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Brazil: Report Reveals Unsustainable Practices of Biofuel Industry

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights, Global Development 2011 and Forest Focus: Amazon.

Biofuel has been acclaimed as the best way out for the world’s struggle for energy resources. It has also been pointed out as a ‘green’ alternative which can reduce carbon emissions. An analysis made by the NGO Reporter Brasil [pt], last May, of the Brazilian ethanol chain of production reveals however that biofuels can have a high socio-environmental cost:

O estudo relata as irregularidades socioambientais, bem como os destinos das exportações, de grupos como Cosan (Join-venture with Shell), Greenergy International, São Martinho, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, Carlos Lyra, Copertrading, Moema/ Bunge e Noble. Há casos de trabalho escravo, excesso de jornada de trabalho, falta de registro em carteira, despejo irregular de resíduos, queimadas não permitidas e uso de terra indígena para produção de cana.

The study reports socio-environmental irregularities produced by groups such as Cosan (Join-venture with Shell), Greenergy International, São Martinho, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, Carlos Lyra, Copertrading, Moema/ Bunge e Noble and the destination of their ethanol. There are cases of slavery, excessive working hours, non-registered workers, illegal waste dumping, illegal burning and use of indigenous land for sugar-cane production.
The social cost of Brazil's biofuels expansion: The indigenous Guarani Kaoiwa community of Laranjeira Nhanderu were pushed off their land 14 months ago to make way for more sugarcane plantations. Photo by Annabel Symington, copyright Demotix (21/10/10).

The social cost of Brazil's biofuels expansion: The indigenous Guarani Kaoiwa community of Laranjeira Nhanderu were pushed off their land 14 months ago to make way for more sugarcane plantations. Photo by Annabel Symington, copyright Demotix (21/10/10).

Dirty labor, dirty environment

According to Reporter Brasil, data released by the organization Comissão Pastoral da Terra (Pastoral Land Comission) [pt] highlights that 10,010 labourers were set free when working in sugar-cane plantations in Brazil between 2003 and 2010. Available in English and Portuguese, the study does not dismiss the effort of the federal government and Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) to tackle those socio-environmental problems, but it reports that no policy has refrained companies caught using illegal practices to export ethanol.

Cattle farming and sugar cane account together for 59% of the cases of slavery in Brazil between 2003 and 2010. Reporter Brasil Report in English/pp.5

Cattle farming and sugar cane account together for 59% of the cases of slavery in Brazil between 2003 and 2010. Reporter Brasil Report in English/pp.5

The official blog of the Ibero American University Foundation (FUNIBER) indicates [pt] that:

Se a intenção era obter combustíveis mais limpos, então estamos cometendo erros em algum ponto da cadeia de produção, porque no processo estão recorrendo à derrubada e queimada de florestas para ganhar terreno para o monocultivo de variedades que possam ser exploradas na indústria de biocombustíveis. O corte e a queima aumenta as emissões de CO2, inclusive em maior quantidade que o produzido pelos automóveis.

If the intention was to obtain cleaner fuels, we're making mistakes at some level of the chain of production, as forests are slashed and burned in the process to make way for a variety of monocultures that can be exploited in the biofuel industry. The cutting and burning increases CO2 emissions, including a greater amount than that produced by automobiles.

Another issue raised on the biofuel production is that it can compromise water quality and undermine the agrarian reform which is still to be accomplished in the country. The article ‘Monopólio da Terra e os Direitos Humanos no Brasil’ (Land Monopoly and Human Rights in Brazil) [pt] written by the Director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights, Maria Luisa Mendonça, points out:

Most of sugar-cane plantation in Brazil is still located in the State of São Paulo where 60% of the harvest is made by machine. This has not prevented, however, the pre-harvest burning process. Flickr: Royal Olive (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Most of sugar-cane plantation in Brazil is still located in the State of São Paulo where 60% of the harvest is made by machine. This has not prevented, however, the pre-harvest burning process. Flickr: Royal Olive (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

(…) Segundo um estudo da National Academies Press a qualidade da água subterrânea, dos rios, do litoral e das nascentes pode ser impactada pelo crescente uso de fertilizantes e pesticidas usados nos agrocombustíveis. (…)

O governo elegeu o Cerrado como prioritário para a expansão das lavouras de cana para a produção de etanol. O cerrado é conhecido como “pai das águas”, pois abastece as principais bacias hidrográficas do país. Essa região apresenta uma topografia favorável, com terras planas, de boa qualidade, e farto potencial hídrico, além de abrigar cerca de 160 mil espécies de plantas e animais, muitas ameaçadas de extinção. O avanço do monocultivo de cana e soja ameaça este bioma, que pode desaparecer completamente em alguns anos, caso se mantenha o atual ritmo de destruição, causando a morte de alguns dos principais rios do país.

(…) According to a study run by the National Academies Press the quality of rivers, coastlines and springs may be impacted by the increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides used in biofuel production. (…)

The government has chosen the Cerrado as a target for the expansion of ethanol sugar-cane production. The Cerrado is known as the “father of waters” because it supplies the main basins of the country. (…) The advance of soy and sugar-cane monocultures has threatened this biome, which may disappear entirely in some years, if the current rate of destruction continues, killing some of the major rivers of the country.

What future for land?

Felipe Amin Filomeno, on the blog Outras Palavras (Other Words), claims that ‘Brazil and Mercosul have started fighting for their lands’ [pt] and argues that the rush for land due to the biofuel ‘fever’ in Brazil and in other so called developing countries has put the price of land up, bringing about another problem as a consequence: the death of small farms run by families:

(…) enquanto estrangeiros compram terra que, na maior parte das vezes, será usada para monoculturas de exportação, muitos cidadãos nacionais (incluindo comunidades indígenas) ainda demandam acesso à terra como meio de subsistência familiar. (…)

Entretanto, não são apenas os pequenos produtores rurais de países latino-americanos e africanos a enfrentar problemas decorrentes da onda mundial de aquisição de terras. Na medida em que a indústria de biocombustíveis se expande, a terra para produção de soja e cana-de-açúcar fica mais disputada. Grandes produtores de soja no Brasil, por exemplo, ao mesmo tempo em que veem o valor de suas propriedades aumentar, também veem seus custos crescerem, especialmente aqueles que arrendam terras para produzir. Terão que disputar com estrangeiros um recurso nacional.

While foreigners buy land that in most cases, will be used for monocultures for export, many nationals (including indigenous communities) still require access to land as a means of family subsistence. (…)

However, it is not only small farmers in Latin America and Africa who are facing problems arising from a wave of land acquisition in the world. As the biofuel industry expands, disputes over land to produce soybeans and sugar cane increase. Major producers of soybeans in Brazil, for example, while they see the value of their properties increase, they also see their costs grow, especially those who rent land to produce. They will have to fight for national resources with foreigners.

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights, Global Development 2011 and Forest Focus: Amazon.

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