Photo Gallery Life in the Cane Fields

Brazil hopes to supply drivers worldwide with the fuel of the future -- cheap ethanol derived from sugarcane. It's considered an effective antidote to climate change, but hundreds of thousands of Brazilian plantation workers harvest the cane at slave wages.
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Antonio da Silva, 43, provides for four children as a sugarcane cutter in Brazil. He's old for a cutter, and he has a hernia that could kill him. But he's too poor to stop working. "What can I do?" da Silva asks. "There is nothing else here."

Foto: Clemens Höges
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Working after a fire in the cane fields near Araçoiaba, in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. The flames chase away snakes, kill tarantulas and burn away the sharp leaves of the cane plants -- leaving the cane to be harvested.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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A harvested plantation in Pernambuco. Some 6 million hectares in Brazil are given over to sugarcane, but President Lula da Silva wants to expand that area to at least 10 million hectares to fill a rising demand for ethanol.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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Cane cutters work six days a week and earn 400 real (about €130, or $172) a month during the season, which lasts only five or six months. In monocultural regions of Brazil there is no other work for the cutters.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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Father Tiago, 66, a Catholic monk from Scotland, has worked to help cane cutters for almost 20 years. "The promise of biofuel is a lie," he says. "Anyone who buys ethanol is pumping blood into his tank. Ethanol is produced by slaves."

Foto: Clemens Höges
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The children of cane cutters grow up in abject poverty.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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Many cane cutters work the plantations in plastic sandals.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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Nuns like Sister Conceição, 72, try to help the families of cane cutters with baskets of rice, corn, milk powder and soap. "When the children come here, they are so thin that you can see every rib," she says.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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The nuns operate a children's home to look after 175 children of cutters while they work in the fields.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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Antonio da Silva with his children. The tent city where he lives used to be a garbage dump until the ethanol boom started to attract more and more people to the region. Now it's called Araçoiaba Nova, an effort to evoke the promise of the future.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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A facão, or sugar machete, can be as sharp as a razor blade.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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Father Tiago's Commissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT) tries to improve the lives of field workers by practicing what he 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.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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Albertina Maria da Silva, 43, is one of the few women on the sugar plantations.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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"When we look at the numbers, there appear to be no problems on the plantations," says Fábio 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" at a regional government level.

Foto: Clemens Höges
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