Sugar Cane Cutters or Indebted Slaves?
Brazil is a well known, large user of sugar-cane based ethanol; 80% of all new cars sold in Brazil are "flex-fuel" models that run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of the two. Ethanol currently sells for about half the price of gasoline, gasoline that is very inexpensive accounts for as much as 20% of Brazil's transport fuel market. Increasing international demand and billions of financial dollars has resulted in Brazil becoming a major exporter of ethanol.
A recent raid spotlighting ethanol producers has increased the pressure to improve working conditions for the people who work in the sugar cane fields.
The cutters, as the are known, harvest much of the sugar cane by hand using machetes to chop down tons of sugarcane every day. These modern day indentured employees suffer in reportedly poor conditions, all for the benefit of wealthy Brazilians and the corporations that own the plantations.
Brazilian authorities said they have raided a 35 year old Amazon plantation that produces and average 13.2 million gallons of ethanol per year. The raid uncovered more than 1,000 laborers working 14-hour days cutting sugar cane for ethanol production. The plantation owner Para Pastoril e Agricola produces what is billed as an environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline
Authorities report the event as Brazil's biggest raid to date against debt slavery; a practice involving luring poor laborers to work in the remote locations. The workers then rack up an increasing debt to the plantation owners, who charge exorbitant prices for everything from the horrendous living conditions to the food they eat.
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The raided plantation's owner, Para Pastoril e Agricola vigorously denied the charges saying that the workers make good money by Brazilian standards. The company running the plantation in the remote town of Ulianopolis, the biggest ethanol producer in the northeastern state of Para, said the raid lasted three days.
Poor Living Conditions
After recent statement by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva calling Brazil's ethanol producers "national and world heroes", President Silva has pledged to bring industry leaders and workers together "to discuss the humanization of the sugar cane sector in this country."
The Police reportedly found more than 1,100 workers toiling from 3 a.m. until 5 p.m. everyday, with only a short break for lunch. Humberto Celio, coordinator of the Labor Ministry's special unit that frees 'debt slaves' told a Brazilian news agency that many of them suffered food poisoning from eating spoiled food or unsafe water. According to Celio, the workers slept in on hammocks in cramped quarters and did not have proper sanitation facilities.
Amazon Ethanol Plantations
Para Pastoril executive Fernao Zancaner denied allegations of abuse at the 24,700-acre plantation saying that they are "totally false." Brazil's Labor Ministry has been monitoring farmers and ranchers with a group it calls the Mobile Verification Task Force, which conducted the raid on the Para state plantation. This raid on the Amazon plantation was larger than a raid in 2005 which discovered 1,000 sugar cane-ethanol plantation workers laboring under similar conditions at a in the central state of Mato Grosso.
According to Fernao Zancaner, the company has 1,800 employees. The sugar cane cutters receive between $368 to $421 per month, which is far above the nation's minimum wage of $200; in the Amazon region, many workers make less than the minimum.
Editors note: I would be interested to find out what the cost of living might be for these Brazilian workers and what the net income might be.