’t lead us anywhere.



As we write these words, a report we have co-authored with the Brazilian non-profit Repórter Brasil on modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector is in production, due to be published in April. (We reported the key findings from the research behind that report in this eight-part series on the Coffeelands blog in December 2015.) Our report may fall short of the high standard Danwatch sets for reporting, but does address the three issues we have identified here areas where the Danwatch exposé left us wanting more—context on the scope of the problem, perspective on Brazil’s framework for coffee farmworker protection, and recommendations for action in the public sector and the private sector, in Brazil and in the United States.

In the interest of fostering dialogue on an important issue in the world’s most important coffee origin, we would welcome comments and critiques from our colleagues at Danwatch on our report similar to the ones we have published here on theirs.



  • Thank you for your thorough review of Danwatch’s report. As you write, and as I also mention in the report, problems with debt bondage and slavery-like conditions are also present in other industries in Brazil and are not unique to the Brazilian coffee industry. Brazil is as you call it “the good guy”, which is also mentioned in Danwatch’s report where Luiz Machado from the ILO states that when it comes to combating forced labour and slavery-like conditions, Brazil is ahead of other countries in South and Central America. In the report Luiz Machado says:

    “Brazil has its limitations, but it is the only country that has a dirty list, an action plan, and regulatory inspections. However, the authorities cannot respond to every complaint because they lack personnel and resources.”

    Another very serious problem for coffee workers on Brazilian plantations is that it is legal to spray the coffee with pesticides that cause illness and are potentially lethal – and that are forbidden in the EU. Some of the pesticides are so toxic that merely getting them on your skin can kill you. Nevertheless, many workers spray the coffee bushes with pesticides without using the protective equipment that is required by law.

    I understand your wish for recommendations on what can be done to improve those conditions, but Danwatch is a media and research centre that conducts investigative journalism, showing how the commodities consumed in eg. Denmark are produced. We provide documentation and insight into how workers are treated and describe when human rights are violated. This is our expertise as journalists. We are not experts on giving recommendations on what can be done to change these very serious and challenging problems. This is where you and your colleagues come into the picture. So I am very happy, that you have co-authored a report on modern slavery in Brazil’s coffee sector with recommendations for action in the public sector and the private sector, in Brazil and in the United States, and I look forward to reading it.
    Julie Hjerl Hansen, Danwatch

    • Coffeelands says:


      Thank you for making time to comment here.

      Thanks, too, for pointing out the quote you attributed to Luiz. We did indeed highlight that passage in our reading, but wondered whether that lone passage buried deep in the middle of the report was enough to drive home to readers a message that might have gotten more emphasis or more prominent treatment.

      We appreciate you pointing out that in neither of our posts did we address the important issue of the evidence of systematic handling and application of hazardous agrochemicals by workers not appropriately outfitted for those tasks by their employers. This practice is deeply distressing, if not particularly unique to Brazil. As we read your account of people like Ronaldo, who applied pesticides regularly over many years without appropriate protection, we couldn’t stop thinking of what Pope Francis has written about our “throwaway culture,” which sometimes treats human beings as disposable items.

      We hope the recommendations we issue in our report do complement your report (and that they get a fraction of the attention that your report did)!

  • Julie Craves says:

    Your posts on this topic, as always, are thoughtful, nuanced, and insightful. I added links to them in my post on the Danwatch report (which focused on prior allegations of illegal/unethical sourcing by Nestlé). Thanks for your great posts!

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