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Ambassador Denies that Brazil Has Ethanol Slaves

Sugar cane cutter in Brazil

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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  • Show Comments (18)

  • jony

    Brilliant conceicao, brilliant!
    I thank you personally for your fresh, intelligent and knowledgeable comments…too bad that some of us are talking instead of lessoning!!! Please keep up the good work!
    All the best.

  • Jack Sydney

    Senhor V Martin,
    Good Chance you voted for the Excelentissimo Senhor JosÀƒ© MaurÀƒ­cio Bustani, which proves my point that you are an idiota.
    Brazil is 3rd World country and that’s how it’s going to stay for a long time until you wake up to yourself. Perhaps you could start by pulling your finger out off your ass and start doing something usefull with it, idiota.

  • Jack Sydney

    Senhor V.Martin,
    Eu sou brasileiro e moro no Brasil, e nao sou cego. Seu idiota.

    Translation
    Mr. V.Martin,
    I’m Brazilian, live in Brazil and I am not blind. You idiot.

  • bienchido99@hotmail.com

    “Sugar cane workers are free to come and go”.

    Yes, free to come to work for near-slave wages in near-slave conditions, or go home to the Nordeste and starve. Now that’s freedom!

  • conceicao

    The price of sugar is just over 10 cents per pound on world markets, down from 19 cents in
    February 2006. The author of the Guardian article would have better served his readers if he
    had pointed out that, rather than being the bane of the cane cutters, establishment of a free world market in sugar-based ethanol would provide the only obvious solution to increasing the price of
    sugar and thereby alleviating the economic pressure at the lowest production rung of the industry.
    The 10 cent world sugar price stands as a direct consequence of the U.S. ethanol tariff.

  • Forrest Allen Brown

    just a few clicks down you will find thies
    Fifty Slaves Rescued in Brazil
    Brazil Steps Up Search for Slave Workers

    does not say a thing about who or when they will be going to jail pay a fine ( bribe )

  • V.Martin

    Worried about our success??
    Mr.Jack Sydney: who you think you are to come here and say all this about a official from my country? Too much arrogance. It seems that you are worried about our success. Nobody is forcing those people to work. Now tell us how is the situation about the native australians, I mean the aborigenes that everybody knows what you people are doing to them… You think that everybody here is idiot and doesn’t know anything about it? We should grab you and give you a hiding. And we should say it never happened and see how you feel. Think twice before you open your mouth!!

  • conceicao

    Ethanol was selling at $2.28 per gallon within the last week in the U.S. The last cost of
    production and U.S. delivery estimates that I saw were $1.75 per gallon for U.S.- produced
    corn-based ethanol and $1.15 for Brasilian-produced sugar-based alcohol. Please let me know
    if anyone else has better numbers. The only fuel price that I know of that may be down 50% in the last year is U.S. natural gas. (?)

  • ch.c.

    Fun fun fun !!!!!!
    “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.”

    IS THIS THE ACHIEVEMENT LULA IS SO PROUD OF DURING HIS FIRST MANDATE ????????

    Did he not say that due to HIS Bolsa Familia Program millions and millions Brazilians (45 millions as per his own figures) can now have 3 decent meals …PER DAY ????????

    Where is the contradiction with the 3 above statements ?
    Who lies ?
    Who say the truth ?

    And to conceiao : no one ever said that China doesnt have the same problem. The same pressure is done there, only not on this site !!!!!!
    But glad that you mention it.
    And Brazil has the same problem as China, one for its agricultural products, the other for its Industrial goods !!!!
    But your comments have not much sense for Chinese products in London or wherever. Because where do you expect to sell your
    agricultural products and your “new miracle” energy ! The only trendy energy so far…that lost 50 % in value….in the last 12 months alone ?????

    In my view another reduction of 50 % in the next 1 or 2 years, even with added productivity, and Brazil will need several millions of new
    workers, paid with a lower salary than today !!!!!!!!

    YESSSS ETHANOL IS THE ENERGY FOR TOMORROW…..AS LONG AS ITS PRICE WILL KEEP GOING……DOWN….OR AT LEAST COMPETITIVE TO FOSSIL FUEL OIL !!!!!!

    And yesss being energy independent has its price similar to freedom even if the price is higher. Thus no doubt that the EU and the USA will over time reduce their agricultural subsidizes somewhat AND SWITCH them to New Eco-Friendly Energies : ethanol and/or methanol and/or butanol (next trend-trust me), and/or wind energy and/or solar energy and/or whatever renewable energy you may chose.
    Even many nuclear plants are going to be built in Brazil (yesssss), China and India !

    Is Brazil not oil self-sufficient by now ? Thus how can you have your gasoline pump prices much much higher than in the USA, the country with the most……oil and gasoline IMPORTS ?????
    AND YOUR HIGHER PRICE EVEN WHEN INCLUDING YOUR “MIRACULOUS AND COMPETITIVE” ETHANOL ????

    Yessssss…where does the Brazilian common sense starts…and where does the Brazilian BUSINESS equation ENDS ????

    lAUGH….LAUGH….LAUGH !!!!!

  • conceicao

    Billion-dollar-plus profit world class industries operating at 30-plus percent profit margins rarely, if
    ever, tolerate shoddy working conditions. The only thing preventing the Brasilian ethanol industry
    from reaching this level of performance is the refusal of the developed world to buy Brasilian
    ethanol at free market prices. The Brasilian government is caught in the middle. Mandate mechanization while the U.S. tariff is still in place and you bankrupt Brasilian ethanol producers who
    currently lack the profits to buy the expensive machinery that would be required. Maintain the
    status quo and be branded a slavemaster and the Saudi Arabia of ethanol by the agricultural lobbies
    in the U.S. and the E.U. This all goes back to the Doha Round and the developed world’s
    realization that Brasil has earned better terms of trade and that bowing to reality on ethanol
    will inevitably be the first step in opening up to Brasilian agricultural exports in general.

  • Ric

    Rubber
    The balls of rubber come in from the gatherers, on small boats, to riverside factories that cut the balls into little pieces, run them through machinery to make them into flat pieces of latex.

    The area is poorly lit. The worker is wearing shorts, no shirt, itÀ‚´s hot and humid. The ball of latex is dark on the outside, having been formed on a stick over a fire while the seringuero poured raw liquid tree sap over the stick while turning it. The diameter is around 12-18 inches, or more.

    A jet of water cools the saw, which has no safety guard. He has to have steady and firm hands as he feeds the rubber into the saw, each time with a smaller and smaller piece. The clumsy ones already lost their fingers or hands and are at home staring at the thatch on the roof while lying in hammocks.

    Then the pieces get run through a machine like a mangle or old fashioned clothes ringer, except made from tough serrated steel. One slip and it gets your hand and pulls your arm in also.

    IÀ‚´m tired of hearing about these cane cutters, working outdoors, all the sugar cane you can chew for free. What about the rubber processors?

  • ch.c.

    CONTINUED…..
    World commodities are booming is what every one reads everywhere, from grains to iron ore to non ferrous metals, to precious metals, just name it and you will be right. EXCEPT SUGAR THAT LOST 50 % ….in 12 months.
    And this is the commodity you see with the brighter future ! Great vision…. isnt t ??????
    Better yet : you already envision to double, triple, quintuple your production ! Even a greater vision….isnt it ??????

    Yeterday I wrote : the only winners and beneficiaries will be your minority elite and the consuming countries…but certainly not your society as a whole and even less the workers in this industry.

    You the societies of Latin and South America, someone just need to caress your head and neck and tell you cant you see the future with such product, you are so blind and you…..PLUNGE…..and demultiply that production until you put an autogoal to yourselves by over producing, namely puting yourselves the prices……DOWN !!!!!! DOWN so much…that it barely gives you a profit, explaining the low salaries.

    You did it with coffee….and today use millions or low paid workers.
    You did it with Oestriches ! Laugh !!!!
    You do it with cattles !
    You do it with chicken…producing billions of them ! Yesssss billions
    You did it with Teak plantations.
    You do it with Eucalyptus plantations.
    You do it with grains (prices will come down just as sugar did despite its energetic possibilities)
    You do it with Orange Juice (Glad for you there was Katrina and a fruit disease in the USA)
    You do it with sugarcane for sugar
    You do it with sugarcane for ethanol
    You do it with grains for human but even more for animal consumption

    With all the above, can anyone tell me where and how the society as a whole benefits of such productionS ? In my view the beneficiaries
    will remain your minority elite and the consuming countries.

    EVERY SINGLE OF THE ABOVE INDUSTRIES GENERATE MOSTLY…….LOW PAID WORKERS WITH BAD WORKING CONDITIONS !!!!!

  • ch.c.

    It is all the same….again and again….and full of lie !
    Curious or coincidence that this article said somewaht exactly what I have written here a few times.

    Brazil always denies the sad reality…as usual. I wrote many times that your ethanol industry is quite similar to your pig iron industry : both use slaves alike workers !!!!! And ethanol is then used locally and some is exported…..just as your pig iron industry.
    Worse yet when Brazil can no longer denies slaves are used, they accuse the U.S.A. and Japanese car manufacturers of not doing their job !!!!!
    Funny but true ! While in reality the car manufacturers buy pig iron from Brazilians suppliers who certify that no slaves labor has been used, for Brazilians Authorities it still the responsibility to the car manufacturers to check that no slaves have been used…..and NOT TO THE BRAZILIAN AUTHORITIES !!!!!! YOUR AUTHORITIES HAVE EVEN ACKNOWLEDGE THEY DONT HAVE THE POWER TO DO MORE THAN WHAT THEY DO AND YOUR DEPT RESPONSBILE TO FREE THE SLAVES CANT DO MORE….IN VIEW OF THEIR LITTLE BUDGET ALLOCATED BY THE GOVERNMENT !!!!!

    As you can see, no one in Brazil makes a great effort to reduce the slaves labor…..in the pig iron !!!!!!!!!!
    You free of few thousands of them yearly, you give some fines to their employers, but no one in Brazil has yet been found guilty
    and sent to jail for having used slaves labor. Despite that slavery has been abolished in your constitution for over 1 century.
    Your law even stipulate that one can be punished and sent for up to 8 years in prison. No one has ever spent only 6 months.
    Worse again, some of your slaves employers are no one else than your own congressmen, senators and polticians !!!!!

    Back to the sugarcane industry. Mechanical sugarcane harvesters exist both in the country and outside the country. Around 60 % of
    the production is made by mechanical harvesters….NOW. But 40 % or around 180 millions tons is still manually harvested.
    And your sugar barons have some pressure from the government to hike the salaries and give better working conditions. But these sugar barons threathens then the government to use ONLY mechanical harvesters !!!!!!!
    Strange isnt it ? But so it is !
    At the end the end the most embarassed are not the land owners but the government : it will increase the unemployment rate and the social cost to the government…..not to the land owners !!!!!!!!

    Simple demonstration of how things are managed “passively” and “friendly” by both the government and the sugar barons !!!!!!

    It remains that slaves labor is definitelvy used….not only in the salary but more importantly on the working conditions : a minimum quota
    of 10 tons per day of sugarcane cane must be cut by each worker, sometimes more, and if production is not reached, workers get penalized
    (reduced salary) or simply fired !!!!!!!

    Finally let me remind you what I said MANY times, that is even explained in the article : SUGAR is a low profit margin industry. Thus ethanol cannot be a high profit margin for the sugar cane land owners, since the price of the sugarcane needed for ethanol is based on the price of the sugarcane needed for sugar.

    THUS WHY DEVELOP AS YOU DO AND BECOME THE WORLD LARGEST SUGAR CANE PRODUCER ?????????
    Where is the common sense from a leftist. The only beneficiaries will remain the minority elite, namely the large land owners, not the
    workers.
    And look at the price of sugar : in the 1990’s sugar price stagnated in the 7 US cents per pound until around 2003. then it went to 10 cents and then double to 20 cents by February 2006.

    And now with all the “apparent” possible SHINING future, the vast investments made in new ethanol plant, increased consumption of ethanol everywhere……..SUGAR PRICE IS AT 10 US cents per pound. DOWN 50 %….IN 1 YEAR !!!!!

    CAN NO ONE SEE THAT SOMETHING DOESNT ADD…..IN THE EQUATION ???????

    HOW CAN SOMETHING SO “TRENDY”, AND WITH SUCH A “BRIGHT” FUTURE, WITH “ENORMOUS” GROWTH IN CONSUMPTION
    LOSES 50 % IN VALUE…… IN 12 MONTHS.
    And the loss in value is made from the base of a weak currency (USD)…which increases the loss in your own currency .

  • Jack Sydney

    Lying Bum
    The ambassador of Brazil in Great Britain, JosÀƒ© MaurÀƒ­cio Bustani is most likely then not a liar.
    He thinks people in other countries are idiots like the poor exploited people that elect him and his mates. We should grab him and give him a hiding. Then we should say it never happened and see how he feels then.

  • Italo-brasilian

    Hypocisy!
    Why did the reporter for the Guardian need to go so far to report slave labour?

    Is he concerned with the stores, which advertise in the newspaper that he works for? Because they sell a great variety of goods, which come from China, India or other parts of the world where they are made by workers earning even less than the Brazilians he cited.

    Should not he just pop up in any London office which fulfil the billionaire financial industry that runs England now? Is not that industry based in exploitation of cheap labour all around the world?

    Or if he think this work is to difficult to do, too much of a headache, just make few questions for any cleaner or kitchen porter, chef, whatever and ask: Does not cheap cleaning come from very low wages paid to immigrants? Doesnˢ۪t the same occur with the food he eats in the canteen (maybe even the Guardian canteen) or restaurant: immigrant workers submitted to work for quite half of the British minimum wages? Alternatively, should not he have asked to any of the so many immigrants (including me) who once, when in a status of a tourist, meaning illegal, was contract to work for unscrupulous employers who wanted solely to exploit my work for not to pay it after fourteen days worked? Is not this slavery? Thatˢ۪s not only my single history but it occurred with an awful number of people day after day.

    Has he done the equation? Illegal immigrants with no rights pay a huge amount of tax, which they cannot make future use of any return because they simply will never have rights or will leave the country before the system could benefit them (pension for example), this sustain the failed welfare British system.

    Hypocrisy is he motto.

  • Forrest Allen Brown

    Brazil has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. brazil is in a world of nuclear giants and led by ethical infants.
    Very good idea aes texas does it and they have to plant and grow most there own food , not just lay around , put them in tent cityes in the middle of the fields .
    Wind mills for energy and water pumps another good one

    Sao Paulo only has one mabey 2 growing seasons come up north where it grows year round
    and the slaves work year around

    the phase in of farm equipment , did they put a year on that

    let the ambassdor drive the road from Recife to Joao Paosa look at the things the workers live in by the road , walk in and see what they eat .
    my brother in law was a cainer i treat and feed my dogs better than he had working 6 days a week some times 7 with little to no pay .

    now he has a better job he works for himself and can suport his family and feeds them .well .

  • aes

    The chopper harvester invented in Austrailia can harvest 24 hours per day.
    The chopper harvester has a minimal cost. Increasing production by 40%
    Build prison farms and employ the inmates to the task of cultivation of the cane making the prisons self sufficient.
    Install electronic windmill generators throughout the field doubling the return of the venture.
    Build more prisons utilizing the migrant labor force now used to archaically harvest cane.

  • conceicao

    The thrust of the Guardian story is fallacious for two reasons. First, while traditional methods of
    sugar cane cultivation and sugar production can very easily deform into the use of labor as a
    capital input as under slavery, sugar is an agricultural commodity entailing miniscule operating
    margins for sellers while the 30-plus % margins entailed in selling Brasilian ethanol into a free
    market are closer to margins for computer chips than for raw sugar. Second, these 30-plus %
    margins are derived from the higher energy content inherent in sugar as an ethanol input as
    opposed to corn, for example – not from cheap labor as the article would imply.. Also, the Brasilian government currently has in place requirements that increased mechanization of sugar production be phased in over time. The Guardian article is particularly hideous because it conveys the all too prevalent attitude that Brasil be kept in an economic time warp as some kind of punishment for its traditional under-development. This is ugly Europeanism at its worst from an economic policy perspective. (I do not question the accuracy of the description of the labor
    conditions at the site in question.)

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