sugarcane industry is Brazil’s fastest-growing agribusiness
Its expansion has brought with it serious consequences
for the country, such as environmental destruction, removal of
agricultural workers from their land and frequent workers’
Sugarcane plant supervisors demand that each worker
cut, on average, twelve to fifteen tons of sugarcane per day.
Between January 2004 and September 2005, the
Migrants’ Pastoral registered eight workers’ deaths due to
an excess of work in the cane fields of the Ribeirão Preto
The WTO and the Destructive
Effects of the Sugarcane Industry in Brazil
is the world’s largest exporter of sugar. In
2004, the country exported 15.7 million tons of the product.
sugarcane industry was the largest growing sector of
agroindustry in 2005. In comparison with the production
of soy (one of the principal agricultural products exported by
Brazil), which grew 1.3%, the production of derivatives of
sugarcane grew 26.7% this year. This tendency of growth
will most likely continue, especially because of the Brazilian
government’s negotiations within the World Trade
production of ethanol alcohol should also rise. Brazil
is currently the largest producer, responsible for 45% of the
market. In 2004, Brazil exported 2.6 billons of liters
of the product. There is an expectation that Japan,
after ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for the
reduction of pollutant gas emissions, could begin to use a
mixture of 3% anhydrate alcohol in gasoline, and this
represents an increase of close to 1.8 billion liters per year
in Brazilian exports.
regions of the country that, historically, have cultivated
sugarcane in large scale have been the Northeast and the state
of São Paulo. More recently, the industry expanded to the
north of the state of Rio de Janeiro,
Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, north of Paraná, and the
states of the Midwest.
cane industry began to gain a larger dimension in Brazil with
the international crisis of the 70s, in which there was a
rapid drop in the petroleum market and a larger impulse in the
sugarcane sector, beginning with the creation of Proálcool
(Pro-Alcohol). From 1972 to 1995, the Brazilian
government gave incentives to increase the area of plantations
of sugarcane, and to structure the sugar-alcohol complex, with
Institute of Sugar and Alcohol, for example, was responsible
for all the commercialization and export of the product. It
subsidized businesses, gave incentives to the
“modernization” of the sector, rationed out fertile lands,
means of transport, energy, infrastructure, investments, etc.
sugarcane complex expanded under the protection of the State.
Agrarian property had a central role in this process, which
was linked to the official policies of access to credit and to
the benefits of State subvention”, affirms researcher Bruno
expansion of the sugarcane industry has brought serious
consequences, such as violations of workers’ rights and
environmental devastation. The agricultural model based on
monoculture for export contradicts the proposals to guarantee
food sovereignty and agrarian reform. The expansion of this
crop in agricultural frontier areas generates violence against
indigenous peoples and small farmers.
WTO and the Expansion of Sugarcane Monoculture
monoculture is expanding in Brazil due to the government’s
proposal of negotiating access to markets within the World
Trade Organization (WTO). The main goal of this policy
is to generate commercial advantages for the agricultural
sector based on export-oriented monocultures. One of the
principal sectors interested in this process is the sugarcane
industry, known historically for promoting land concentration,
violation of workers’ rights, and environmental destruction.
The increasing growth of this sector could make agrarian
reform impossible in many regions of the country.
its creation in 1995, the principal role of the World Trade
Organization (WTO) has been to expand its regulatory power in
147 countries, which means the ability to exercise large
influence over the daily lives of millions of people. Despite
spreading a “free market” ideology, the WTO has a complex
structure of rules utilized in defense of the large
corporations. The reach of the agreements contained in
the WTO goes much farther than just themes related to
it is fundamental for social movements to accompany the
current stage of negotiations, after the 6th
Ministerial Conference of the WTO, which took take place in
Hong Kong, in December of 2005. One of the main
proposals of agro-exporting countries of the South (like
Brazil) is to negotiate commercial benefits for agrobusiness
in exchange for the opening of our markets to strategic
sectors, such as services and industrial products.
is the world’s largest producer of sugar, due to its low
cost of production and large government incentives. The
European Union is the world’s second largest exporter of the
product, and uses beets as raw material. Within the WTO,
Brazil has questioned the subsidies of the European Union
towards its producers, but it also offers large subsidies to
its sugarcane industry.
priority of the Brazilian government within the WTO has been
to negotiate access to markets for large rural producers.
This policy goes against the proposals of social
movements that defend the strengthening of the internal
market, and food sovereignty. One of the main problems today
in the Brazilian countryside is the agricultural model
oriented towards the external market.
governments need to support and promote peasant-based
agriculture, because the quality of life of wide sectors of
the population, the territorial and environmental equilibrium,
and their capacity to define their priorities and commercial
strategies depend on it”, says
Paul Nicholson, a Via Campesina member.
increase in exports does not mean better conditions of life in
the countryside. With the implementation of NAFTA (North
American Free Trade Agreement), Mexico tripled its
agricultural exports and, at the same time, three million
farmworkers were ruined. Currently, Mexican corn
production is controlled by large multinationals. In
Asia, rice exports are dominated by Cargill, which, together
with General Foods and Nestlé, controls close to 70% of the
international market of foodstuffs.
destruction of the rural economy promoted by “free market”
policies has generated a new form of protest, as in the case
of Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae, who took his own life during a
march against the WTO in Cancun (Mexico), in September of
2003. As opposed to the image of desperation spread
through the conservative media, the gesture of Lee represents
a conscious sacrifice against the oppression of thousands of
the creation of the WTO, close to 600 deaths of this kind have
been registered every year in India. Farmworkers prefer
to die than to see their lands confiscated for not having
covered the costs of production, principally in times of
drought. For this reason, the main slogan of the
protests in Cancun became “WTO kills farmers”.
Model Based in Monoculture and Large Estates
sugarcane monoculture was installed in Brazil during the
period of Portuguese colonization. The first colonizers
arrived in the country in 1532. At that time, the production
was concentrated in the coastal areas of Pernambuco and Bahía.
Between 1532 and 1822, the profit generated by the commerce of
Brazilian sugar represented twice the profits generated by
gold, and five times all the other products together (wood,
coffee, cotton, etc.). Historically, this sector was
based on the exploitation of large territorial areas,
devastation of natural resources, and slave labor.
one of the principal pillars of the government’s
agricultural policy continues to be based on monoculture
export. Despite the propaganda of large agribusiness as
a symbol of “development”, this model generates serious
social and economic problems. Some of the principal
consequences of these policies are environmental degradation,
land concentration, and job loss for rural workers.
to the University of São Paulo
professor, Ariovaldo Umbelino, of the total jobs
generated in the Brazilian countryside, 87.3% are in the small
units of production, 10.2% are in medium-sized, and only 2.5%
are in the large units. This study also demonstrates
that the small and medium-sized rural properties are
responsible for the majority of food production.
these data, the government has prioritized an agricultural
policy that principally favors large businesses. In
2004, 10 transnational corporations received close to $4.5
billion reais from Banco do Brasil. This
amount is larger than all of the credit given to small farmers
through PRONAF (National Program for the Strengthening of
Family Agriculture). In total, the government disposed
of R$37 billion reais in credit for large landowners.
New Proálcool (Pro- alcohol)
there is a proposal to restructure Proálcool. The BNDES
(National Bank for Economic and Social Development) is the
principal financial agent of the new Proálcool. This
process is also stimulated by a Brazil-Germany bilateral
agreement for the subsidized production of 100,000 alcohol-run
vehicles, with the objective of collaborating so that Germany
meets its commitment with the Kyoto Protocol.
with so much governmental support, the sugar mills have
huge debts. According to the Pastoral Land Commission in
Pernambuco, the large sugar mills have a US$3.5 billion dollar
debt with state banks. At the same time, these industries
have been accused of using child labor, and repressing rural
workers. This situation has not changed since the period of
colonization, when the power of “Sugar Barons”
to researcher Bruno Ribeiro, the
State sustains these Sugar Barons. “Their business is
not sugar or alcohol, but the appropriation of resources
through programs, incentives, and opportunities offered by the
government. These producers are sustained thanks to the
political power they maintain”.
with so much governmental support, many Sugar Mills went
bankrupt in the state of Pernambuco. In the past 20
years, the number of factories diminished from 43 to 22.
However, the area of these factories remains the same.
Therefore, land concentration is higher today. During
this period, 150,000 rural workers lost their jobs, and 40,000
small farmers lost their land in the sugarcane region.
Their alternatives are to search for employment in nearby
cities, to migrate, or to struggle for agrarian reform.
the state of São Paulo, the richest region of the country,
despite the great profits of the producers, the situation is
not different. The sugarcane industry is founded on the
over-exploitation of work, including slave labor.
Australia, Brazil has the lowest cost of production of sugar
in the world because it exploits workers. In the state
of São Paulo, the cost of production is $165 dollars per ton.
In the European Union the cost is $700 dollars per ton.
“The sugarcane complex is one of the most important
agroindustrial complexes of Brazil; it has very competitive
products in the international market thanks to low costs of
production, which are associated with low salaries paid to
workers”, explains professor Francisco Alves, from the
Federal University of São Carlos.
sugarcane industry is known for large agricultural
concentration. Of a total of five million planted acres,
barely 20% of the sugarcane produced in Brazil comes from
small or medium-sized properties. In the region of Riberão
Preto (SP), the entire land base is concentrated in the hands
of eight families.
recent year, the tendency is for small mills to close. From
2000 to 2004, 20 mills were negotiated in Brazil, the majority
in São Paulo. Recently, there was a growth in
participation of foreign companies in the sector, and an
increase in the economic power of some groups.
of the larger foreign corporations in the sector are the
French companies Louis Dreyfus, which acquired the mills
Cresciumal (in São Paulo) and Luciância (in Minas Gerais);
and Béghin-Say, which acquired the mills Guaraní and Cruz
Alta in São Paulo. The company Cosan also associated
itself recently with the group Béghin-Say and Trading Secden
(French-Brazilian Sugar and Alcohol S.A.) and acquired five
Slave Work and Violations of Workers’ Rights
expansion and the growing mechanization of the sugarcane
sector have generated greater exploitation of the workforce.
Principally in São Paulo, the greater part of sugarcane
cutting is done by migratory workers from the Northeast and
from the Valley of Jequinhonha in Minas Gerais. The
Pastoral of Migrants estimates that close to 200,000 migratory
workers work in São Paulo during the harvest period of
sugarcane, orange, and coffee. In the sugarcane
industry, the number of migrants per harvest is estimated at
thousands of workers this “temporary” situation becomes
permanent from the lack of alternative employment in their
regions of origin. They begin a vicious circle.
“The work here is the toughest that exists, but it’s the
only work we have,” states a migrant worker from Pernambuco.
Even saying they wouldn’t ever want to return to
harvesting sugarcane, many end up submitting themselves
indefinitely to this situation of extreme exploitation.
Between harvests, a reduced number of laborers is used to
prepare the land, plant, and apply pesticides.
loss caused by an agricultural model based on monocropping and
large estates increases the contingent of workers who submit
themselves to working in areas far from their place of origin,
in precarious conditions. In addition, cases of slave work
have increased in recent years.
often begin their activities in debt. One of the
frequent debts encountered before beginning work is with
transportation (usually clandestine, called “excursions”)
that costs on average R$200.00 per worker migrating from the
Northeast to São Paulo. The migrant workers are seduced
by “cats” or “coyotes” who are usually
the owners of the buses which make the journey.
the sugarcane regions, so-called “dormitory-cities” have
increased, where migrant workers live in tenement houses, or
overcrowded barracks, without ventilation or minimal hygienic
conditions. Despite their precarious situation, the cost
of housing and food for sugarcane workers is much higher than
the average paid by the local population.
incorporation of new technology into the sugarcane sector
increased workers’ exploitation. Mechanization generates
superexploitation of workers because it creates new demands
such as cutting sugar cane close to the ground (in order to
take greater advantage of the concentration of sucrose) and a
better trimmed sugar cane stalk. This increases the
labor of the workers and the time spent working. With
the mechanization of the sector, workers have to cut the cane
in more difficult conditions, where the terrain is not flat,
the crops are planted irregularly, and the cane is of poorer
mechanized cutting of sugarcane became a reference for the
quantity cut by the workers, which increased from six tons per
day, per worker, in the 80s, to 10 tons per day in the 90s.
Today, some workers need to cut between 12 and 15 tons
per day, principally in regions where the rhythm of the
machines became a reference for productivity. Not
meeting this goal often means that workers will be fired or
placed on a list that circulates among various factories,
which means they will not return to work in the next harvest.
of this norm, only a small number of women work in sugarcane
the women who still do this work, the situation is even worse
because their daily workload is doubled. In addition to
cutting sugarcane, they have to do most of the domestic work,
as well as take care of their children. This means a much
larger effort for women who, even with all the difficulties,
are faced with brutal labor tasks. Some sugarmills also demand
that the women should be sterilized, so they cannot have
majority of workers don’t have any control over the load or
measure of their daily production, which is exercised by the
factory. Many denunciations point towards the
manipulation and fraud of these data by the Mills, who pay
less than the workers have the right to earn. The Union
of Rural Workers of Dobrada (São Paulo), for example,
denounced cases in which workers received the equivalent of 10
cut tons per day, when the quantity was actually 19 tons.
the state of São Paulo, the workers receive R$2.60 reais
(or one dollar) per ton of cut cane. The minimum wage is
R$410.00 reais per
month. When a worker reaches an average of 10 tons per
day, he could earn R$800.00 reais
per month. But the cost of accommodations and food
is close to R$400.00 reais per month.
“failure” caused by losing work over not meeting the goal
of 10 to 12 tons per day, and the impossibility of returning
home with nothing for the family, has made many workers
“escape” or “disappear”, migrating once again (mostly
towards the Center-West region) or searching for temporary
work on the peripheries of urban centers. This process
creates a category of “itinerant” workers.
system of free time within the Mills is one of “5 for 1”,
or rather, the workers have one day off for every five days of
work. This means that on each free day only a relatively
small group of workers can meet, which makes social and family
relationships, and political organization more difficult.
The majority of free days are not on the weekends, when
the workers would have greater possibilities of exercising
these activities. This system excludes the demand that
Mills pay overtime for work done at weekends.
Pernambuco, the workers earn on average two minimum wages per
month, if they reach the goal of cutting 9 tons of sugarcane
per day. They also denounce fraud in weighing the load
of cane, as well as mistreatment and lack of job security.
“When there’s service, the harvest lasts three to four
months. The rest of the time we spend hungry.
I’m 55 years old and nobody wants to hire me because they
think I’m ‘scrap iron’. Also I can’t retire
because I haven’t completed 35 years of service”, says
worker José Santos, who today awaits the expropriation
process to be settled on lands of the Aliança Sugar Mill,
Problems and Workers’ Deaths
2004 and 2005, the Migrants’ Pastoral of São Paulo
registered 13 deaths of sugarcane workers, from excess of work
and lack of an adequate diet. These deaths happened after the
workers fainted during the cutting of cane. According to
a doctor from the company, the workers didn’t need aid
because they were “lazy”. So, they didn’t receive
adequate treatment when their health problems began.
the deaths occurring in the cane fields, there are those that
go unregistered, and that happen across a certain amount of
time. Illnesses like cancer, provoked by the use of
poisons, sugarcane soot, as well as respiratory illnesses,
allergies, spinal column illnesses, linked to the almost
entire impossibility of being treated due to the inexistence
of financial resources to purchase medicines impedes them from
continuing in the work market”, explains professor,
Maria Aparecida de Moraes of the University of São Paulo.
repetitive movements of cane cutting cause tendinitis and
spinal column problems, loosening of the digits and spasms,
provoked by the excessive loss of potassium.
Frequent spasms followed by dizziness, headache and
vomiting are called “birola”. Many workers use
medicines (like injections called “amarelinhas”) and drugs
(like crack and marijuana) to alleviate the pain and stimulate
their performance. In cutting 10 tons of cane per day,
it’s estimated that each worker needs to give 10,000 blows
with the machete.
wounds and mutilations caused by cane cutting, principally on
the legs and the hands, are also frequent. Because of
this, a company rarely notifies these work accidents and there
is practically no control on the part of governmental
organizations. Many sick or mutilated workers, despite being
unable to work, do not qualify as disabled.
studies demonstrate that the practice of extensive
environmental destruction. The production of
sugarcane is destructive, since it promotes the burning of the
soil, a high level of chemical product usage, as well as
pollution and chemical garbage from the processing plants of
alcohol and sugar.
international report of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), from
November 2004, alerts that the sugarcane industry is the
principal branch of monocrop that pollutes the environment and
destroys fauna and flora. Sugarcane culture covers more
than half the territory of seven countries, and between
10%-50% of the territory of 15 countries. Great
extensions of fertile lands were already degraded from the
monocropping of sugarcane. The burning and the
processing of cane pollute the soil, the air, and sources of
potable water. It utilizes a large quantity of herbicides
and pesticides. Data from the World Heath Organization
point to close to 25 million people who have presented cases
of acute poisoning per year, resulting from contact with these
Brazil, this practice affects workers, who many times do not
protection whilst applying these products. In
Pernambuco, many areas of cane planting have a declivity of
close to 45%, which causes the poisons to flow off and extend
even further. The waste residues of sugarcane are constantly
deposited in rivers, causing the death of fish, crustaceans,
and vegetation, as well as the pollution of the riverbeds and
subterranean water. The processing of sugarcane in the
Mills pollutes the air through the burning of bagasse, which
produces soot and smoke.
June and August of 2005, a state of alert was declared in the
sugarcane regions of São Paulo because the burning caused
humidity levels to reach extremely low numbers (between 13%
and 15%). According to the National Institute of Space
Research (INPE), 287 areas of burning were registered during
this period, which represents an increase of 47.94% in
relation to the same period in 2004. Technicians of INPE
defend a “moratorium on burning”.
with all of its environmental problems, the monocropping of
sugarcane is being negotiated as a form of generating
“clean” energy. After the Kyoto Protocol was signed
in 1997, and reinforced at the Rio + 10 Conference in 2002 in
South Africa, the “carbon market” was created, utilized by
central (e.g. European Union) countries that need to reduce
their emission of pollutant gases by 5.2%, by 2010.
Towards this, the Mechanism of Clean Development (MDL) was
created, establishing that each ton of carbon gas that is no
longer emitted or is absorbed from the atmosphere could be
sold on the world market. The German government, for
example, proposes negotiating $100 million reais of
carbon credit through the substitution of gasoline for
alcohol. This would represent an increase in Brazilian
exports of 430 million liters of alcohol per year.
being considered a “clean” form of energy, the production
of sugarcane destroys the environment and affects the health
of the population. Burning facilitates the harvest, but
it destroys a large part of the microorganisms in the soil,
pollutes the air and causes respiratory diseases. A
large part of this production in Brazil is done without any
environmental control. In Pernambuco, for example, only
5% of the Atlantic Forest remains in the sugarcane region.
Maria Luisa Mendonça is a journalist and director of Social
Justice and Human Rights Network