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.
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.
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.]