Threatened for her struggle against the human slave trade and human organ trafficking; she is a reference point for many wishing to escape from violence and rape; for this Brazilian Sister, the fight goes on.
For years now she has had an armed guard and she has become a sort of nuisance. Death threats are the order of the day for this determined woman. “I didn’t want any armed escort by the police but they forced me to accept it”, she says, shaking her head.
For ten years she has been involved in a programme of protection for human rights activists. “Both those who protect me and those who want to see me dead follow me and know where I am and where I go. I am not afraid. I have always promoted a culture of peace and I will always do; they can threaten me all they want but they will never stop me. Quite the opposite: the more they threaten me, the more I feel stronger and more able to continue”.
Sr. Maria Henriqueta Ferrerira Cavalcante is 58 and the coordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Episcopal Conference of the Brazilian states of ‘Para’ and Amapa’. She is looked up to nationally and internationally for her fight against human trafficking, especially that of children and adolescents in Amazonia. “Here in Belem, the capital of Para’, I am seen as a sort of mother by the youth, adolescents and vulnerable children”. While she talks to us, she is continually answering a stream of phone calls.
Sister Henriqueta, originally from the state of Amazonas in the north of Brazil, was born in an indigenous community called the Eirunepé, close to the Peruvian border. When she was eighteen, she entered the Italian congregation of the Sisters of the Most Holy Child of Mary and spent three years in Italy to complete her religious formation. Once she returned to Brazil she was appointed to work in the city of Rio Claro, in the state of São Paulo. Soon afterwards she returned to Amazonia to help the youth in the underdeveloped outskirts of Belem and set up shop in one of the poorest quarters, Terre Firme.
Since 2009, Sr. Henriqueta has dedicated all her energy to the struggle against sexual exploitation and human trafficking, running social recovery programmes, especially on the island of Marajó, an enormous fluvial island opposite Belem city, right at the mouth of the Amazon River.
Marajó is the largest delta island in Brazil and one of the largest in the world: “Since it has an area of more than 40,000 square kilometres, it is practically impossible to know everything that goes on the island”, says Sr. Henriqueta. The island is frequently the scene of human rights violations: the sexual abuse of minors and human trafficking go unpunished due to the indifference that envelops the whole region where the power of the state is practically non-existent.
Out from this island goes a constant flow of people, adults, young people and children, all trying to pursue their dream of a better life in Belem, São Paulo or even in Europe. “Some are even sold by their own parents who need money to buy food and clothing”, Sr. Henriqueta tells us. “I saw a child sold for ten Reals (little more than two Euro) and groups of children sold for a basket of food (rice, beans, salt, sugar, flour, pasta and other foodstuffs), worth about a hundred Euro”.
Human trafficking prospers by sexual exploitation and the sale of human organs. The latter, in the opinion of Sr. Henriqueta, is “the main reason for the trafficking of children and adolescents on the island of Marajó”.
The majority of the young people leave the island and then simply disappear, sold for a few Euro. Only a few are traced and freed from the trafficking thanks to a network of close contacts and women collaborators set up by Sr. Henriqueta and the commission for justice and peace of the bishops’ conference, together with the state and federal justice departments.
“It is very difficult to estimate accurately the numbers involved in human trafficking. The custom of ‘omerta’ is very influential and very few people speak openly. Then, the shape of the territory and the lack of oversight have made Marajó a no-man’s-land where the traffickers rule and the people live in extreme poverty. Here, life is cheap and people will sell their children for a few Reals”.
According to the organisation for immigration there have been around 60,000 children and adolescents trafficked for their organs. In 2014 alone, the year for which the most recent figures are available, it is estimated that there were 120,000 illegal transplant operations. Most of the organs come from Brazil, China, South Africa, Bangladesh, Thailand, Costa Rica and Peru.
According to Global Finance Integrity Organ, trafficking conservatively generates approximately from US $840 million to $1.7 billion annually. This estimate comprises the ‘sales’ of the top five organs: kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, and the pancreas. Kidneys are the most common for legal and illegal transplants and are the least expensive on the black market, because they can come from living donors.
“To violate human life is to deny the project of God”, Sr. Henriqueta tells us, having just replied to a phone call from a mother reporting the disappearance of her daughter aged thirteen. “We see these cases every day” – she continues – “Amazonia has become a place of human chaos where human trafficking is completely out of control”.
Gazing out through her office window at the vast Amazon she says: “We are here to represent the all too often forgotten lost faces of Amazonia. But all those forgotten ones have a face and a name. They are youngsters who have seen their childhood and their future destroyed forever by violence and greed. “As a Church in Amazonia, we are called to continue the fight to snatch them from the hands of the traffickers and even from their desperate relatives and conniving parents, and to give these young people some hope for a real life. After all, they are the future of Amazonia”.