Producing fuels from sugarcane, castor bean, and soybeans – the so-called biofuels – is being proposed as an economic alternative for small farmers and as an alternative to burning fossil fuels, which are expensive and pollute the environment.
The topic was much talked-about early in February, after a UN report on global warming was issued, and it was addressed in recent negotiations with Uruguay for the country to remain in the Mercosur.
And continues to be emphasized in March as one of the topics to be discussed during the visit of the president of the United States of America to Brazil. George W. Bush announced his interest in developing a partnership with Brazil for producing biofuels.
In a letter issued after a seminar of the international peasant movement Via Campesina on the growth of the sugarcane industry in Latin America that was held in São Paulo last month, representatives of social organizations and movements from Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic challenged the discourse according to which biofuel is a clean energy that can generate income for rural populations in Brazil.
"The current bioenergy production model is based on the same elements that have always brought oppression to indigenous people: appropriation of territories, of natural goods, of the labor force," said Via Campesina in the letter, which is called "Full Tanks at the expense of Empty Stomachs."
"The Brazilian government is now encouraging the production of biodiesel also, mainly to ensure the survival and expansion of soybean monoculture in large areas. With the aim of legitimizing this policy and disguising its devastating effects, the government has been encouraging the diversified production of biodiesel by small farmers for the purpose of creating the so-called "social seal." Monoculture is increasing in indigenous areas and other territories of original indigenous people," he added.
One of the main concerns is with working conditions in farms. And this includes the use of indigenous labor which, particularly in sugarcane plantations, often faces conditions similar to slavery: low pay, no safety, long months away from their villages and homes.
In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul alone, there are projects to set up 32 ethanol plants over the next three years, with promises of 51,000 new jobs and credit lines from BNDES (National Economic and Social Development Bank). Biofuel crops are also increasing in the Brazilian northeast region.
On February 28, the president of the Brazilian Cáritas, Bishop Demétrio Valentim, recalled problems created by monoculture for workers during a ceremony for launching the bookÂ Direitos Humanos no Brasil 2 – Diagnósticos e Perspectivas (Human rights in Brazil 2 – Diagnosis and Prospects).
He mentioned sugarcane plantations as examples of areas where even ensured rights – such as labor rights – can be threatened. "The battle for human rights must be continually supported. A clear example is that of labor rights, which have been ensured already but are threatened. Biofuel, for example, leads to larger sugarcane plantations, where working conditions are similar to the ones experienced during the slavery period," he said.