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Biofuels: The industrial model is bad for the environment, worse for workers

March 2007

The latest post in our ongoing series on biofuels, human rights and the environment in Latin America.

We hear the claims so often—biofuels will save the environment, biofuels are clean and green—that they begin to sound like common sense. The corporations tell us that biofuels made from sugar cane, castor beans and soy will save the environment from the ravages of petroleum-based fuels, and we all wish that it were true.

But here is the bad news: Industrial-scale ethanol production in places like Brazil is built on 500-year old agrarian structures like the one in Northeast Brazil, a structure that rests on human and environmental degradation. While moving from unabashed slavery in historical times to subtler but no less oppressive forms of exploitation of labor in the modern era, sugar cane production has always meant the destruction of the natural resources of a productive area.

The sugar cane industry is the icon of an old oligarchic political power base in the region even though today the industry itself is broken in the Northeast and has survived in recent years only with government subsidies. It is believed that the average production in Northeast Brazil is 20 tons/hectare, much less than in industrialized regions. The land has been depleted–ancient forests cut down, planted in water-intensive cane and used until the last nutrients were leeched from the soil. Rivers downstream from plantations and ethanol production facilities have been contaminated with waste from the sugar plants, killing all of the fish in the water and crippling local fresh-water fisheries.

Even in the modern era hunger and death of workers by exhaustion surrounds sugar cane plantations, haunting workers and their families. The coastal region of the Northeast state of Alagoas, covered with sugar cane plantations, has one of the lowest Index of Human Development levels in the country.

In 1989 then-presidential candidate Lula da Silva denounced the malnourishment of workers in the sugar cane industry which had created a population with physical characteristics of malnutrition. The medium height of sugar cane workers in Pernambuco is lower than in other regions. Sadly, since his election to the presidency in 2002, President Lula has forgotten what he said.

In the Northeastern state of Piauí, the poorest Brazilian state, plantations of castor are expanding rapidly with the support of the federal government. Forest reserves are being logged to make way for monoculture cropping of castor. Small farmers are making contracts with the bio-diesel processing plants to produce castor and other oleaginous crops. But since big producers control the market and set the price, small farmers have seen very little improvement in their lives.

In Brazil’s Central Plateau region, soybeans plantations are fueling new bio-diesel processing plants. According to an article in the Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, the expansion of soybean plantations in the Amazon region and Central Plateau will be diverted to the production of ethanol and bio-diesel. Locally, the expansion of soybeans has a strong ally in Blaggio Maggi, the governor of the state and the largest soybean producer not only in the central plateau region, but probably in the world.

It is expected that ethanol production will double in the next few years. In the south of Brazil, sugar cane plantations are also expanding, fueling land concentration and privileging industrial and export markets over the needs of the people for food and sustainable livelihoods. Brazil is already the largest producer of ethanol on the planet, while 800,000 families remain landless. The contrast between ethanol production to supply markets in the United States and Europe with the broken promises made by the federal government to impoverished landless families is stark.

After 500 years of cultivation of sugar cane, the food sovereignty of rural families and communities in Northeast Brazil has been jeopardized and workers have been poorly treated. Some workers are held in virtual slavery, indentured to the plantations with unpayable debts. Others are literally worked to death, exhausted and overheated in the tropical sun. The 2006 Human Rights Report), published by Rede Social, a Grassroots International partner, shows that last year 17 workers died of exhaustion in the sugar cane fields. Marijuana and crack cocaine are two drugs that are being used by sugar cane cutters to alleviate the pain in the arms and as stimulant to produce more, worsening the situation. (See “Brazil’s Ethanol Slaves” in the Guardian for more.)

The majority of larger producers are in default for the social security payments to workers and loans taken from state-owned banks.

Even in the best circumstances, the sugar cane cutters or “bóia-frias” are underpaid and their families are only able to survive with the small stipend provided by the national program of Zero Hunger. These workers often live in precarious conditions with regard to housing and food in the plantation areas. If things continue unchanged, government policies will provide further support for the sugar cane industry at the expenses of the poor.

The production of sugar cane cutters, according to the report, has on average increased. Even if bio-fuels were the universal cure-all for all of our environmental problems, their production is killing workers. Bio-fuels may hold real promise for a more sustainable future, but only if the current industrial models are replaced with more localized modes of production that respect workers rights and food sovereignty and moves away from high-maintenance mono-crop production that poisons the environment and wastes precious water resources that are needed for food.

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