Sugar cane: slave labor, environmental damage and violence against the indigenous

[Translation of an article from the Brazilian Centro de Midia Independente for February 25.]

The Brazilian NGO Repórter Brasil has issued a report on the production of sugar in Brazil in 2009.  According to the report, the situation is alarming.  The cases of slave labor, violations of workers’ rights, damage to the environment and the invasion of indigenous lands are numerous.

Cane production reached 612.2 million tons in 2009, an increase of 7.1 percent compared to the previous year.  Some 57.8 percent of the production is in the state of São Paulo alone.   In the state of Goiás, there was a 50 percent increase in producion.  Of production as a whole, 20 percent is already under the control of international capital.

Cosan, a major firm involved in the production of alcohol from sugar in Brazil, was added to the labor ministry’s black list of  those using slave labor.  Meanwhile, the firm has filed a petition to have its name removed from the list and the case is awaiting action by the courts.

Many sugar mills have been charged with using slave labor on their plantations.  The Santa Cruz mill, of the Grupo José Pessoa, was charged three times in 2009.  On May 15, 150 enslaved workers were found, on June 6, 324 and on November 11, 122.  This and other companies are signatories of a pledge to eradicate slavery.  Meanwhile, even though they have been charged, they are still signatories of the pledge, a fact they make use of in their corporate marketing.  This shows how actions against slave labor are still inadequate and ineffective.

Sugar cane production is the enterprise that makes the most use of slave labor.  In 2009, 16 reported cases resulted in freeing 1911 workers from the cane fields, 45 percent of the total for the entire year.  There are close to one million workers in the sugar industry, who are subjected to innumerable other violations of human rights and workers’ rights, particularly concerning excesively long work hours and lack of health care…

In 2007 and 2008, the states of Mato Grosso (MT) and Mato Grosso do Sul (MS) had the greatest levels of deforestation in the country for the expansion of cane cultivation.  In 2007, cane took over 1119 hectares of forest land in MS and 1892 hectares in MT.  In 2008, deforestation rose to 2385 hectares in MT.

The Confederação da Agricultura e Pecuária do Brasil (CAN – Farming and Ranching Confederation of Brazil), one of the leading associations in the sector, has dedicated itself to lobbying for changes in Brazilian environmental laws so that expansion of cane fields can take place in areas currently classified as Áreas de Preservação Permanente (APPs – Areas of Permanent Preservation).  In Goiás, many of these areas, generally in waterways and sources of spring water, have already been affected and suffer the consequences of sugar cane expansion.  In those areas, persons opposing the enterprises have been subjected to threats and retaliation.  The cultivation of cane ranks third in the use of agricultural toxins, after the production of corn and soy beans, having numerous impacts on the earth, waterways and the aquifers.

Even though it is offered as a possible solution for cane production, Zoneamento Agroecológico (ZAE – Agricultural Zoning) for sugar cane still has many flaws and hardly resolves the problems.  Limits on the area used for planting in the Amazon, for example, may force plantations into other sensitive areas like the Cerrado region.  According to researcher Nilson Ferreira of the Universidade Federal de Goiás, “It is a lie to claim that an ecological action of ZAE is preserving what little vegetation remains in the Cerrado, which is extremely fragmented and degraded.  The planting of sugar cane in the indicated areas can seriously compromise important ecological processes, since large cane plantations act as barriers to the migration of native animal species that exist only in that region.”  The ZAEs include several provisions favoring the expansion of sugar cane production in other regions as well, seriously compromising biodiverstiy in several areas.

Sugar cane production can expand into areas already being used for other kinds of agriculture, seriously affecting food production and food security.  The ZAE project itself foresees such expansion into areas used for the cultivation of grains.  This directly affects local food production, damaging small farmers and even causing increases in the costs of baisc foods.

Indigenous populations are also seriously affected by the expansion of cane production.  Of the 42 recognized indigenous regions in Mato Grosso do Sul, many are located in the current zones of sugar cane expansion and 16 sugar mill operations are already located in jurisdictions where there are indigenous lands…  The expansion of sugar cane production  (and other crops like soy beans) results in confining indigenous peoples to small spaces, which aggravates conflicts and results in increasing violence in the region.  Mato Grosso do Sul was the site of 42 assassinations of indigenous persons in 2008, of a total of 60 reported in the country as a whole.  On Septembr 18, 2009, an indigenous encampment located near a sugar cane plantation was attacked by armed men who set fire to their dwellings and possessions and shot to death a 62-year-old indigenous man.  A number of  cane enterprises are expanding illegally onto indigenous lands…