Full Tanks at the Cost of Empty Stomachs: The Expansion of the Sugarcane Industry in Latin America

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Statement prepared by Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST)

SAO PAULO, FEBRUARY 28, 2007: We, representatives of organizations and social movements of Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic, gathered at a forum on the expansion of the sugarcane industry in Latin America, declare that:

The current model of production of bioenergy is sustained by the same elements that have always caused the oppression of our peoples: appropriation of territory, of natural resources, and the labor force.

Historically the sugar industry served as an instrument to maintain colonialism in our countries and the creation of dominant classes that have controlled, through today, large extensions of land, the industrial process, and commercialization. This sector is based on latifundio ownership, on the overexploitation of labor (including slave labor) and the appropriation of public resources. This sector was created upon intensive and extensive monocropping, provoking concentration of land, profit, and wealth.

The sugarcane industry was one of the main agricultural activities developed in the colonies. It allowed sectors that controlled production and commercialization to continue accumulating capital and with this contribute to the development of capitalism in Europe. In Latin America, the creation and control of the State, beginning in the 19th century, continued to service the colonial interests. Currently, control of the State by this sector is characterized by so-called “bureaucratic capitalism”. The sugar industry defined the political structures of national States and of Latin American economies.

In Brazil, beginning in the 1970s, during the so-called world oil “crisis”, the sugarcane industry began to produce fuel, which justified its maintenance and expansion. The same was repeated in 2004, with the new Pro-Alcohol program, which principally serves to benefit agribusiness. The Brazilian government began to stimulate the production of biodiesel as well, principally to guarantee the survival and expansion of large extensions of soy monoculture. To legitimate this policy and camouflage its destructive effects, the government stimulated the diversified production of biodiesel by small producers, with the objective of creating a “social seal”. The monocultures have expanded into indigenous areas and other territories of native peoples.

In February of 2007, the United States government announced its interest in establishing a partnership with Brazil in the production of biofuels, characterized as the principal “symbolic axis” in the relation between the two countries. This is clearly a phase of a geopolitical strategy of the United States to weaken the influence of countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia in the region. It also justifies the expansion of monocultures of sugarcane, soy, and African palm in all Latin American territories.

Taking advantage of the legitimate concern of international public opinion on global warming, large agricultural companies, biotechnology companies, oil companies, and auto companies now perceive that biofuels represent an important source for the accumulation of capital.

Biomass is falsely presented as the new energy matrix, the ideal of which is renewable energy. We know that biomass will not actually be able to substitute fossil fuels, nor is it renewable.

Some characteristics inherent to the sugar industry are the destruction of the environment and the overexploitation of labor. The principal workforce is migrant labor. As a result, processes of migration are stimulated, making workers more vulnerable and attempts at organization more difficult. The rigorous work of cutting sugarcane has caused the death of hundreds of workers.

Female workers who cut sugarcane are exploited even more, as they receive lower salaries or, in some countries such as Costa Rica, do not directly receive salaries. Payment is made to the husband or partner. Child labor is commonly practiced in the industry throughout Latin America, as well as the exploitation of youth as the main labor force in the suffocating process of cutting sugarcane.

Workers do not have any control over the total amount of their production and as a consequence over their salary, as they are paid according to the quantity cut and not for hours worked. This situation has serious implications for the health of workers and has caused the death of workers through fatigue and the excessive labor that requires cutting up to 20 tons per day. The majority of contracts are through third party intermediaries or “gatos”. This complicates the possibility of achieving workers’ rights, as formal work contracts do not exist. The figure of the employer is hidden in this process, which negates the very existence of labor relations.

The Brazilian State stimulates the use of resettled lands under agrarian reform and lands of small producers, currently responsible for 70% of the production of food, for biofuel crops, compromising food sovereignty.

As a result, we assume the commitment of:

  • Expanding and strengthening the struggles of social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean, through an articulation among existing workers’ organizations and support groups.
  • Denouncing and combating any agrarian model based on monocultures and concentration of land and profit, destructive of the environment, responsible for slave labor and the overexploitation of the working force. Changing the current agrarian model implies a full realization of a profound Agrarian Reform that eliminates latifundios.
  • Strengthening rural workers’ organizations, salaried workers, and farm workers to construct a new model that is closely cemented to farm worker agriculture and agroecology, with diversified production, prioritizing internal consumption. It is important to fight for a policy of subsidies for the production of food. Our principal objective is to guarantee food sovereignty, as the expansion of the production of biofuels aggravates hunger in the world. We cannot maintain our tanks full while stomachs go empty.

Comissao Pastoral da Terra (CPT)
Grito dos Excluídos Movimento Sem Terra (MST)
Servico Pastoral dos Migrantes (SPM)
Rede Social de Justica e Direitos Humanos Via Campesina