Brazil hopes to supply drivers worldwide with the fuel of the future — cheap ethanol derived from sugarcane. It is considered an effective antidote to climate change, but hundreds of thousands of Brazilian plantation workers harvest the cane at slave wages.
In the middle of the night, the plantations around Araçoiaba in Brazil´s ethanol zone are on fire. The area looks like a war zone during the sugarcane harvest, as the burning fields light up the sky and the wind carries clouds of smoke across the countryside.
The fires chase away snakes, kill tarantulas and burn away the sharp leaves of the cane plants. In the morning, when only embers remain, tens of thousands of workers with machetes head into the fields throughout this region in northeastern Brazil. They harvest the cane, which survives the fire and which is used to distill ethanol, the gasoline of the future.
Hours earlier, Antonio da Silva attempts to get up from his plank bed. He doesn´t need an alarm clock, even at two in the morning. The pain wakes him up. He looks at the other two beds in the room, where his children sleep — four young girls and two boys. Once outside, in front of the hut, he says he may not be able to feed them for much longer.
He knows a hernia finished him, and it was the hernia that forces him to push his intestines into place when he straightens up after bending over. He feels two types of pain: a dull throbbing pain in his groin that has been there for a long time, and the sharp pain he experiences whenever he cuts sugarcane with his facão, or machete.
When foremen realized he was holding his intestines in place with his hand, they chased him off the plantation. They are uninterested in sick old men when plenty of young, strong workers can take their place. According to a study done at the University of São Paulo, cane cutters last an average of 12 years on the job before they are so worn out that they have to be replaced. Da Silva is 43, an old man on the plantations.
Though his hernia was repaired in the hospital, the doctor told him he should no longer cut cane, especially not for the next few months. Otherwise the wound might reopen and possibly kill him.
Only 11 days later, da Silva was back to cutting cane, this time on a different plantation, far in the south of Araçoiaba. He looks strong, with his muscular upper body and short haircut. No one at the new plantation is aware of his pain.
"What can I do?" da Silva asks. "There is nothing else here. Those who do not cut sugarcane go hungry. And then there are the children." He packs his facão and a canister containing five liters of water, just enough to last him through the heat of the day. He walks to one of several waiting buses that arrive, late at night, to take the men from Araçoiaba to the plantations.
Da Silva must harvest three-and-a-half tons of sugarcane by sunset. This is his daily quota, enough to make about 300 liters of biofuel. To do this, da Silva will have to strike the cane with his facão about 3,000 times, working among the ashes and embers and under the scorching sun. If the doctor is right, one of those blows will eventually tear open his groin again.
Da Silva is one of about a million people toiling away on the plantations and in Brazil´s ethanol factories. Many live and suffer much as their ancestors did — as slaves on sugar plantations. Government investigators occasionally liberate a handful of cane workers, but in such a big country the officials are few and far between. The real power lies in the hands of militias, or capangas, working for the sugar barons. They intimidate workers and drive away small farmers with bulldozers, all in support of a global vision. "By 2030 we will be the world´s largest fuel supplier," says Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. If all goes according to plan, ethanol will provide his country — and the rest of the world — with a bright future.
The Power of the Sun
In 2008 Brazil produced just under 26 billions liters of ethanol, a number projected to rise to 53 billion by 2017. There´s no shortage of buyers. More than 30 countries worldwide use ethanol as an additive to gasoline. The United States plans to satisfy about 15 percent of its fuel requirements with biofuel by 2012, while the European Union wants ethanol to constitute 10 percent of each liter of gasoline sold by 2020.
The Swedes are at the forefront of this development. Last summer they signed an agreement with Brazilian companies for the delivery of 115 million liters of ethanol. The Swedes, wanting to be good people, have stipulated in their agreement that slave labor or children may not be used to produce their biofuel. In return they will pay a premium of five to 10 percent.
The economics of ethanol
Lula´s plan is even more far-reaching. The president dreams of a green belt surrounding the globe along the equator. This belt of sugarcane would link large parts of the tropical Third World, where the cane grows best. Poor people of the earth could use Brazilian know-how to distill ethanol. Their governments could join forces to form an organization like OPEC, but for biofuel.
They could supply fuel to wealthy countries and become wealthy themselves. They would also help to save the world from climate collapse, because ethanol combustion produces only as much carbon dioxide as the plant has extracted from the air. In other words, cars could go on driving forever, and the world would continue to hum along, driven by the rays of the equatorial sun. At least this is what Lula imagines.
In his dream, Brazil would lead the world in this "new era of humanity," as a Saudi Arabia of biofuel. Experts estimate that if every car in the world ran on ethanol, Lula´s country could satisfy one-fourth of global demand. In the ethanol age, as the president predicts, the world will be greener, more modern and — globally speaking — far more equitable than it is today. "When we think of ethanol, our goal is to help the poor," says Lula. "The world must become cleaner, and the world needs jobs," he preaches. He also insists that biofuel is a solution for both problems, in other words, a "historic opportunity."
It is a compelling dream. Politicians around the world, along with agricultural corporations like Cargill, investors like George Soros and even multinationals like Shell want it to become reality. Now that 189 governments have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, they will need ethanol to meet its CO2 reduction targets. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Lula in Brazil last May, the two leaders signed an energy agreement. Experts are now examining how Brazilian ethanol can flow from the pumps at German gas stations.
Part of the charm of Lula´s vision is that nothing would change for people in industrialized countries. They would not be forced to economize, and car manufacturers would simply have to install a few different gaskets in their engines, as VW has been doing in Brazil for a long time. Ethanol would even be cheap, with Brazil´s factories producing it at a cost of about 20 cents a liter. Most of all, drivers, with the power of the sun in their tanks, could step on the gas with a clear conscience.
"Bullshit," says Father Tiago. "The promise of biofuel is a lie. Anyone who buys ethanol is pumping blood into his tank. Ethanol is produced by slaves." The padre is familiar with the dark sides of Lula´s vision. He cares for the people for whom the president´s dream has meant living a nightmare.
A Long Tradition of Sugar Slavery
Tiago, a Catholic monk from Scotland, pushes back his worn cap made of Harris Tweed. He has a hooked nose and wrinkles in his face, and his beard is almost completely grey. He says he has never been able to accept the notion that the happiness of some people is often based on the unhappiness of others — and that men like Antonio da Silva pay the price for cheap eco-fuel.
Father Tiago believes that no one should be allowed to treat people like slaves. The ancestors of Brazil´s big landowners established the first plantations shortly after Christopher Columbus brought sugarcane to the New World. First they drove Indians into their fields, then they shipped in blacks from Africa. The nightmare of trans-Atlantic slavery began with sugarcane.
Now the crop gives up ethanol as well as sugar, and a green tsunami is rolling across Brazil. sugarcane is grown on more than six million hectares (14.8 million acres, roughly the size of Sri Lanka or the U.S. state of West Virginia). One hectare is about the size of a soccer field. But this is only the beginning, with plans in place to expand production to cover 10 million hectares. Machines can gather the harvest in the flat fields of the south, but not in the hilly north.
Father Tiago is driving north on Federal Highway 101, the country´s sugarcane highway. The region bordering the Atlantic Ocean is called Zona da Mata, or Forest Zone. But the rain forests were cut down long ago, and Zona da Mata has since been turned into Brazil´s ethanol zone. The sugar barons divert rivers and streams, and they raze entire villages. As devout Catholics, they leave only the chapels and churches standing, which results in the curious sight of small chapel towers, unreachable by road, now and then protruding from a sea of green.
The Kiltegan Fathers, a group of Irish missionaries, sent Brother Tiago to Brazil in 1968. In 1975, the National Conference of Bishops established the Commissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT). Its aim is to improve the lives of field workers by practicing what Father Tiago calls "good religion." "Bad religion," he says, is the faith preached in the plantation churches, constantly promising the workers a better life in the next world.
The CPT gave him a car — a VW Gol, the more angular Brazilian version of the Golf. Traveling on behalf of the CPT, Father Tiago spends his days on the 101 and in the ethanol villages lining the secondary roads. He knows many people in the region, and he spends much of his time bringing people together, as well as providing advice and comfort.
One of the poverty-stricken bedroom villages for cane cutters on Tiago´s route is Araçoiaba, a flat collection of dirty huts and houses in the sweltering heat. The important parts of Araçoiaba are the large squares where buses line up at night.
Antonio da Silva moved to the town with his family five years ago. They threw plastic tarps over a handful of branches to build the hut where they still live today. The door consists of scraps of cloth nailed to a board, and boards placed around a hole in the tarp form the window. The furniture, arranged on the bare earth floor, consists of the plank beds and a cabinet.
The children usually play in the dirt, and the girls often have infections. Raw sewage runs through open ditches. When it rains the entire tent city turns into a muddy morass. It was once a garbage dump, until the ethanol boom began attracting more and more people to the region. Today it is called Araçoiaba Nova, an effort to evoke the promise of the future.
Da Silva could not have ended up anywhere else. He is illiterate and had no other opportunities. His father died when he was seven. When his mother fell ill, she gave Antonio a facão and sent him to the foreman on the plantation.
The machete, with a blade wider than a hand, is sharpened seven or eight times a day. It´s sharp as a razor blade. The hook at the end of the blade can make serious wounds.
The act of cutting the cane consists of two strokes with the facão. The first stroke separates the cane from the root, and the second removes the remaining leaves from the stalk, allowing the worker to twist the stalk with his free hand. The motions are fast and fluid, but the double stroke requires strength, even the first, second or third time. After 3,000 or 4,000 strokes a day, by evening the men are often too exhausted to speak.
Da Silva learned the laws of sugarcane before he learned to cut. The first is that no law is above the words of the feitor, or foreman. The feitor determines what the workers earn, who is hired and who is fired.
Da Silva learned that men could collapse and die on the spot from working too hard in the searing sun and not having enough drinking water. It happens often. He learned that no one would help if he sliced into his foot with the facão, and that those who cannot work have nothing to eat. He learned that anyone who makes trouble quickly finds himself face-to-face with the capangas, who crisscross the plantations in Jeeps and on dirt bikes. They carry radios and weapons. Officially, they are considered security guards who watch over the plantations. In reality, the capangas circle the workers like aggressive dogs encircling a herd.
´These Men Live Like Slaves´
On the plantations, workers are not entitled to eat anything but corn meal with water, the daily subsistence food of cane cutters. Their wages are insufficient to buy anything else.
They work six days a week. Da Silva earns about 400 real (about €130, or $172) a month during the season, which last about five or six months. One of the curses of monoculture is that there is no work for sugarcane cutters in the northeast except during the harvest season. In other words, they and their families must survive on their earnings for an entire year. This is far too little, especially when a kilo of beans costs 5.80 real (about €2, or $2.65).
The economics of ethanol
Without the five sisters from the "Sacred Heart of Christ," da Silva would be unable to feed his family. Once a month the sisters, who operate a children´s home, give him a basket of rice, corn, milk powder and soap. Every day, one of his daughters is permitted to spend the day at the home, together with 174 other children. The nuns feed them and teach them writing and arithmetic. "When the children come here, they are so thin that you can see every rib," says the mother superior, Sister Conceição, 72.
She devotes herself to fighting for the girls´ future. "Many become prostitutes when they are this tall," says Sister Conceição, holding her hand about 1.50 meters (five feet) off the ground. It is not about money, she says. "They give themselves away for a piece of salt meat," until they become pregnant and try to perform abortions with bicycle spokes. "Some die in the process," says the mother superior.
Two brothers, 17 and 18 years old, live in another hut in Araçoiaba. They began working in the sugar fields 10 years ago. They had no childhood, and now they have no future. They can see what the future holds when they look at men like Antonio da Silva. "The heat, the dirt and the wounds are bad enough," says the elder of the two, "but the worst of it is that we will have to stay here forever, because there is nothing else."
"These men are held like slaves. Slavery is illegal, but they are slaves," says José Lourenço da Silva. Many here share the surname da Silva. Most are descendants of slaves, who had only first names. When the plantation owners were forced to free their slaves in 1888, thousands were given the same surnames.
´We Learn Nothing at All´
José Lourenço da Silva is the president of the STR farm workers´ union in Aliança, another of the ethanol villages. The wind carries the stench of squalor across the open inner courtyard of the building that houses his offices. Lourenço, peering over the edge of his reading glasses, is wearing an ironed shirt and carries a ballpoint pen in his shirt pocket. In the ethanol zone, these are the insignia of an intellectual, and yet Lourenço feels more like a fighter.
He has survived three murder attempts, committed by capangas, as he believes. The last time, he says, he barely escaped with his life. He had received a telephone call — a pretense to lure him out to a plantation. As he was driving back home, three bullets struck his car.
The people who pin their hopes on Lourenço sit on white plastic chairs in the hallway outside his office. "The ethanol boom may be good for Brazil, but it is devastating for the people," he says, adding that Lula´s dream has been a disaster. In the six years since Lula has been in office in Brasilia, says Lourenço, the number of people seeking his help, sitting outside his office in Aliança, has doubled. He has even had to bring out more plastic chairs.
Many of their cases relate to accidents, but most are about wages. The cane is not weighed to determine how many tons the men have cut on a given day. Instead, the feitor measures the sections of the field each worker has cleared with a long stick, which he twirls in his hand like a drum major twirling his baton. If he wishes, he can allow the stick to slide through his hand, thereby reducing the section of land a worker has cleared — and his wages. In many cases, the plantations simply pay the workers nothing or only a portion of the wages they are owed.
When that happens, Lourenço drives to the offending plantation, where he examines records and re-measures the cleared fields. He argues with the feitor, and he can be very annoying. But he has little real power.
Fábio Farias, on the other hand, has power — at least in theory. "When we look at the numbers, there appear to be no problems on the plantations," says Farias, an official at the labor ministry in Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco. "They indicate that when it comes to accidents, we have a better record than Switzerland. The problem is that our numbers are wrong. In other words, we learn nothing at all." The plantations, says Farias, are worlds unto themselves, places where no one reports accidents or abuse. He has far too few people to monitor them, he says — nine inspectors for 140,000 workers.
Farias sits in a small office where the plaster is peeling from the ceilings and the computer is broken, suffocating in his files. He wears a suit and tie to work, and beads of sweat glisten on his forehead. This is no country for ties and yet, despite everything, Farias wants to preserve his dignity.
He knows that work on the plantations is far more dangerous than it ought to be. "The use of pesticides alone is outrageous," he says, adding that they are often spread onto the fields by hand — by workers wearing neither masks nor gloves. "There is long-term damage, and there are cases of poisoning."
Because Farias has so few inspectors, they can only search a plantation or a factory — and close it, if necessary — once every few months. When that happens, they file lawsuits, sometimes for slavery, but always for violations of all kinds of rules and regulations.
José Nunes da Silva spent 12 years cutting cane, until he was so worn out that he could no longer work. Nowadays he buries the dead of Araçoiaba. Their paths through the cane end at his feet.
There are nice graves in his cemetery, graves with crosses on them, where capangas and feitores lie. But the bodies of cane cutters are usually buried for only two years. After that, he digs up the remains of the ethanol men and carts them to the back to a spot at the back of the cemetery, next to the garbage dump, where they are burned. Bones protrude from the ashes, and stray dogs roam around.
The gravedigger usually pours a petroleum mixture onto the remains of the cutters and sets them on fire. "No one smells it," he says, "because the plantations are burning anyway."
The bodies are burned to avoid payment of the 15 real (about €5, $7) annual fee for each gravesite — too costly for the widow of a cane cutter.