[Marxism] Human cost of Brazil's biofuels boom

Louis Proyect 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 
cut manually.

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 
necessarily chained."

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 
employment alternatives.

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 
meet girls.

"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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