Louise Sherwood / BBC – 2010-08-09 00:00:25
PORTO VELHO, RONDONIA (August 8, 2010) — In the Brazilian Amazon, long-forgotten workers drafted in to help the Allies in World War II are dreaming of a home they left when they were still in their teens. Now in their mid-80s, they are awaiting the outcome of legal moves that may finally bring them the recognition and compensation they were promised 67 years ago.
In 1943, while the US, Britain and their allies were fighting on the battlefields of Europe, North Africa and the Far East, thousands of impoverished Brazilians were being urged to do their own patriotic duty.
Manuel Pereira de Araujo remembers the day that would change his life forever as he joined the ranks of the “rubber soldiers.â€
“An army official came to my town and told us we could join the fight on the front line in Italy or go to the Amazon. He said we would become heroes in the rubber battle and get rich tapping rubber,” he said.
The recruitment drive was part of an agreement signed by Brazil and the US. With the main rubber-producing country at the time, Malaysia, under Japanese occupation, and synthetic rubber not available on the scale needed to supply the war effort, the US needed a reliable source of rubber.
The Washington Accords required Brazil to supply all the latex it could in exchange for $2 million (which would be some $25 million today) from the US.
The Brazilian government targeted its recruitment campaign at the North East where most of the population was poor, eking out a living as subsistence farmers in arid scrubland.
“It was a life of poverty. There was no money or work for us there. We ate only beans and manioc and the harvests were poor so we often went hungry,” said Claudionor Ferreira Lima, president of the Rubber Soldiers Union in Porto Velho. “I left my fiancee behind… thinking I would get rich and be back in a couple of years to start a family. For all I know she’s still waiting.”
Some 55,000 people, mostly young single men, signed up but many of them would never see their families or homes again.
After a journey of several months by truck and boat, Mr Ferreira Lima remembers the moment he disembarked in the lush, green rainforest of the Amazon.
“We thought we had arrived in paradise but instead of glory we found hell,” he said. “It was slavery,” said Antonio Barbosa da Silva, another rubber soldier. There was no salary and if you didn’t produce you didn’t eat. We collected the rubber and traded it for food and other goods at the plantation shop.”
The government’s promises of healthcare, accommodation and food came to nothing.
Grainy archive photo shows rubbertappers outside a hut Conditions for the workers were often harsh
“They gave us just two pairs of trousers, when one was dirty I wore the other. There was nowhere to sleep so we had to build a hut out of wood and palm leaves,” said Mr Pereira de Araujo. With no doctors or hospitals, thousands of rubber soldiers died from malaria, hepatitis and yellow fever. Others were attacked by jaguars and alligators or perished from snake bites.
“Those who tried to leave were given their pay and told they were free to go. But down the road hired guns were waiting to shoot them and take their money back to the boss,” recalled Mr Peirera de Araujo. Looking for a better life, many families also decided to board the government ships bound for the Amazon.
Vicenza da Costa was just 14 when her father decided the family would leave the drought-stricken state of Ceara. “He said to my mother ‘Candida let’s go. I planted my last seed and with no rain for eight days it has already died’. But it was my home and I wanted to stay. I cried every day,” she said. “We were really homesick but our mother said ‘Why are you so sad? At least here we can eat’, so we used to make up songs and sing to keep our spirits up.”
‘War Is Over’
Jose Duarte de Sigueira was just a boy when the rubber soldiers came to live near his town in the state of Acre.
“There was only one bar with a radio. We used to listen to translations of BBC news coming from London and we passed on updates about the conflict to those living in the plantations,” he said. “More rubber for victory” reads a poster. Photo courtesy Jean Pierre Chabloz Collection, Federal university of Ceara The rubber soldiers are now dreaming of their own victory
It was through the radio that Mr Pereira Araujo found out the war was over.
“It was 8 May 1945 when we heard the news and we were so happy because we thought now we will receive our payment and we can go home.” But the promised compensation never arrived and, with no money to return, most of the men stayed on in the rubber plantations.
After some years the government began to pay them a small pension. Today around 8,300 surviving rubber soldiers and 6,500 of their widows receive 1020 reais ($576, Â£370) a month but this is much less than they were led to believe they would earn.
In the dilapidated office of the Rubber Soldiers Union, Mr Ferreira Lima is optimistic about a pension increase. “I became union president to fight for justice because the rubber soldiers deserve better,” he said.
Sympathetic politicians from the states of Acre, Rondonia and Amazonas are pushing for the pension increase to be agreed soon. In May this year, a renewed request was made for urgency in the matter. A legal team is also working to secure compensation.
“My grandfather was a rubber soldier and I grew up with their stories. The contribution they made and the injustice against them are part of the memory of the people of the Amazon region,” said lawyer Irlan Rogerio Erasmo da Silva.
“We are asking for 763,800 reais ($431,280; Â£273,920) for each rubber soldier. It’s not just about the money that was sent by the US; we are seeking damages for the human rights violations they suffered. ”
As the legal battle grinds on, many of the rubber soldiers still dream of “home.â€
“I have been waiting all these years to receive my money,” says Mr Pereira Araujo. “When it arrives I will go back to the North East. My parents have already died but I will stay with my brothers and sisters.”
But time is running out and for many of the rubber soldiers it is already too late.
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