29 July, 2009

Fresh flesh as fresh fish.

Sergio Abranches

Fresh fish, good food. Rooms available with female attendants: the signboard on the wall of the boat, written in bad English would have startled me had I not been looking for it.

This was no common boat. It was a 28 cabin touristic boat that takes sport fishermen up the Paraguay River from the port of Corumbá, the state of Mato Grosso’s largest city, into the Brazilian Wetland, the Pantanal.

Early morning Paraguay River

It was very early, the sun was just rising, and I would normally have been on the deck shooting photos of the spectacular nascent morning in the Pantanal. Instead, I had asked Estela Scandola of the Brazilian Institute for Innovation in Health – IBISS to join me for breakfast at the boat’s restaurant so that we could talk before the activities of the day began. And as we talked, for one and a half hours, what that signboard was really about became fully clear to me. The reason I had asked her for breakfast was her presentation the evening before, on juvenile prostitution on the waterways of the Pantanal.

Estela Scandola

We had both been invited to speak at the annual meeting held by the Avina Foundation on social-environmental issues. The Foundation had rented the boat for five days and the several meetings were arranged so that we could also enjoy the view and the astonishing natural beauty and bird variety of the Pantanal as we slowly moved up river. A four-day trip to go across the National Park to its end near the Bolivian border, and a one-day downriver back to Corumbá. After my talk on the first night, I would ordinarily have spent most of my time on deck taking in the view and shooting photos. But because of its unexpected subject, I wondered if Estela’s presentation would be a better use of my time. I was dead right. It was a shocking surprise to me to realize the scale of both juvenile female prostitution, the degree of impunity of all involved and the participation of several tourism agencies and boat operators.

Sitting there, I realized why a kid had approached me offering condoms when I boarded the boat. At the time, I dismissed it as an odd way to make a few cents. After all the boat was rented for a business meeting, not for pleasure. When Estela started to tell her story to NGO leaders, scientists and a few journalists gathered by Avina, it was like even the Pantanal wildlife became silent. We could hear only the hum of the boat’s diesel engine during her passionate, yet objective and fully documented narrative about how teenager girls are lured into joining the “fishing” and “sightseeing” excursions, only to discover the price is to sexually entertain the passengers.

A large number of people, mostly married, adult males in their 40s and 50s, who go to the Pantanal allegedly to see wildlife or to fish, are in search of sexual pleasures with young and adult locals: whites, blacks and Indians; Brazilians, Paraguayans and Bolivians. That explained why in each cabin of the boat one could find a large domestic refrigerator with the equivalent of 8 six-packs of beer and the large Jacuzzi next to the deck bar. After the meeting I asked one of the bartenders who listened attentively to Estela’s talk if she was telling the truth. He said it could be even worse than she told us. She knew it through her research and interviewing the girls. He was an eye witness to the orgies. He told me the Jacuzzi was used mainly at night for group sex.

Well-to-do, overweight professionals are the main clients, paying around US$ 1,000.00 daily rates with additional amenities charged separately. From the list of extras, the two paramount are women and booze.

In spite of the brave work of NGOs like Estela’s IBISS, the girls end up trapped in a system that gives them no alternative. Few of them see the exploitation of their bodies as a form of violence. One of them, when selected to go on one of these boat excursions, used to go to IBISS to get condoms, Estela Scandola told me. Not even condoms are provided by these merchants of fresh, young, human flesh. When asked about the aggression they were subjected to, they said they were never physically hurt. “Thank goodness, no violence. I’ve never suffered any violence,” one of them told an interviewer, although her so-called employer retained all her personal documents and she was forced to share a 3×2 meter room with eight other girls during the sexual excursions. Violence, to them, is only battering. All the rest they can endure. Several of them reported fearing strangulation during sex.

Several of them board the sex boats, ostensibly fishing or tour boats, without knowing what is awaiting them during the journey. Beautiful, low-income girls are invited on a free boat trip to see the Pantanal, their own homeland, the wonders of which they hear about without ever seeing. Once aboard, they find out that the price is to sexually serve several men, at times simultaneously. Those who refuse are kept captive in a cubicle on the lower part of the boat near the kitchen, eating and drinking the remains the crew gives them off-hours.

Boat Paraguay River

The description of this brutal ecology of sexual violence and female teenagers’ exploitation under what is sold as Ecotourism in the Pantanal shocked everybody in the room, most quite used to seeing the ugly faces poverty, discrimination and environmental destruction can take. With each new slide or revealing phrase, the bartender nodded his head in confirmation. His wide-open eyes showed his own perplexity at seeing his daily work life so crudely unveiled for us all as an outrageous form of sexual aggression, human trafficking and violation of elementary human rights.

He later told me he knew that what his boss was doing was wrong and disgusting, but he had no idea it was as degrading and abusive as Estela Scandola had made clear that afternoon. He wasn’t sure he could continue this job, but he also told me he made far more money from the tips on this boat than he could ever make at a regular bar or restaurant in Corumbá.

Boat at sunset Paraguay River

The lush waterscape and rich savannah vegetation that displayed itself to us through the windows of the meeting room was a contrast that made Estela’s account even more disquieting. The beauty of the setting, however, also had a touch of artificial glitter. The scandalous red tainting the sky at sunset was, to someone who knew well the realities of the region, enhanced by the smoke of wildfires started by landowners clearing out their fields. It was the dry season. Each and every night we were on board, slowly negotiating our way up through the capriciously serpentine waterways, we could see the glimmer of wildfires on the horizon. Teenager prostitution and wildfires made up the true foundation of a gross portion of the “economia pantaneira,” the economics of the wetlands.

There is no way to describe the dazzling beauty and exquisite nature of the Pantanal water and landscape. One has to physically be there, listening to the sounds of birds and wildlife; feeling the growing warmth of the tropical sun; seeing how the water that comes from the midwestern plateau negotiates its way through the vegetation to form the world’s most extensive permanently flooded valley; to realize all that the Pantanal represents in scenery, biodiversity and uniqueness. An ecosystem that makes the transition between the Amazon rainforest and the diverse Brazilian savannah, the Cerrado, the Pantanal has no water of its own. (See the audio-slideshow, The Grand Savannah and its Waterways.) It owes its existence to the rain and the rivers that come from the highlands to fill this impermeable depression, forming an immense network of sometimes large, sometimes thin dry, argillaceous pouches, making a staggering maze of waterways surrounded by very diverse vegetation. The erosion and degradation at the rivers’ sources and the deforestation of its savanna to form pasture land or cultivate sugarcane greatly endanger its survival. It is as beautiful, dependent and fragile as the young girls forced to cross its waterways serving sex to rich domestic and foreign tourists.

Sunset at Amolar Hill Paraguay River

The fate of the Pantanal depends pretty much on the same factors as the fate of its female teenagers. They both need protection, sustainable and legal sources of income and good governance. The fishermen that go there to fish the turbid waters of child prostitution will never show any respect for its clean waters and the integrity of its fisheries. One who has no respect for the rights of human female teens would just as easily disregard the rules of sport or ecological fishing.

Blue Macaws

When I wrote the first version of this story five years ago, there was widespread hope that corruption, neglect for the real poor, protection for the rights of children, teenagers and women would gain a boost in Brazil. Since then, there has been some marginal progress in some areas. Child prostitution in the Pantanal, however, has remained pretty much the same.

Brazilian runner and former Olympic champion Zequinha Barbosa and his agent were found guilty of sexual exploitation of minors for having sex with 15 year and 14 year girls in Campo Grande, the capital city of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The Pantanal lies in the territory of the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. He and his agent were sentenced to a five-year and a seven-year term respectively by a local judge in November, 2004. In December, 2005, the State Court of Appeals revoked the sentence, finding both not guilty of sexual exploitation of minors because the “girls were call-girls, since they were picked-up at a bus stop and accepted R$ 60,00 and R$ 80,00 (US$ 35.00 and US$ 45.00) to have sex with them,” the judge said, accepting the defense’s argument. The court did not take into account the fact that the girls were minors. The law that protects the rights of infants and teenagers in Brazil makes it very clear that to submit children or teenagers to sexual exploitation or prostitution is a crime and sets the sentence at 4 to 10 years in prison. In June, 2009, the Superior Court of Appeals maintained this decision, infuriating the Brazilian legal community associated with children and teenager rights, because it clearly disobeys the letter and the spirit of the law that protects children and teenagers from physical, economic and sexual abuse.

Thursday night, March 27, 2009, an operation involving the State police, the State Attorney General’s Office and the Custodial Council closed a nightclub in Porto Murtinho, a river-port city on the Paraguay River near the Brazil-Paraguay border. Several teenagers were found among the 50 prostitutes working there. One of them, a 15-year old teenager from Campo Grande had been allegedly “leased” to the owner of the nightclub by her family. The intermediary was her older sister who had already worked at the place when she was a minor. The owner used to be a member of the City Board for Tourism Promotion. Tourism, especially sport fishing, is one of Porto Murtinho’s main sources of revenue.

Two days earlier, on March 25, the Navy ship Potengi left the port of Ladário on the left bank of the Paraguay River within the neighborhood of Corumbá, carrying the so-called “Citizenship Expedition.” The aim of the group was to give social assistance to the populations living on the riverbanks. Only 75 km from Corumbá’s commercial center, in the district of Albuquerque, another target site for fishing tourists, they found several places with teen prostitutes. The head of the expedition, Federal Judge Raquel Corniglian, was particularly shocked to find a 50-year old, upper-middle class, married guy with a 14-year old girl in a motel around noon. She told the online news site “Capital do Pantanal” (link http://www.capitaldopantanal.com.br/portal/home.php ) that most of the girls were locals making easy money from the outside fishing tourists. Throughout their journey, the group found teenaged prostitutes in bars on the riverbanks “as if this were a normal way of life for minors, drinking booze, and having sex with adults all day long.”

Sunset at Paraguay River 3

Tourism and prostitution go together in the Brazilian Pantanal. Child prostitution, illegal fishing and all sorts of predatory tourism are so common and widespread that it is seems unlikely they are not also connected to police, political and judicial corruption. They are a blatant sign of a lack of governance and accountability. Sex tourism thrives best where there is a failure of governance combined with low-quality economic choices. Ecological and sport tourism can be an extraordinary source of value-added economic activity, if developed with quality and responsibility, both social and environmental. The low-quality, illegal nature of what is sold as tourism in the Brazilian Pantanal tells us, at the same time, a lot about the quality of the tourists it is attracting.

(Photos: Sergio Abranches)

Tags: , Human rights, Wetlands