Ambassador Denies that Brazil Has Ethanol Slaves

Sugar cane cutter in Brazil The ambassador of Brazil in Great Britain, José MaurÀ­cio Bustani, in a letter published this Saturday in the British newspaper The Guardian, refutes a story that appeared in the publication on March 9 charging that Brazil is using slaves in its sugar cane plantations.

The report made in Palmares Paulista, in the interior of São Paulo state, accuses the Brazilian ethanol industry of counting on an army of poor migrants.

Written by The Guardian correspondent in Brazil, Tom Phillips, the article headlined "Brazil's ethanol slaves: 200,000 migrant sugar cutters who prop up renewable energy boom" starts with this paragraph:

"Behind rusty gates, the heart of Brazil's energy revolution can be found in the stale air of a squalid red-brick tenement building. Inside, dozens of road-weary migrant workers are crammed into minuscule cubicles, filled with rickety bunk-beds and unpacked bags, preparing for their first day at work in the sugar plantations of São Paulo."

Soon after, the report remarks: "Inside the prison-like construction are the cortadores de cana – sugar cane cutters – part of a destitute migrant workforce of about 200,000 men who help prop up Brazil's ethanol industry."

The story calls the sugar cane cutters economic refugees from the Northeast who earn as little as 400 reais (US$ 190) a month "to provide the raw material that is fueling this energy revolution."

The newspaper quotes Palmares's social worker Valéria Gardiano describing the situation: "They arrive here with nothing. They have the clothes on their bodies and nothing else. They bring their children with malnutrition, their ill mothers-in-law. We try to reduce the problem. But there is no way we can fix it 100%. It is total exploitation."

And then mentions activists who depict an even drearier scenario stating that the sugar cane cutters are in fact slaves and the Brazilian ethanol industry "a shadowy world of middle men and human rights abuses."

Cortadores are said to work 12-hour shifts in scorching heat – some will die from it – earning about US$ 1 per ton of sugar cane cut, and then returning to overcrowded "guest houses," which are generally rented at extortionary prices.

For Brazilian ambassador Bustani the article's headline – "Ethanol slaves" – is deceiving because the ethanol production in Brazil, according to him, is not based in slavery. Workers are free to come and go, says the diplomat, adding that in São Paulo, 90% of the sugar cane cutters have their worker rights guaranteed by the state.

The Ambassador's letter in its entirety:

The reference in your headline to "Brazil's ethanol slaves" (In numbers: Brazil's ethanol slaves: 200,000 migrant sugar cutters who prop up renewable energy boom, March 9) is misleading as it clearly suggests Brazilian ethanol production is based on slavery, and that migrant sugar cutters "prop up renewable energy boom".

Sugar cane workers are free to come and go, and have the right to join trade unions. In São Paulo state, the focus of the article, almost 90% of the 400,000 sugar-cane laborers work in the formal economy, meaning they have statutory employment rights.

It appears the word slaves might have been used by one of the activists interviewed by your reporter – hence, perhaps, its inclusion in the title – but a better-balanced and more impartial piece would have sought opinions from a wider range of sources.

The Brazilian government does, however, acknowledge the problem of long hours worked by cane-cutters, who are paid piece rates, and is stepping up regulatory measures in order to protect them.

It is true that large numbers of migrant laborers arrive in the sugar-cane plantations of São Paulo state for the harvesting season, but seasonal employment is actually declining due to increased mechanization and better training for the permanent workforce.

Finally, though your article implies there is a general lack of concern with the welfare of cane-cutters and their families, the fact remains that Brazil's sugar-cane mills maintain more than 600 schools, 200 childcare centers and 300 medical posts.

José Maurí­cio Bustani

Ambassador of Brazil

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