[Marxism] Human cost of Brazil's biofuels boom
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jun 16 07:14:00 MDT 2008
Human cost of Brazil's biofuels boom
The country is a key producer of ethanol. Many of those cutting the
sugar cane used to make the fuel are said to endure primitive conditions.
By Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 16, 2008
BOCAINA, BRAZIL — For as far as the eye can see, stalks of sugar cane
march across the hillsides here like giant praying mantises. This is
ground zero for ethanol production in Brazil -- "the Saudi Arabia of
biofuels," as some have already labeled this vast South American country.
But even as Brazil's booming economy is powered by fuel processed from
the cane, labor officials are confronting what some call the country's
dirty little ethanol secret: the mostly primitive conditions endured by
the multitudes of workers who cut the cane.
Biofuels may help reduce humanity's carbon footprint, but the social
footprint is substantial.
"These workers should have a break, a place to eat and access to a
proper restroom," Marcus Vinicius Goncalves, a government labor cop in
suit and tie, declared in the midst of a snarl of felled stalks and
bedraggled cane cutters here. "This is degrading treatment."
More than 300,000 farmworkers are seasonal cane cutters in Brazil, the
government says. By most accounts, their work and living conditions
range from basic to deplorable to outright servitude.
"Brazil has a great climate, great land and technology, but a lot of the
competitive edge for biofuels is due to worker exploitation -- from
slave work to underpayment," said Leonardo Sakamoto, a political
scientist who runs a nonprofit labor watchdog group in Sao Paulo.
In the last four years, said a lawyer from the Public Ministry, which
acts as the Sao Paulo state district attorney, at least 18 cane cutters
have died of dehydration, heart attacks or other ailments linked to
exhaustion in this region, where the forests long ago gave way to
That does not include an unknown number of others who died in accidents,
said the lawyer, Luis Henrique Rafael, part of a two-attorney team from
the Public Ministry's office that recently toured the area to
investigate abuses of the labor code.
"They died from excess work," Rafael said. "Even prisoners have a better
life. These men's only form of leisure is cachaca," he added, referring
to the liquor distilled from sugar cane.
In its annual report, Amnesty International last month highlighted the
plight of Brazil's biofuel workers, more than 1,000 of whom were rescued
in June 2007 after allegedly being held in slave-like conditions at a
plantation owned by a major ethanol producer, Pagrisa, in the Amazonian
state of Para.
Although slavery cases tend to grab headlines, advocates say laborers
typically face more quotidian abuse -- low pay, excessive work hours,
inadequate safety gear, an absence of sanitary and health services, and
exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals.
"The cases analogous to slavery seem not to be the norm," said Tim
Cahill, Brazil researcher for Amnesty International. "But this is very
much a case of long work hours, the destruction of workers' health
through extreme conditions, a lack of access to quality food, problems
of accommodation, and the impacts of agro-toxins."
The technological advances that have facilitated the biofuel revolution
have not reached the fields. Although mechanized harvesting of cane is
on the rise, rough terrain dictates that much of the crop must still be
Industry officials acknowledge some abuses, but insist that safety has
improved and that the allegations of slavery are greatly exaggerated.
"If there is an industry that has bettered the situation of the worker,
it is the sugar cane industry," said Rodolfo Tavares of Brazil's
National Confederation of Agriculture, a trade group. "It's an example
for the world."
With international scrutiny growing, leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula
da Silva says the government and producers are keen to ameliorate
"Everyone knows that sugar cane labor is tough," Lula said in Rome this
month during a food crisis summit at which biofuels were called a major
culprit. But "it's not tougher than labor in coal mines, which was the
basis for the development of Europe. Take a big knife to cut cane and
then go down in a mine, 90 meters deep, to explode dynamite. You'll see
which is better."
Brazilian officials acknowledge that fines and prosecutions have largely
failed to improve the workers' lot. Cases drag on in court until
sanctions are reduced or owners cleared. Few, if any, violators go to
jail. Too few inspectors are available to police this giant country and
its behemoth agribusiness, which have made it a world leader in exports
of soybeans, beef and coffee, among other foodstuffs.
In the last year, Brazil has stepped up cases filed under antislavery
statutes, which can land offenders in prison. Authorities say that last
year they "liberated" nearly 6,000 agricultural workers from slave-like
conditions, which under Brazilian law can include debt servitude, forced
labor and a "degrading" work environment. More than half toiled in the
sugar cane sector.
"Brazilians only understand justice when they get arrested," said
Goncalves, the labor investigator. "These days, slaves aren't
Interviewed workers agreed that conditions were harsh and hours long --
sometimes 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, inevitably beneath
an unforgiving sun or drenching rain.
Still, the workers said the pay was relatively good, typically the
equivalent of between $420 and $550 a month, or up to double the minimum
wage here for a 40-hour week. Like migrant farmworkers in many nations,
they displayed a grudging acceptance of their plight and lack of
Field laborers attack so-called streets of cane using a machete-like
tool known as a podao, which has been employed since colonial times,
when millions of African slaves were imported for the European sugar
trade. They constantly crouch to cut swaths of the cane and must
negotiate paths through the thickets and step over the slippery stalks,
advancing steadily into forest-like stretches of the stuff.
"The job is tough, but that's the way it is," said Roberto Santos Lopes,
25, taking a break from chopping cane here. "Some of this cane is broken
and twisted and it's harder to cut, so we earn less."
A common complaint: Owners cheat them in measuring the amount of cane
harvested, which determines earnings.
Some of the cutters come here on their own; others are recruited by
intermediaries known as gatos (cats) who provide transport, sometimes
taking recruits 1,000 miles or more. Some cutters have moved to this
region semipermanently, living in ramshackle company dormitories and
commuting to work in grower-supplied buses.
"In my town there are no jobs," said Vandailson dos Santos Silva, 22,
from Pernambuco, traditionally one of Brazil's poorest states. "At least
here we can find some work."
Dos Santos, the eldest of seven siblings, said he first came to the cane
fields here four years ago. A younger brother has since followed in his
He lives in a run-down company complex in the nearby town of Dois
Corregos, a cane hub, and $50 a month is deducted from his paycheck for
housing. The grower charges extra for food "and even some cachaca," Dos
Santos added. The $370 or so he clears each month allows him to live
modestly, send some cash home and even go out some evenings to dance and
"It's the best I can do with the little education I have," said Dos
Santos on a recent balmy evening, standing in the frontyard of the
dormitory he shares with other cane cutters.
He said he would like to be able to study, even become a lawyer someday.
But he acknowledged that such grandiose notions were unlikely to be
fulfilled, saying, "We must be content with what we have." He then went
back to his stuffy room, needing a good night's sleep before another day
of harvesting Brazil's biofuel bounty.
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