Ethan Arpi

More Thoughts on Ethanol

sugarcaneSilvio Donizetti Palvequeres, president of the farm workers? union in Ribeir?o Preto, told the New York Times in April that Brazil’s ethanol boom has only increased the burden placed on sugarcane farmhands.? ?You used to have to cut 4 tons a day, but now they want 8 or 10, and if you can’t make the quota, you’ll be fired,” he said. “We have to work a lot harder than we did 10 years ago, and the working conditions continue to be tough.”? Through rose colored lenses, Brazil’s experiment with alternative fuels like ethanol may seem like the perfect green fix to this country’s development challenges.? But ethanol has many potential pitfalls, which, if left unaddressed, threaten to overshadow its economic and environmental contributions in the region.

The state of S?o Paulo, where Palvequeres works, produces 60% of the sugarcane grown in Brazil and is looking to increase production capacity to match the growing need.? Yet the growth of this industry in southern Brazil may have repercussions felt as far away as the Amazon.? ?The expansion of sugar production,? Larry Rohter writes in the New York Times, ?has come largely at the expense of pasture land, leading to worries that the grazing of cattle, another booming export product, could be shifted to the Amazon, encouraging greater deforestation.? ?Brazil has also extended a welcoming hand to the world’s largest industrial farmers, who eye ethanol, and especially the sugarcane used to produce it, with growing interest.? Marcelo Pedroso Goulart, an environmentalist in the region, told the Folha Ribeir?o that agribusiness has had a significant impact on working conditions in Ribeir?o Preto, which has the lowest wages for sugarcane farmers in the state.? In fact, from 2004 to 2005, 13 sugarcane workers here died from exhaustion on the job. ?There is a group here that earns lots of money, which is based in agribusiness and, on the other side, there is a mass of super exploited workers, in both the economic and physical sense,? Goulart remarks.

As sugarcane production becomes more mechanized and technologically advanced, the future of these farmhands may not be so grim.? At the Center for Sugar Cane Technology (CTC), a private research organization located 170 km outside the sprawling city of Sao Paulo, scientists are working to develop new varieties of sugarcane to make cultivation more efficient and less labor intensive.? For these scientists, expanding the size of plantations is not the answer to the increased demand of sugarcane.? Genetic engineering is.? Many of the new varieties of sugarcane produced at the CTC have been modified with genes of plants, animals, and other life forms.? But because it is illegal to plant genetically modified sugarcane in Brazil, these scientists are required to burn the GMOs upon completion of their experiments. ?

And yet Tadeu Andrade, the head of CTC, is optimistic about the future of genetically modified sugarcane in Brazil.? “There’s no doubt that transgenic sugarcane will be part of the future of the sugarcane-alcohol sector. Biotechnology will add value to sugarcane, will reduce production costs and will turn sugarcane into a bio-refinery.?? The big question left unanswered is what will happen to the workers.

World Resources Institute