By Kevin G. Hall
BETHESDA, Md. - Products tainted by Brazilian slavery are finding their way into U.S. stores and homes more often despite the efforts of concerned trade groups, activists and consumers.
Some U.S. companies turn a blind eye in order to buy Brazilian products at the lower prices that slavery helps make possible. Other companies are like most Americans: ignorant about Brazilian slavery, let alone which of its exports are tainted by slavery or what to do about it.
Dealing with Brazilian slavery is tougher than the classic Nike boycott in 1997-8, which ended when the athletic shoe company moved to improve labor conditions at its Asian plants.
Slavery in Brazil raises more subtle questions, and they're harder to act on.
- Most Brazilian slaves clear Amazon jungle for cattle or soybeans for landowners who export them. Are U.S. companies that buy them tainted?
- Only a fraction of any Brazilian export bears any taint of slavery. Enslaved and "degraded" workers in the Amazon produce much of Brazil's charcoal, but not all of it. Companies in northern Brazil use the charcoal to make pig iron, most of which U.S. steel companies import.
What's their responsibility? And what's a U.S. consumer to do?
As Thomas Donaldson, a business ethics specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, put it: "If I am buying a car and the strut under the left wheel came from pig iron produced in Brazil, I can care but it is a caring that doesn't have a way of helping." Donaldson thinks U.S. companies can police their supply chains effectively if they choose. Indeed, some U.S. companies, such as Atlanta-based Home Depot, have stopped purchasing most wood products from Brazil unless they can be certified by independent auditors not to harm workers and the environment. Other companies Knight Ridder contacted said their contracts with suppliers barred illegal activities. But they appeared to exert little control over suppliers to ensure they weren't partners in environmental and labor crimes.
"We ultimately rely on our suppliers to abide by the terms of our contract and we rely on governments to enforce their laws," said Dorothy Brown Smith, a spokeswoman for Armstrong World Industries, based in Lancaster, Pa., which sells tropical hardwood floors under the brand names Hartco and Bruce.
Dan DiMicco, the president of Nucor Corp., based in Charlotte, N.C., said that if his company didn't import Brazilian pig iron, someone else would.
"It's a commodity traded openly on the world market, and no one company is going to be able to influence that situation," he said. Nucor, he added, can't be expected to police its suppliers to see if they benefit from slave labor.
"That is the responsibility of the people we do business with. If there are violations of laws at those companies, it's the responsibility of the legal entities involved to straighten it out," he said. Nucor imports more than 2 million tons of pig iron annually, much of it from Brazil.
Tommy Calvert, the chief of campaigns for the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, which fights contemporary slavery, wasn't impressed by Nucor's position. "This method of trying to put levels or barriers between themselves and subcontractors is becoming a patent tactic of industry," he said.
The International Labor Rights Fund, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group backed by organized labor, proposes a measure that isn't likely to get far in Congress: a federal law forcing corporations to reveal their supply chains. The possible role of slavery in a U.S. import "is virtually impossible (to know now) because there is no disclosure requirement on the packaging," said Terry Collingsworth, the fund's executive director. "There is a requirement to tell you how much sugar and carbohydrates are in there, but not slave labor."
Individual U.S. consumers can vote with their dollars on only one Brazilian product: Amazon rainforest hardwoods, used for floors, decks and docks. Exotic hardwood floors are the fastest-growing segment of the $1.87 billion-a-year U.S. flooring market. Jatoba, a Brazilian hardwood sold under the Americanized name of Brazilian cherry, accounts for 3 to 5 percent of U.S. hardwood-flooring sales, according to the National Wood Flooring Association in Chesterfield, Mo. Another Amazonian hardwood, ipe, is increasingly used for outdoor decks and docks. It's sometimes called Brazilian walnut.
Almost all of Brazil's $372 million in hardwood exports last year came from the Amazon state of Para, where slave labor and illegal deforestation are rampant. Slave labor sometimes cuts the trees; more often it clears land so loggers can get to trees and fell them. U.S. deck and flooring salesmen are unlikely to say that - and may not know it - leaving many concerned consumers at a loss or worse. Biomedical researcher Robert Kotin, for example, who works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., said that when he purchased his elegant Brazilian cherry floor, he asked about conditions at the lumber's source. He was told there was no problem. "We took them at their word," said Kotin, 48, who'd bought from Pennington Hardwoods of Sellersburg, Ind.
Owner Kevin Pennington said he was unaware of the problem of slavery in the Amazon. Anyway, it wouldn't touch his products, he said, because he buys only from companies in the south of Brazil, thousands of miles from the rainforest.
But his southern Brazilian supplier - Triangulo - later confirmed that its hardwoods come from the Amazon rainforest. "We're basically relying on the integrity of the company we are working with," Pennington responded. "Being such a small company we don't have the resources to police that and know whether they are telling us the truth."
Murilo Gramman, the company's export manager, said in a phone interview from Curitiba in southern Brazil that 80 percent of his wood came from property Triangulo owned, so he could be sure it wasn't tainted by slave labor. The other 20 percent, he said, comes from suppliers who have the required documentation.
"If I get the proper paperwork, why shouldn't I trust the supplier?" he asked.
There are several good reasons, said a top regional inspector for Brazil's natural resources agency, known by its Portuguese acronym, IBAMA, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. For one thing, IBAMA has only six inspectors to patrol a region as large as the states of Florida and Georgia combined.
For another, rainforest-lumber document fraud and forgery are rampant, he said. Asked what percentage of exported hardwoods are in some way illegal, he replied: "I would say 100 percent."
Nonetheless, BR-111, a Laurel, Md.-based distributor of exotic Brazilian flooring sold in Home Depot's high-end Expo Design Center stores nationwide, assures customers on its Web site that its Brazilian timber operations are "strictly monitored" by IBAMA. BR-111's marketing manager, Erica Biser, said her company relied on the assurances of its Brazilian supplier.
But Marcos Ducatti, forestry engineer for BR-111's Brazilian supplier, Indusparquet, based in Sao Paulo state, told Knight Ridder that Indusparquet has no auditing system to monitor its suppliers independently or make it aware of labor or environmental problems involving the wood it buys. The two companies have an exclusive supplier-distributor relationship.
Home Depot spokesman Jerry Shields didn't respond to repeated phone calls and e-mail messages asking how Expo Design Center sales of BR-111's products squared with Home Depot's position against buying Amazon hardwoods unless it was clear they'd been harvested properly.
Another big exporter of Brazilian tropical woods, Nordisk Timber Ltda., a subsidiary of Denmark's DLH Nordisk, boasts on its company Web site that it sells wood certified by the international Forest Stewardship Council, the most trusted guarantor that timber has been cut without slave labor. But less than 5 percent of what Nordisk exports is certified by the council, according to Flemming Schjaerff, Nordisk's Brazilian director.
In an interview at his office in Belem, Schjaerff said it was impossible to police the labor and environmental practices of his 150 Amazon suppliers.
"We cannot tell companies what to do; we do not have the authority for this," said Schjaerff, whose company has import operations in Greensboro, N.C.
Tim Keating, the executive director of the New York-based activist group Rainforest Relief, said companies needed only to check with Brazilian non-government organizations and their U.S. partners to gauge if they were contributing to slavery and environmental destruction.
"If you are doing business in the Amazon and you don't call up an NGO in this day and age, it is not due diligence," he said. U.S. companies, he added, "are taking a very, very easy route, shoveling the responsibility off to their suppliers. Are you at the mercy of your supplier? No, you actually are not."
At an Expo Design Center in Rockville, Md., a salesclerk looked baffled when she was asked whether the Brazilian cherry floors sold there might have come from slave labor or contributed to the deforestation of the Amazon.
"People cut down trees in other countries. It is not a problem," she said. Asked what a concerned consumer can do, she responded, "You'll have to do your research."
(Stella Hopkins of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this story from Charlotte.)