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Impacts for land reform and for rural workers in Brazil


10 / 2007

The sugarcane industry was the sector of agribusiness that most grew in 2005. In 2006, more than 425 million tons of sugarcane were produced throughout six million hectares of land. For 2007, the Ministry of Agriculture forecasts an increase of 10% in the cultivation of sugarcane. This trend towards growth should continue. Brazil is currently the largest global producer of ethanol, and reached a record 17.4 billion liters in 2006. It is estimated that by 2012 Brazil’s annual production of ethanol will be 35 billion liters.

The cycle of land invasion in Brazil tends to begin with deforestation by large agribusiness, including the use of slave labor, and continues to include cattle farming and soy production. Currently, with the expansion of ethanol production, this cycle is then complemented by sugarcane monoculture. Rather than for ethanol, public agricultural lands should be utilized for the production of food crops, for reforestation of areas degraded by large landowners, and for land reform, in order to meet the historic needs of close to five million families without land.

Many large foreign companies have acquired plantations in Brazil, including Bunge, Noble Group, ADM, and Dreyfus, in addition to foreign businessmen such as George Soros and Bill Gates.

The sugarcane industry generates unemployment

In many regions of the country, the increase in ethanol production has caused the expulsion of small farmers from their lands, and has generated a dependency on the so-called “sugarcane economy,” where only precarious jobs exist in the sugar fields. Large landowners’ monopoly on land blocks other economic sectors from developing, and generates unemployment, stimulates migration, and submits workers to degrading conditions.

Despite propaganda about “efficiency,” the agroenergy industry is based on the exploitation of cheap labor and even slave labor. The workers are remunerated according to the quantity of sugarcane cut and not by the hours worked. In the state of São Paulo, the largest producer in the country, the goal of each worker is to cut between 10 and 15 tons of sugarcane per day.

In the state of São Paulo, workers receive $1.20 dollars per ton of sugarcane cut and packed. To receive $220 dollars per month, workers must cut an average of 10 tons of sugarcane per day. To meet this goal, a worker must swing their scythe 30 times per minute, during eight hours of work per day.

According to Professor Pedro Ramos of University of Campinas, in the 1980s workers would cut close to 4 tons per day and earned the equivalent of $4.50 dollars per day. Currently, to earn $3.50 dollars per day, it’s necessary to cut 15 tons each day. New technology for genetically modified sugarcane, which is lighter and has a higher quantity of sucrose, has resulted in higher profits for landowners and more exploitation of workers. According to research from the Ministry of Labor and Employment (MTE), “previously, 100m² of sugarcane weighed 10 tons. Now, it’s necessary to cut 300m² of sugarcane to add up to 10 tons.”

Slavery and workers’ deaths

This pattern of exploitation has caused serious health problems and even death of workers. Between 2005 and 2006, 17 deaths were registered due to exhaustion from cutting sugarcane. “Ethanol in Brazil is bathed in blood, sweat, and death,” affirms researcher Maria Cristina Gonzaga of Fundacentro, an institute within the Ministry of Labor.

In 2005, 450 deaths were registered by the MTE in the plantations of São Paulo. The causes of these deaths include assassinations, accidents in the precarious transport to the plantations, illnesses such as cardiac arrest and cancer, and severe burns during the fires set to the crops. Maria Cristina Gonzaga estimates that 1,383 sugarcane workers died in such situations between 2002 and 2006.

Between April and May of 2007, three workers’ deaths were registered in the sugarcane fields in the state of São Paulo. José Pereira Martins, 52 years old, died from a heart attack after cutting sugarcane in the city of Guariba. Lourenço Paulino de Souza, 20 years old, was found dead at São José plantation, in Barretos.

On April 15th, a worker died and another was seriously wounded, when they were affected by flames of an attempted controlled burn in the Santa Luiza plantations, in the municipality of Motuca. Adriano de Amaral, 31 years old, died when the water ran out from the hose he was using to control the fire. He was the father of a 7-year old boy and a 20-day old baby. The other worker, Ivanildo Gomes, 44 years old, had burns across 44% of his body.

Every year, hundreds of workers are found in similar conditions in the sugarcane fields: with no worker’s registration, no protective equipment, inadequate water and food supply, no access to bathrooms, and living in precarious shelters. Many times it’s necessary for workers to pay for their instruments, such as boots and machetes. In case there are accidents, workers do not receive adequate treatment.

Slave labor is common in the sector. The workers are generally migrants from the Northeast or from the Valley of Jequitinhonha in Minas Gerais, transported by middlemen who select the cheap labor for the plantations. In 2006, the Public Defender of the Attorney General’s Office cited 74 plantations in the state of São Paulo, and all of them received charges. In March 2007, public attorneys of the MTE rescued 288 workers in slave conditions at six plantations in São Paulo. In another operation carried out in March, the Group of Public Attorneys of the Regional Labor Delegation of Mato Grosso do Sul rescued 409 workers in the sugarcane fields at the ethanol plantation Centro Oeste Iguatemi. Among them, 150 indigenous people were being used as slaves.

In June 2007, attorneys of the Ministry of Labor freed 1108 workers in slave conditions in the sugarcane plantation Pagrisa (Pará Pastoril e Agrícola S.A.), in the municipality of Ulianópolis (Pará state), in the Amazon region.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) states that “According to the legal labor auditor Humberto Célio Pereira, the workers received less than 10 reais (5 dollars) per month, while the illegal wage discounts that the company performed consumed almost the entire amount of wages these workers were to receive. The auditor reported that the food supplied to the workers was rotten, and various people suffered from nausea and diarrhea. Drinking water for workers was the same used for irrigation of the sugarcane fields, and was so dirty that it looked like bean stew. Shelter for the workers, according to Humberto, was crowded and the sewage draining were open inside the shelter. The majority of workers came from the states of Maranhão and Piauí, but there was no transport available to take them back”.

Key words

agrofuel, agriculture and environment, agriculture and health, working conditions

, Brazil


Agroenergy: Myths and Impacts in Latin America


This file « Agroenergy: Myths and Impacts in Latin America » is the result of a seminar about the expansion of sugarcane plantations in Latin America, which took place in São Paulo, Brazil, from February 26-28, 2007.

This file is also available in french, spanish and portuguese.


Colonialismo e Agroenergia, Maria Luisa Mendonça e Marluce Melo, América Latina en Movimiento, No. 419, ALAI, Quito, abril 2007.

O Mito dos Biocombustíveis - Edivan Pinto, Marluce Melo e Maria Luisa Mendonça, Brasil de Fato, fevereiro de 2007.

Expansão da Cana no Brasil: Conseqüências e Perspectivas, Plácido Junior, Comissão Pastoral, da Terra, março de 2007.

Trabalhadores Rurais: A Negação dos Direitos, Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva, SeminarioSobre la Industria de la Caña de Azúcar en América Latina, São Paulo- Brasil, fevereiro de 2007.

How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor, C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007.

If we want to save the planet, we need a five-year freeze on biofuels, George Monbiot, The Guardian, 27 de março de 2007.

Especialista: etanol no Brasil é banhado de sangue,…

Blitz vê condição degradante na produção de álcool em SP, Folha de S. Paulo, 21 de março de 2007.

La soberanía alimentaria, en peligro por el auge de los biocombustibles, La Jornada (México),7 de fevereiro de 2007.

Comissão Pastoral da Terra - Rua Esperanto, 490 - Recife, BRASIL - Tel. / Fax: 55-81-3231-4445 - Brazil - - cptpe (@)

Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos - Rua Castro Alves, 945 - São Paulo, SP, BRAZIL - Tel.: 011 3271 1237/3275 4789 - Fax.: 011 3271 4878 - Brazil - - rede (@)

legal mentions