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The sugarcane industry is Brazil’s fastest-growing agribusiness of 2005.  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’ rights violations.  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 region alone.

The WTO and the Destructive Effects of the Sugarcane Industry in Brazil

Maria Luisa Mendonça*

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of sugar.  In 2004, the country exported 15.7 million tons of the product.  The 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 Organization (WTO).

The 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.

The 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, to Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, north of Paraná, and the states of the Midwest.

The 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 large subsidies.  

The 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.

“The 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 Ribeiro.

The 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.

The WTO and the Expansion of Sugarcane Monoculture

Sugarcane 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.

Since 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 international trade.

Therefore, 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.

Brazil 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.

The 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.

“Our 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.

The 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.

The 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 farmworkers.  

Since 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”.

Agricultural Model Based in Monoculture and Large Estates

The 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.

Currently, 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.

According 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.  

Despite 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.

The New Proálcool (Pro- alcohol)

Currently, 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. 

Even 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” predominated.

According 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”.

Even 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.

In 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.

After 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Some 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 mills.

Migration, Slave Work and Violations of Workers’ Rights

The 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 40,000.

For 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.

Job 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.

These workers 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.

In 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.

The 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 quality.

The 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.  

Because of this norm, only a small number of women work in sugarcane cutting. For 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 children.

The 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.

In 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.

The “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.

The 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.

In 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, bankrupt since 1996.

Health Problems and Workers’ Deaths

Between 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.

“Besides 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.

The 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.

The 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. 

Environmental Destruction

Many studies demonstrate that the practice of extensive monocropping promotes 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.

An 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 chemical products.

In Brazil, this practice affects workers, who many times do not use adequate 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.

Between 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”.

Even 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.

Despite 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