The Struggle Against Ethanol: A New Challenge to Imperial Domination

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More than 733 delegates and 44 guests from 33 countries attended the Sixth Hemispheric Meeting on the Struggle against Free Trade Agreements in Havana this week. One key topic of discussion was the impact of agrofuel production.

from Juventud Rebelde, May 5 2007

By Marina Menéndez Quintero

“The owner’s horses get a better treatment on the truck than we do. They have water to drink, stand on sawdust so their hoofs won’t suffer and have grass for the trip. We simply get on; the place for work instruments is always the same.”

The man is a Brazilian cane cutter, and his complaint can be heard in any sugar cane field of Sao Paulo. It is but an example of how the ethanol rush is already hurting Brazil. Manipulated by the deceptive proposals of George W. Bush, the fever has been described by Horacio Martins de Carvalho, an advisor with the Brazilian Landless Movement, as “the avalanche of Green Imperialism.” It threatens to expand across the rest of Latin America and — de Carvalho warns—will not stop at barriers or legislation.

The 6th Hemispheric Conference of Struggle against Free Trade Agreements and for the Integration of the Peoples, taking place in Havana, devoted its afternoon session on Friday to so-called Agro-energy. It could not have been otherwise, since US plans to maintain its levels of fuel waste at the expense of ethanol produced in the South weigh heavily on food sovereignty and life itself in the region.

The documentary The Slavery of Sugar brought before the conference plenary showed the pain that Maíssa, from the Social Justice Network of Brazil, had earlier referred to in figures. Cane cutters in Sao Paulo receive 1.2 dollars per ton of cane that is cut and piled up. Therefore to earn a wage of 200 dollars per month they have to cut ten tons per day, that is to say, cutting cane at a rhythm of 30 machete strokes per minute!

Seventeen people died of exhaustion in Sao Paulo between 2005 and 2006. Other causes, like accidents during transportation and burning during plantation fires, accounted for 450 deaths in 2005. Workers lack sufficient water, have to look for firewood for cooking and they do not eat well enough for a job done under the scorching sun. Over the past five years in Sao Paulo alone, 1,383 sugar cane workers have died. “Sugar and ethanol are mixed in blood, sweat and death,” Maíssa affirmed.

Yet the illegal appropriation of land, precarious and miserable jobs, and slave labor were only the human costs of the problem exposed at the conference.

Carvalho denounced “biological imperialism” for removing agrarian reform from the national agenda in Brazil, harming the small farmers and instituting the capitalist leasing of lands in such a way that foreign entrepreneurs can already lease lands over the Internet.

Devastation of the savannas now devoted to growing soybeans for agrofuel; privatization of fresh water in the Guarani Aquifer, whose sources are starting to be controlled by the transnationals; control of the biomass sources of energy, which means control over territories, were listed by Carvalho as other dangers.

These hazards have emerged at a time when production of so-called cellulose ethanol extracted from agricultural residues looms as a new threat, thanks to the scientific advances of the United States.

The Landless Movement advisor noted that in the face of all these evils, a scientifically sustained public protest was indispensable, for small farmers in need may end up believing it is a good thing. Carvalho said social resistance, direct action against the capitalists in the fields and the forging of common strategies in Latin America are urgently demanded. “Otherwise,” he emphasized, “we are lost.”

Other topics such as integration and regional strategies were also addressed during the Friday afternoon session of the Havana conference against free trade agreements, which is scheduled to end today with the adoption of a plan of action.