Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Biofuel bonanza not so sweet for Brazil's sugar cane cutters

Half a million jobs and 500 years of tradition are to be phased out in Brazil's booming sugar cane industry to satisfy western demands for more socially acceptable work practices in the biofuel sector.

Sugar cane cutters who have been working Brazil's land since 1525, when Portuguese colonialists first experimented with growing the crop, are to make way for mechanisation.

The Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry Association (UNICA) said 80% of the 500,000 jobs would be gone within three years and admitted that moving to a tractor-based system would cause pain and upheaval for its migrant workforce.

"This will not solve the problem of migration — there will still be a social problem," Marcos Jank, the president of the association, told a briefing on biofuels in Sao Paulo, adding the group had signed a new "social" and "green" protocol with the government to improve overall conditions in the field.

The condition of sugar workers was rarely noticed when the commodity was exported for sugar but the position has changed now that Brazil is the world's second-largest exporter of sugar-based ethanol to use as a biofuel in petrol.

Behind the move to phase out sugar cane cutters are tales of exploitation that have damaged the image of Brazilian biofuels in big importing countries such as Sweden and potentially in Britain, where the government has mandated that 2.5% of all petrol come from biofuels.

Critics have accused Brazil's sugar cane industry of presiding over child labour, high accident rates and workers earning as little as $1.35 (67p) an hour. Employers insist that pay is three times that level.

Manual labour is also blamed for poor environmental practices such as crop wastage and the burning of stubble. Mechanised systems will be able to harvest more of the crop and allow Brazil to use by-products for powering electricity plants, argues UNICA.

Brazilian ethanol output grew by nearly a quarter during 2007 to a record 22bn litres, with around 4bn being exported.

The government believed it was going to be able to build a huge new export industry around biofuels. But that dream is under threat as the emerging crop-based fuel sector becomes mired in arguments over "food for fuel" and the idea that rising food prices can be attributed to farmers using land to grow fuel crops.

There are also claims that biofuels are causing deforestation in sensitive areas such as Brazil's Amazon Basin, seen by scientists as the lungs of the world because the trees there absorb so much carbon.

UNICA says subsidies in America and Europe for farmers and biofuels may be one element of the rising price of food which has caused riots in Haiti and other countries. But Jank insists Brazil is not contributing to that development because only 1% of arable land is used for ethanol production.

He is also adamant that increased ethanol production is not affecting the Amazon, claiming the area is too wet to grow sugar and insisting other farming is not being pushed into the rain forests to make way for ethanol elsewhere.

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