Brazil's Sugar Cane Cutters Pay the Cost of Ethanol

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From 2002 to 2005, 312 workers in the sugar cane and ethanol industries died on the job, and 82,995 suffered accidents while working in cane fields and ethanol plants

By Carlos Caminada and Michael Smith (Bloomberg News)

International Herald Tribune, October 1, 2007

SÃO PAULO: Manuel Rodrigues da Silva stooped over, wielding a machete to slice through bamboolike sugar cane stalks in a field that stretched to the horizon in southeastern Brazil. Dressed in a frayed T-shirt and dirt-coated blue work pants, he perspired in the 90-degree Fahrenheit heat.

Suddenly, he felt dizzy and had to stop. He had had headaches and pains all over his body for a week and had been hospitalized once already. Da Silva, 45, who started cutting cane this year, said he was reluctant to stop working. His pay and his job hinged on how much cane he could cut in a day.

The cane da Silva slashed would feed an ethanol plant owned by Cosan Indústria e Comércio, the biggest Brazilian exporter of a fuel that politicians around the world trumpet as a clean, renewable alternative to gasoline.

Halfway through da Silva’s 10-hour shift, the slightly built worker collapsed. He took shelter under a bus, where he trembled with fever. That is where the São Paulo state labor prosecutor, Mario Antonio Gomes, found him as he inspected the plantation.

Gomes ordered Elton Rodrigo Franco, a driver for the plantation, to take Silva to a hospital in Capivari, about 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, away. The sick laborer endured the one-hour trip in a two-seat pickup with no room in which to lie down.

A doctor at the hospital diagnosed da Silva with lung fibrosis, a scarring of the lungs that often afflicts cane cutters, according to the labor inspector’s report. He could die if he keeps cutting cane.

“I don’t know if I can keep going much longer, but I want to try,” said da Silva, sprawled across a gurney in the small hospital. “I can’t return home without any money.”

Da Silva is a foot soldier in an army of 500,000 workers that toils from March to November, stooped over in the tropical sun, harvesting sugar cane to make ethanol in Brazil, the largest exporter of the alcohol-based fuel.

Brazilian ethanol production will jump 22 percent in 2007 from a year earlier, to a record 21.3 billion liters, or 5.6 billion gallons, according to the Agriculture Ministry. It will sell at least 818 million gallons of ethanol this year to Japan, the Netherlands and the United States, according to União da Indústria de Cana-de-Açúcar, or Unica, the biggest ethanol trade association in Brazil.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, a former labor union leader, champions ethanol as a means to create jobs, curb pollution and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Sugar cane provided at least 300,000 jobs in São Paulo State, and paid twice as much as other low-skilled rural work, said Roberto Rodrigues, a former agriculture minister.

Ethanol is not only good for Brazil, says da Silva, the president, it is good for the world. “When we think about ethanol, we think about helping the poor, helping countries like ours out of poverty,” he said in April at a seminar on poverty convened by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Santiago.

Behind the rhetoric lies a harsher reality for the cane cutters of Brazil. Most are migrants who leave their families in search of jobs that pay about $1.35 an hour. How much they make depends on how much they cut. Companies sometimes cheat their employees by undercounting, a government study released earlier this year shows. The work is backbreaking and dangerous.

From 2002 to 2005, the most recent years for which complete statistics are available, 312 workers in the sugar cane and ethanol industries died on the job, and 82,995 suffered accidents while working in cane fields and ethanol plants, according to the Social Security Administration in Brazil.

Labor prosecutors are investigating the cases of 21 people who have died since 2004 while cutting cane. Most were between 25 and 35 years old. “There’s strong evidence that workers die of exhaustion,” Gomes said.

Employers expected workers to cut 12 tons of cane a day, up from 6 tons 30 years ago, according to João Amancio, of the Brazilian Labor Ministry. “The increased workload over the past 30 years has fueled a higher rate of accidents, injuries and deaths,” he said.

The number of accidents on the job increased to 23,787 in 2005 from 16,877 in 2002, government records showed. The most common injuries were cuts; back trauma, including herniated discs; dehydration; and exhaustion. Sugar workers suffer about eight times as many injuries as farm laborers in the country’s citrus and grain industries, government statistics showed.

The chief operating officer of Cosan, Luis Carlos Veguin, said that the company investigated accidents and dropped cane suppliers that did not remedy unsafe labor conditions. After the cane cutter da Silva collapsed, Cosan ordered the supplier to have a doctor examine all of its workers and improve emergency transportation, he said.

The largest overseas market for Brazilian ethanol is the United States. Last year, the United States imported 433.7 million gallons of ethanol from Brazil, up fourfold from 2004, according to the Washington-based Renewable Fuels Association. U.S. fuel importers bought about a dozen shipments of ethanol from Brazil each month.

In a March meeting in Brazil, President George W. Bush and his Brazilian counterpart signed an agreement to promote the use of ethanol by sharing research and technology.

Bush told the gathering he wanted to lift annual ethanol consumption in the United States to 35 billion gallons by 2017 from 5 billion gallons this year.

Ethanol as a fuel polluted at least 13 percent less than gasoline, said Alex Farrell, an economist from the University of California, Berkeley.

Although ethanol was cleaner than gasoline, its production polluted the air and made people sick in Brazil, according to the governor of São Paulo, José Serra. Brazilian farmers set fire to their fields the night before harvest to burn off leaves that got in the way of cutters.

Last year, cane fires consumed an area the size of Haiti. They spewed 750,000 tons of particles into the skies over São Paulo State, Serra said.

The burning caused a 20 percent to 50 percent increase in hospital and doctor visits for bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory illnesses in people who live in São Paulo’s sugar cane belt, according to AmAncio, the government doctor.

1 Comment

  • It is appalling to see how climate mitigation policies (and renewable energy policies) end up extracting profits at the expenses of vulnerable communities, while at the same time achieving close to nothing in terms of climate mitigation.This is true for industrial emissions reduction policies (like emissions trading and clean development mechanisms) and for “renewable” energy policies, like biofuels policies. Biofuels in particular have several negative dimensions. They are an illusions with regards to emissions reductions, as many studies (and in particular the work of David Pimentel and a new study by Crutzen et al.) show how biofuels do not bring about CO2-equivalent emissions savings, particularly because of the nitrogen fertilizer required to produce crops for biofuels.Secondly, boifuels tend to create the illusion that with a little substitution one may avoid facing the problem at the root: consumption levels.Thirdly, food prices. “The growing use of cereals, sugar, oilseed and vegetable oils to produce the fossil fuel substitutes, ethanol and bio-diesel […] is underpinning crop prices and, indirectly through higher animal feed costs, also the prices for livestock products.” says a joint OECD-FAO report (OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2007-2016).The same report shows how the production of biofuels is expected to increase dramatically in the next few years, with a doubling in the US (maize) and EU (rapeseed) within 2016. China’s annual production of ethanol is also expected to double.Finally, the incentive to deforestation. Countries like Indonesia and Brazil are fueling extreme deforestation to produce biofuels for the markets of US and Europe, with all the attendant problems at the local (on native population dependent on forests for their livelihood, biodiversity habit loss etc.) and global level (loss of forest sink services etc.).At the end of the day if the “consumption elephant” is not placed squarely centerstage and face up to, current environmental/climate (and social) problems will not be addressed. it is also clear how environmental problems are at the same time social problems (inequalities), so that environmental justice and social justice can only be achieved together.Vito De