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Leonardo Sakamoto is combating slave labour through an innovative holistic approach which focuses on raising awareness and prevention-based activities with at-risk rural workers, while involving the private sector to take actions to inhibit the practice of this crime. Related problems such as deforestation are also taken into consideration and Leonardo’s approach has far reaching consequences.

This profile below was prepared when Leonardo Sakamoto was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


Leonardo Sakamoto is combating slave labour through an innovative holistic approach which focuses on raising awareness and prevention-based activities with at-risk rural workers, while involving the private sector to take actions to inhibit the practice of this crime. Related problems such as deforestation are also taken into consideration and Leonardo’s approach has far reaching consequences.


Leonardo recontextualizes the issue of slave labour, taking it out of the realm of the historical anti-slave movement and aligning it with modern-day worker’s rights in the agrarian expansion in Brazil. In doing so, he has hit upon an effective strategy: Approaching the problem at the market level—he has managed to engage the private sector in mapping the chain of products from farms known to practice slave labour (the names appear on a “laundry list” published by the Federal Government). As a result of his “mapping”, more than 160 large companies, national and international, are working to cancel their contracts with these suppliers, and signed the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour.

Leonardo believes the issue of slave labour is part of the labour and human rights movement. Since discourse related to slave labour is degrading, he has leveraged this to focus his strategies on communication and education. He has produced research, published reports, and collected data on the subject which has allowed him to disseminate information about slave labour and other critically related issues, such as deforestation, land reform, and the development of biofuel. In addition, he has developed capacity-building courses for teachers, adult literacy, and local community leaders in regions where there is a high incidence of slave worker enticement.

These strategies are the foundation of the organization Reporter Brazil, which informs and alerts Brazilian society, industry, and the consumer market about the existence of slave labour, its broader causes, and impacts. Today, Reporter Brazil is an essential reference for the media and national and international labour rights organs. Leonardo is replicating his work in other Latin American countries and works with the Congress and Federal Government preparing legislation related to labour crimes.


The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that worldwide, the number of people today in a situation of forced labour is at least 12.3 million, the highest numbers in Asia and the Pacific region, (77 percent of the total), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (11 percent). In Brazil, more than 25,000 rural workers are victims of bonded labour. This principally affects men between the ages of 18 and 40 who leave their homes and families due to the lack of employment opportunities and migrate to areas of agricultural expansion. To make escape difficult, the enticement of workers is carried out by agents (gatos–the nickname given to contractors working for farm owners) in locations far from the property where the enticed will be sent and forced to work. The regions of Brazil most affected are the North, Northeast, and Mid-West. Unemployed and without money the victims quickly run into debt with the transport contractors who supply food and accommodation. At the farms, the men must work for food and housing, though not earning a salary, they are perpetually indebted to their landlords. They live in extreme degradation, without minimal hygienic conditions, subject to intense difficulties and in some cases, surrounded by armed men.

One of the principal factors that serves to maintain the perpetuation of this perverse scheme is the lack of knowledge in Brazilian society about the existence of slave labour; the subject is rarely explored by the national media or debated in schools and universities. Also, misinformation is intimately related to another facet of the problem: The significance of slave labour. Many do not see themselves as enslaved since they “did not come from Africa and do not wear chains”, like slavery in Brazil until 1888. Due to a lack of understanding about worker’s rights—prevalent because the worker’s rights movement has failed to incorporate slave labour into its agenda—many accept their work conditions.

From another perspective and to make matters worse, farm owners do not see themselves as enslavers. This contributes to a rise in impunity and the lack of conscience among the population about the problem. Additionally, along the chain of production there are thousands of companies, national and international, the majority of whom are not aware of the existence of slave labour on the farms of their suppliers. This “chain” for companies is extensive, involving diverse suppliers and producers. When buying products, companies observe quality and price, leaving aside the social responsibility of their suppliers, who often benefit from a cruel and exploitative system

Other factors that favour the offenders in Brazil are impunity, extremely slow judicial proceedings, and the lack of coordination between government departments. The number of judicial proceedings that result in convictions is very low and while there are no accurate figures to date on the total of criminal convictions, the following example gives an idea of the scope of the problem. In 1999, while more than 600 people were rescued from conditions of forced labour by the Mobile Inspection Unit of the Ministry of Labour, only two people were registered, held responsible, and imprisoned for forced labour. More severe sanctions have not been presented and in the small number of cases where criminal conviction occurs, it results only in punishing middlemen, and not the owners of large farms or companies. Added to this scenario is the scarcity of people capable and specialized to work on the issue of slave labour. In Brazil, slave labour is intrinsically connected with other serious problems, such as deforestation and illegal land appropriation, which require specific, but not unrelated approaches.


Leonardo’s strategy focuses on three areas: Education, including the publishing of materials; media and communication, and the private sector. Besides generating differentiated information about slave labour and co-related crimes, the initiatives of Leonardo’s project in the area of education in particular are today a great differential of his work. Reporter Brazil created the program “Slavery, No Way!” which offers capacity-building courses to junior and high school  teachers, literacy instructors (both at 40 hours), and community leaders (at 27 hours) in regions where there is a high incidence of slave worker enticement. During the courses participants discuss not only slave labour and worker’s rights, but also broach themes related to their reality, such as environmental protection, agricultural reform, economic solidarity (employment and income generation), human rights and human trafficking. Throughout the courses, Reporter Brazil encourages the participants to prepare the projects so that members of the community define how the themes will be move forward and be discussed among the entire community.

To further stimulate community involvement, Reporter Brazil created an Award Slavery, No Way! To motivate teachers from municipalities that are beneficiaries of the Federal Government Program to Combat Slave Labour to facilitate local actions to mobilize the community around the prevention of the enticement of slave labour. This award has been bestowed in the states of Piaui, Maranhao, Para, Tocantins, Mato Grosso, and Bahia, and selects the best projects developed by teachers and their students to increase public awareness about the problem. Reporter Brazil provides the initial funds to develop the project for one year and urges local authorities to get involved to continue it.

In partnership with the Ministry of Education and Culture, Leonardo also produces almanacs and primers which have been distributed to 42,000 teachers and literacy instructors in diverse regions of the country. Since 2004, the program Slavery, No Way! has been active in 33 cities in the states of Maranhao, Tocantins, Mato Grosso, Piaui, Para, and Bahia and in 2008, 2,500 teachers and community leaders were trained in the program. Leonardo will reach 12 cities in 2009.

Reporter Brazil has also led media and public opinion debates on the subject of slave labour since 2001, and in 2006 launched the first and only News Agency On Slave Labour. To make reach rural workers, the agency prepares weekly five-minute bulletins using simple language, specifically designed to air on community radio. Approximately 25,000 workers listen to the bulletins and they want to reach 30,000 to 50,000 listeners. Daily, the agency conveys information about the rescues of workers, developments in combating slave labour, progress in judicial processes, and the preparation of legislation. It also includes information about the living conditions of rural workers, agricultural reform, monitors the actions for and against the eradication of slave labour, and divulges the names of landowners, politicians, and companies profiting from this practice.

The agency also makes audio materials available for download on the internet, principally interviews, statements of jurists, and testimonies of victims, which are used by radio stations and video channels, such as “TV Reporter Brazil”. Listeners and viewers can send doubts regarding workers rights and these are then clarified in each new radio bulletin. In 2006, the program “Voices of Liberty” was created, and in addition to other activities, produces reports for community radios and a radio soap opera, in partnership with Brazilian federal government, aimed at rural workers. The goal is to create a network of community radios to combat slave labour and other related crimes, such as the illegal appropriation of land and deforestation. Thirty-five organizations, including syndicates, associations, and neighbourhood organizations, are in the process of mobilizing toward this goal. 

Leonardo believes slave labour is a symptom originating from the capitalist system, and has created a series of strategies to address the primary actors in the system, the private sector, i.e., companies, and their suppliers. In 2003 a dirty list was divulged by the Ministry of Labour and Employment with the names of both private persons and companies that utilize slave labour. Leonardo tracked the lines of distribution of agricultural products, to the retailer or exporter, and identified approximately 200 companies being supplied goods by “dirtylisted” farmers. Most of the companies were unaware that their suppliers either directly or indirectly used slave labour. This “mapping” served as the basis for the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour, in partnership with the ILO and the Ethos Institute of Companies and Social Responsibility. The signatories of the Pact define measures to regulate the work relations in the production chains; commercial restrictions for companies and/or individuals identified in the chain of production who use degrading conditions of work associated with the practices that characterize slavery; and support actions of the social and productive reintegration of workers who are found working in degrading and undignified conditions. Beyond this, companies pledge to support actions to inform vulnerable workers and to debate proposals that implement public authority’s actions in the National Plan for the Eradication of Slave Labour.

It is the responsibility of the organizations involved with the Pact to monitor and implement the actions, to achieve the proposed measures, and make the results of this joint effort public. Leonardo motivates companies to record and divulge their experiences to promote actions that will contribute to ending exploitative, degrading work and slave labour in Brazil and in other countries. Of the 200 companies mentioned above, 100 have signed the Pact. After the Mapping and the establishment of the Pact, mechanisms were created to inhibit the behaviour of companies in any way connected to slave labour, for example, by denying access to financial resources. Reporter Brazil and its’ partners have been able to secure, with banks such as Santander and ABN-Amro, an agreement in which the banks refuse loans to private citizens or companies who appear on the dirty list. The idea is to create mechanisms that make it increasingly difficult for those linked to this crime to have access to credit.

In 2008, with the support of the ILO, Reporter Brazil will start to spread the experience of the Pact to other South American countries. The strategy is to initiate discussion through Brazilian companies which are signatories to the Pact and active in Latin American countries. In addition to this and looking toward the long-term future, Leonardo created in 2007 a Biofuel Watch Center. The Centre monitors conditions of work, agrarian issues and the environment of crops involved in biofuel production. The Center became an important instrument in guaranteeing that biofuel mechanisms do not serve to instigate the violation of workers rights.


From an early age Leonardo was involved with social actions through the residents association in his neighbourhood. Being an active and curious young man, he entered the Federal Technical School, a well-respected public high school in Sao Paulo, where students come from all social classes. Here, Leonardo was introduced to sociology and politics—subjects not found in the curriculum of other schools—and with students from varied social and cultural backgrounds. Leonardo always enjoyed reading and during this formative time, with a firm belief that the media and communication were important tools for social transformation, decided to study journalism.

In 1995 Leonardo entered the Faculty of Journalism at the University of Sao Paulo (USP). However, from the beginning he was dissatisfied with the course and felt that many teachers discouraged critical and active journalism. To help solve this problem, Leonardo became involved in projects to improve the quality of the course and was a member of diverse university commissions that discussed, among other things, the evaluation of professors and curriculum reform. He believed one of the reasons professors and students were so disinterested in critical and active journalism was the distance between the university and the community. For him, it was necessary for the students to get to know their university environment, and to utilize their knowledge to empower others. With a group of friends, Leonardo created Project To Write, offering free composition courses to youth from low-income backgrounds. It focuses on the power of the written word as a tool for social transformation and still exists today.

During his journalism course, Leonardo was a volunteer at the Centre for the Study of Violence at USP and learned about civil war in East Timor. He was extremely moved by this subject and received a scholarship to cover his dissertation’s research there. The experience had an extraordinary impact on him. It was the first time he witnessed people fight for their survival, and he became committed to finding a way to apply what he learned into his future work. Returning to Brazil and finishing his dissertation, Leonardo gave a series of presentations in state and private schools and universities, to promote the cause of the Timorese and to denounce human rights violations during the civil war.

Leonardo also wrote articles as a freelance journalist for Brazilian magazines and self-financed bus trips across Brazil. On these trips Leonardo became increasingly uncomfortable with the intense human rights violations in his home country. He became particularly concerned with slave labour and frustrated when, despite repeated requests, the magazines he wrote for refused to publish reports on the subject. This increased Leonardo’s determination to focus his attention on slave labour and make its practice known. Having witnessed the Timorese fight for freedom and human survival, it was difficult for him to see that many of his hard working country men were oblivious to their freedom being severely restricted and working in inhumane conditions. That this problem was invisible in Brazilian society immensely disturbed him. For this reason, in 2001, he created Reporter Brasil to publish reports and denounce the crimes that few were aware of. Today, due to his actions, accumulation of knowledge, expertise on the subject, and complete dedication, Leonardo is known nationally on the issue and is recognized in both civil society and the government.

Since 2003, Leonardo has been the representative of Reporter Brasil for the National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour (Conatrae). In this Commission civil society and government authorities come together to coordinate their fight against this crime. In 2006, invited by Conatrae and the Federal government, Reporter Brazil became the representative of the new group to formulating a National Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. Leonardo was also honoured with the Award for the Combat of Slave Labour, in recognition of his work to produce knowledge of the repression and prevention of slave labour. This award is an initiative of the ILO, the National Association of Federal Judges, the National Association of Magistrates of the Ministry of Justice, the National Association of Prosecutors of the Republic and the National Association of Prosecutors of Labour. He also received the Amnesty and Human Rights Vladimir Herzog Award (2003), the Jair Borin Critical Media Award (2003), was a member of the winning team of the Ethos Journalism Award (2002), and finalist of the Ayrton Senna Journalism Award (2004).