BOCAINA, BRAZIL — For as far as the eye can see, stalks of sugar cane march across the hillsides here like giant praying mantises. This is ground zero for ethanol production in Brazil — “the Saudi Arabia of biofuels,” as some have already labeled this vast South American country.
But even as Brazil’s booming economy is powered by fuel processed from the cane, labor officials are confronting what some call the country’s dirty little ethanol secret: the mostly primitive conditions endured by the multitudes of workers who cut the cane.
Biofuels may help reduce humanity’s carbon footprint, but the social footprint is substantial.
“These workers should have a break, a place to eat and access to a proper restroom,” Marcus Vinicius Goncalves, a government labor cop in suit and tie, declared in the midst of a snarl of felled stalks and bedraggled cane cutters here. “This is degrading treatment.”
More than 300,000 farmworkers are seasonal cane cutters in Brazil, the government says. By most accounts, their work and living conditions range from basic to deplorable to outright servitude.
“Brazil has a great climate, great land and technology, but a lot of the competitive edge for biofuels is due to worker exploitation — from slave work to underpayment,” said Leonardo Sakamoto, a political scientist who runs a nonprofit labor watchdog group in Sao Paulo.
In the last four years, said a lawyer from the Public Ministry, which acts as the Sao Paulo state district attorney, at least 18 cane cutters have died of dehydration, heart attacks or other ailments linked to exhaustion in this region, where the forests long ago gave way to agriculture.
That does not include an unknown number of others who died in accidents, said the lawyer, Luis Henrique Rafael, part of a two-attorney team from the Public Ministry’s office that recently toured the area to investigate abuses of the labor code.