by Raúl Zibechi
July 23, 2007
Translated from: La cara siniestra de los biocombustibles: Horror en la “California brasileña”
Translated by: Nalina Eggert and Sonja Wolf
Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)
Brazil is staking its claim as a great emerging power thanks to the leadership it maintains in biofuel production. The price of this ambition is paid by the environment and by the cane cutters, who are the invisible characters in this story.
“When the airplane passed, pouring out that bath of poison, my father was soaked. He fell ill because of the toxins that are sprayed over the cane. This is the end for many young people here, ” says a female cane cutter from the region of Ribeirao Preto, in São Paulo state.
“The people work and they give them a slip of paper to shop with in the supermarket. The people don’t see money, just the bill of what they owe,” confirms a worker from the same region, where seven of every 10 cane cutters did not finish primary school.1
Other cutters explain that they are cheated by the scales that the bosses control—they calculate that they have to carry 110 kilograms for the scale to reach 100. Almost all of them were lured from Brazil’s poorer Northeast by promises that they would earn very high salaries. Many moderate analysts see working conditions as reminiscent of slavery. But the president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said before the G-8 Summit that biofuels have “enormous potential to generate jobs and income” and that “they offer a real option for sustainable development.”2
Behind the “politically correct” jargon lurks a reality poised to destroy the Amazon, a reality that destroys millions of young bodies and promises lucrative business to investors. The very name biofuels seems to be destined to foment the confusion. João Pedro Stédile, head of the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), points out that the defenders of ethanol “use the prefix bio to make it seem like it’s a good thing,” and that because of this its opponents prefer to call it like it is and use the term “agrofuels” because the term refers to agriculturally produced energy.3
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