In Brazil hearing about sugar cane ethanol

After two and a half days in Rio, we have traveled in land to Cuiabá, the capitol of Mato Grosso. Our first stop here is a meeting with a group called the Forum for Environmental Development of Mato Grosso.

Yesterday, while still in Rio, we met a professor and a leader of the Movement for Rural Workers without Land (known here as MST). The speakers were passionate about the ills they saw from the existing systems of land management, ownership and working conditions. Image removed.

They started with a striking video documenting the working conditions of field workers at sugar cane plantations. Many of these workers come to the fields in cattle trucks and work bent over planting and harvesting the cane with machetes or work nearly barehanded with pesticides. They often come from the most undeveloped and uneducated parts of Brazil. Our speakers repeatedly used the words "slave labor" and "slavery-like conditions" to describe what was going on, and they're not the first I've heard to do so. The speakers put the blame for this squarely at the feet of the extreme concentration of land-ownership, which has concentrated political and economic power, sped the consolidation of agriculture around a few major commodities and industrial agricultural practices.

One of the most fascinating changes happening in the sugar cane is the shifting from burning of the sugar cane fields in order to thin the sugar cane leaves, called trash, and speed up harvesting. The burning has been replaced on about 50% of the sugar cane fields by mechanized harvest, which strips the trash leaving it on the ground. There is an agreement (it might be a legal requirement) for the industry to shift 100% to mechanization by 2015. Mechanization returns a tremendous amount of organic matter to the soil and eliminates the need for burning with its air quality impacts and the dangerous and backbreaking work of manual harvesting, but it also dramatically reduces the number of jobs. The industry is paying for job training, but of course that doesn't actually create new jobs and the MST speaker was quick to point out that there was still a lot of harsh manual labor needed even at sugar cane plantations.

Image removed.

Our first full day in Rio, we heard a number of speakers as guests of IBASE and they had also talked about sugar cane and land-ownership trends. As they explained it, the sugar cane industry is motivated to improve its image not just from an environmental and human rights perspective but also as a commodity. The shift to mechanization and the job training are some evidence of this. But the industry is also working to export sugar cane cultivation and ethanol production so that there is a diversity of suppliers in the market. At first this may sounds improbably altruistic, but the explanation that was given is that buyers are reluctant to sign long-term contract when there is essentially only one country producing sugar cane ethanol.

So between MST and IBASE we got a very negative view of the sugar cane industry and a more moderate picture. Later this week, we'll meet with UNICA--the sugar cane ethanol industry association--in São Paulo. But the question that many of us on this trip have been talking amongst ourselves is whether there is really as stark a choice between large industrial agriculture with its ruthless efficient and high productivity and affordable food and healthy rural communities with robust biodiversity? Would it be possible for a country like Brazil to leapfrog the high intensity, high impact stage of agricultural development and get to a high intensity, low impact system? What would it take to make that the economically and politically desirable path?

[This is the 3rd in a series of blogs about my travels to Brazil with a group of farmer, ethanol producers, environmentalists and academics to learn about the impacts on land-use change in Brazil from biofuels policies at home and here. Here is the first and second.]