A 'Green Tsunami' in Brazil: The High Price of Clean, Cheap Ethanol

By Clemens Höges

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
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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.

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Photo Gallery: Life in the Cane Fields
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