Migration and Mechanization in Brazil’s Biofuel Cane Fields

  Source: Americas Program

In the rich sugarcane region of São Paulo lies the quiet town of Guariba. Outside the Catholic Church in Guariba’s main square, a driver parallel parks his horse and cart in between a Chevy and a Fiat. A street vendor pushes a stalk of sugarcane through a press to extract its sweet juice for a thirsty customer while young Brazilians hang out in front of an Internet café in between video games and chat sessions. At the center of an ethanol boom that is transforming Brazil’s centuries-old sugar industry into a high-tech global supplier of biofuels, Guariba is a collision of old and new.

Almost 10% of Guariba’s population works as cane cutters. Most have migrated from Northeastern Brazil where land and jobs are scarce. As Brazilians continue to flock to the region in search of a better way of life, however, the globalizing industry may make those dreams even more elusive.

Since the 1970s, Brazil has developed a vibrant ethanol industry that has displaced half of its domestic market for petroleum-based gasoline. In the last five years, Brazil has emerged as the largest global exporter of ethanol. The nation has not only expanded production and exports, but also created a lucrative niche supplying ethanol technology and investment to Central American and Caribbean nations hoping to cash in on the growing market for biofuels.

A Hard Day’s Work

On a Sunday afternoon, 30-year-old João Dias Peixoto is relaxing on a bench in one of Guariba’s plazas. Originally from Minas Gerais, Peixoto migrated here to Guariba to cut cane at a nearby plantation. He considers the ethanol boom a positive development for the nation. "If there’s a foreign market, it’s a good thing," he says.

When asked how work is, however, Dias Peixoto is less upbeat. He pauses for a minute. "It’s complicated," he says finally. He admits that he can’t cover expenses and calls the industry "a type of slavery."

The slavery allusion isn’t mere hyperbole. Brazilian labor ministry raids on agricultural operations this past year uncovered over 4,500 workers held in debt-slavery, over half of them on cane plantations. Even where cane cutters earn a minimum wage, their total pay is based on the volume of cane cut. Because it’s nearly impossible for workers to estimate the volume they’ve cut, wage gouging is common. The taxing physical labor of cutting cane often leads to debilitating spinal injuries while the practice of burning cane fields to facilitate manual cutting can cause severe respiratory illness. As competition increases in the industry, workers compete to cut at faster rates to secure a scarce spot in the next harvest, leading some to work until collapse and even death.

The backbreaking nature of manual cane cutting is one of the rare points that most Brazilians can agree on. And it’s an issue that is receiving growing scrutiny from ethanol importers, especially in Europe. What to do about it, however, is less clear.

With the increased investment and competition in the ethanol industry and the international scrutiny of working conditions as well as the environmental impacts of cane burning, Brazil’s sugar ethanol industry is rapidly mechanizing. Most cane workers view mechanization as a greater threat than the hazards of their labors.

According to the Rural Workers Union of Guariba, each mechanical harvester replaces over 100 workers. The Brazilian Sugar Cane Industry Association predicts that 80% of the sector’s 500,000 jobs will be gone in the next three years because of mechanization. In the absence of other jobs to absorb this largely migrant labor force, the result could be social dislocation and upheaval.

An Invisible Population

Sister Ines Facioli coordinates the Pastoral do Migrante, a Catholic organization serving the region’s migrant cane cutters. According to Sister Ines, approximately 70% of the state of São Paulo’s 350,000 cane cutters are migrant laborers. However, neither the mills nor the government know who these migrant workers are, where they are living, or how they are living. While cane cutters used to be housed in mill-owned compounds, as the industry shifts from family-owned mills to mills owned by investment groups and multinational companies, workers are predominantly left to find their own housing in nearby towns or cities. Many migrants live with other cane cutters in informal shacks in towns or the sprawling favelas in urban peripheries.

The main drive for migrants to leave their communities is a lack of economic opportunity, especially in the impoverished northeast. "They don’t have land, and just working the land doesn’t provide enough to live on," explains Sister Ines. "They come here with the goal of buying a little land, building a house."

At the bus station in Timbiras, in the region of Maranhão, every day 13 buses leave for São Paulo. In 2007 approximately 70,000 residents migrated. But for many, the dream that motivates young Maranhenses to leave their hometowns is never realized.

"People are going to migrate where there’s work … in search of something better," says Sister Ines. "Only thing is, its worse. The housing of the Maranhenses here is worse than what they had there. More importantly, there they had a social structure."

Illusive Promise

At the corner of Guariba’s plaza, cars pull up to the white and green Nivaldo Mazz gas station to fill up with ethanol for 1.25 Brazilian reals per liter. "The price of ethanol has gone up," says Dias Peixoto as he looks on. "But it’s not a high price for someone who works in cane—the worker doesn’t see any of it."

The cost of Brazilian ethanol isn’t measured only in reals. "Someone who cuts cane for 10 years is used up," says Sister Ines. "You see them with their arms swollen, deformed, with spinal problems."

While the increasing mechanization of Brazil’s cane sector may help improve the industry’s image by removing humans from an exhausting exploitative process, as Sister Ines sees it, it’s not without its own significant costs. "It’s going to generate more poverty," she says, especially for migrants. "If they don’t have employment there, they come here. And if they don’t have employment here, where will they go?"

Difficult Solutions

Alleviating long-standing problems of poverty and migration requires investing in the country’s more impoverished regions and, more important, far-reaching programs in land reform so that rural Brazilians can find opportunity without having to migrate. But increasing access to land isn’t part of the government’s biofuels development plan, nor is it a focus of other nations emulating Brazil’s example.

While the biofuels boom may have attracted a rush of investment dollars from across the globe, greater profits haven’t benefited the Brazilians who labor to produce that energy. "The mills don’t value our work," says Dias Peixoto. "It doesn’t matter if the end product has value."

Though the recent global financial crisis is slowing new biofuels investment, analysts predict that the biofuels boom will reemerge as petroleum prices rebound. As the promise of biofuels-led economic development continues to capture the imagination of migrants across Brazil, as well as nations throughout the region, under globalization, that promise may be drifting farther from reality.

"I came here hoping to find something better—the reason anyone migrates," says Dias Peixoto. "But it’s only an illusion."

Gretchen Gordon is a freelance writer on energy and globalization in Latin America and a contributor to the CIP Americas Program www.americaspolicy.org. She can be reached at graciela(at)riseup.net.