majority of sugar workers come from the northeastern states
and the Valley of Jequitinhonha, Minas Gerais.
In general, when they migrate, they travel
clandestinely and are subjected to conditions analogous to
slavery. From 2004 to 2006, the Pastoral of Migrants
registered 17 deaths that occurred from excessive work.
Intensive sweat causes
loss of potassium and can lead to cardio-respiratory
attacks. Other cases refer to occurrences of aneurysm, the
breaking of cerebral veins.
rights violations and death of sugarcane workers
Aparecida de Moraes Silva*
little girl, orphan of the sugarcane, her father promised her
a bicycle at the end of the 2005 harvest.
He died first. She,
still, didn't understand the meaning of
She continued dreaming and waiting for her father to
come back (because he went to heaven, according to her mother),
to show him that she had learned to pedal.
the last century, the region of Ribeirão Preto, in the state
of São Paulo, has been known as one of the most developed of
the country. Principally, coffee was responsible for the
production of great wealth.
At the beginning of the 1960s, sugarcane and ethanol
factories began to appear, whose expansion of production,
throughout these past decades, has placed this region at the
highest ranking of the Brazilian economy. In the last few
years, ethanol has been seen as an alternative to solve future
energy problems surging from a scarcity of global hydrocarbon
reserves. Large companies such as Microsoft and Google have
already shown interest in investing in this kind of business,
which places Brazil as one of the most competitive contry in
the world in ethanol production.
According to UNICA (Union of Sugarcane Workers of the
State of São Paulo), in 2006, 19 new factories will be
installed in the state, which corresponds to the production of
millions of hectares of sugarcane.
the same time, the largest processor of sugar in the world –
COSAN S.A. Industry and Commerce – will invest US$ 400
million in the sugar-based ethanol sector over the next few
years, increasing the giant number of 50 million tons milled
per year. This
company, which combines national and foreign capital, obtained
large profits in 2005, because of the rise in its stock on the
financial market to the tune of 132%. (Folha
de S. Paulo, Dinheiro, B10, 24 March, 2006)
the traveler who zooms down the highways of São Paulo, after
the city of Campinas, in any direction, the impression that
she will have will be that she is in the middle of a gigantic
sugarcane field. The objectified history of this region –
characterized by antiquated coffee plantations, by the houses
of settlers and colonizers, by the multicolored plantations of
corn, cotton, peanuts, beans, beyond the grasses, the local
roads, the forest reserves, and small alleyways – is headed
towards disappearing, giving way to the monochrome of
sugarcane fields, except for the areas occupied by orange
the months between April and November, even the stars appear
blackened by gigantic clouds of smoke produced by the burning
of sugarcane, a predatory practice on the environment and on
the health of the rural and urban populations that live there.
According to a recent report, burned areas have increased more
than 1000% during harvest in the region of Ribeirão Preto.
This fact has provoked various health effects on the
people of the city, excluding the fact that there is an almost
50% increase of the number of patients with respiratory
problems (Folha de S.
Paulo, Folha Ribeirão, C1, 28 March, 2006). The gases
expelled by the soot of burned sugarcane are carbons,
nitrogens (above all nitrogen monoxide and dioxide), and
sulfers (such as sulfer monoxide and dioxide).
Some of these gases head to the atmosphere and may mix
with water, generating nitrous and sulfuric acids which, in
levels of large accumulation, may cause acid rain, which harms
the environment. Beyond
these gases, there has been the formation of various
hydrocarbons and odors containing benzene and similar
substances, which are very dangerous to health. (Zampernini,
1997; Allen et al., 2004; Rocha &Franco, 2003; Oppenheimer
et al., 2004)
innumerable denunciations, including by the Public Ministry,
the burnings continue, sheltered by State Law N. 11.241/2002,
contrary to the previous law, which foresaw the end of this
predatory practice on the environment and people's health,
towards establishing a percentage increase in the elimination
of sugarcane burnings from one to five years in mechanized
mechanized areas with a slope larger than 12% and an area less
than 150 hectares, the final time period for the elimination
of burning is by the year 2031.
According to this law, the mechanized area of this
region is about 30%.
the past few years, the wealth produced by sugar and alcohol
agribusiness has been exposed through agricultural shows,
fairs in Ribeirão Preto that aim at revealing a “modern”
Brazil, technologically advanced, whose agriculture is
produced only through machines.
Nevertheless, there is another reality behind the
curtains of this show: an invisible world, hidden among the
sugarcane fields and orange groves that make up the gigantic
production of this region: violation of workers rights.
majority of sugar workers are from the northeast and the
Valley of Jequitinhonha, Minas Gerais. When they migrate,
travel clandestinely and are subjected to conditions analogous
to slavery, according to the denunciations of the Public
Prosecutor, the Ministry of Labor, and the Pastoral of
2004 to 2006, the Pastoral of Migrants registered 17 deaths
that occurred from excessive work. According to medical
reports, intensive sweat causes the loss of potassium, and can
lead to cardio respiratory attacks. Other cases refer to
occurrences of aneurysm, the breaking of cerebral veins.
of these deaths gained space in the local, regional, and even
in international media outlets. These denunciations, initially sent to the Public Ministry,
called attention to the General Attorney's office of São
Paulo, of the Brazilian Platform for Economic, Social, and
Cultural Rights, and the Federal Prosecutor of Citizen's
Rights (PGR/MPF) – who organized two public assemblies in
the city of Ribeirão Preto during the month of October, 2005
– as well as the Legislative Assembly of the State of São
Paulo, represented by the Commission of Agriculture and Cattle,
which is responsible for the organization of the third public
assembly in the city of São Paulo, in December 2005.
In 2006, the Public Ministry of Labor carried out
various assemblies with the intent of discussing the end to
violations of labor rights.
deaths are the tip of the iceberg of a giant process of
exploitation, in which it is not only the labor force that is
consumed, but also the very life of the worker. Historically, this system of exploitation maintains strong
similarities with the events that occurred in England during
the 19th century, when at manufacturing plants, in virtue of
the extraction of the highest absolute worth, work hours were
extended to 18 hours per day, causing many workers to die.
In various studies that have already been published, we
can recognize that this fact was always associated with an
offer of a large workforce that had come from the poorest
areas of the country, and in line with the historical
conditions that had defined these workers as
“disqualified” and “unworthy,” values that would enter
into the determination of the price of labor. This phenomenon
has been accompanied by a process of capitalist accumulation
in various historical periods, in various countries. Currently,
so-called illegal immigration of workers from poor areas
towards rich areas is nothing more than the other side of the
coin. In reality,
illegality is a method of lowering the cost of labor, as a
result of which immigrants cannot have access to social and
workers' rights, and are considered “non-citizens,” "undocumented"
people, obliged to live in hiding, in fear of deportation, or
being thrown in jail as criminals, as various research attests
about the issue of international migration in today's world.
In the sugarcane fiels, each worker needs to cut 10
tons of sugarcane per day. In some factories, there is
indication of drug use, such as marijuana and crack, to
increase the capacity of work during the cut. The phrase "It doesn't help to go to the fields with a
clean face" reflects the cruelty and brutality of these
working conditions. Marijuana, according to some workers,
alleviates arm pain. When it comes to crack, this is a
stimulant, and therefore its use increases productivity.
the 1980s, the average productivity demanded of the workers
was 5 to 8 tons of cut sugarcane per day; in 1990, it rose to
8 to 9 tons; in the year 2000 it increased to 10 tons, and in
2004 to 12 to 15 tons per day.
Nonetheless, this amount is in reality higher, since
the productivity is based on random calculations. The cane is
weighed at the factory, and therefore the control of this
operation is out of the hands of the workers, who, in many
cases, feel cheated.
Another problem the workers face is the lack of
nutrition, aggravated by excessive force, which contributes to
the increase in accidents at work, in addition to the
weakening of the respiratory system, back and spinal pain,
tendonitis, and cramps produced by the loss of potassium
through sweat. The
soot of burned sugarcane contains venomous gases, and,
according to what is being reported by the Public Prosecutor,
the factories utilize agrochemicals that speed up the
maturation of the cane barely three weeks before it is cut.
These products are highly damaging to health.
public assemblies, many reports of workers confirmed the
suffering they face during work, the bruises on their bodies,
vomiting, fainting, and even deaths that have occurred in 17
mentioned their work schedules which reach up to 18 hours per
these human rights violations continue, the international
market places Brazil at the highest level of success in agribusiness.
This is the paradox of the two worlds of contemporary
Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva is a professor at the
Geography Depatment at the State University of São Paulo.