The Charcoal People

Inspired by Brazilian photographer Marcos Prado's 1992 photo essay, this beautifully shot documentary exposes an ugly reality: The lives of the so-called "charcoal people" (carvoeiros), impoverished migrant workers who travel from one decimated Brazilian forest to another, cutting and burning trees to supply the steel industry with charcoal. The brief but...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Inspired by Brazilian photographer Marcos Prado's 1992 photo essay, this beautifully shot documentary exposes an ugly reality: The lives of the so-called "charcoal people" (carvoeiros), impoverished migrant workers who travel from one decimated Brazilian forest to another, cutting and burning trees to supply the steel industry with charcoal. The brief but informative opening titles explain that charcoal is combined with iron ore to make pig iron, a crude iron used in the automobile and construction industries. Foreign demand for pig iron has thus contributed to the extensive destruction of the Atlantic Forest and the Scrub Savannas, a massive deforestation that has left Brazil with a bald spot roughly the size of France. But despite the film's powerful opening sequence, which shows trees literally ripped from the earth by tractors dragging a huge chain along the ground, director Nigel Noble's concerns are ultimately more humanistic than environmental: His focus is the human cost of such labor. Offering no commentary of his own, Noble allows the charcoal people to speak for themselves. As he heaves heavy chunks of wood into a smoke-belching kiln, a 76-year-old man talks about having to work to support his 14 children, and the time he nearly died from heat exhaustion. A kiln maker explains that his complete lack of education left him with few employment options. A conversation with three generations of one Brazilian family captures a vicious cycle in action: Fathers, often illiterate and otherwise unskilled, pass on the only profession they know to their sons, who often begin working at a shockingly young age. There is some good news: The Brazilian government recently instituted a program designed to reduce child labor abuses by paying families to send their children to school. But the bad news is that no sooner do such reforms take root in a particular area than that forest's resources are depleted, forcing the charcoal people and their children to more remote regions. The film is a dispiriting experience, and the shocking fact that 70 percent of Brazil's pig iron exports wind up in the United States should give North American viewers even greater reason to pause.

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  • Released: 1999
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Inspired by Brazilian photographer Marcos Prado's 1992 photo essay, this beautifully shot documentary exposes an ugly reality: The lives of the so-called "charcoal people" (carvoeiros), impoverished migrant workers who travel from one decimated Brazilian f… (more)

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