Repercussions over Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, declaration earlier this week thatÂ rich sugar cane farmers have turned from "bandits" into "national and world heroes" continue to echo throughout the country. While the farmers themselves have praised the president many others have lambasted the presidential statement as inappropriate and insensitive.
Lula's comment was part of a speech he gave in the midwestern state of Goiás during the opening ceremonies for food company Perdigão's new factory.
"The sugarcane farmers," he said, "who six years ago were treated as if they were this country's agribusiness banditsÂ are becoming national and world heroes because everybody has his eye on the ethanol."
Lula stressed that this change is occurring during his term of office. Some of the critics remind, however, that until recently Lula and his Workers Party (PT) were ferocious critics of the landowners accusing them of being deadbeats who didn't pay their federal loans.
The PT had also aligned itself with social activists who charge the sugarcane growers with slave-like working conditions and was at the side of environmentalists who blame the landowners for burning sugarcane residues.
For Maurílio Biagi, a businessman who advises the São Paulo Sugarcane Agroindustry Coalition (UNICA), times have changed and sugarcane farmers have become more concerned with social matters as well as environmental ones.
If the sector is being panned, he says, this has to do with pure envy: "Brazil loathes success. As is the case in every other category we have good, average and bad sugarcane farmers."
"We may not be heroes," he says, "but we've never been bandits. Never a government gave our sector so much support. Lula can feel proud that this change occurred during his tenure in office."
Antônio Vicente Golfeto, director of the ACI-RP's (Ribeirão Preto's Commercial and Industrial Association) sees Lula's comments as a sign that the president decided to adopt a conciliation policy. "This PT change," he says, "has to be seen as a reflection point for the future. Lula is on a honeymoon with sugarcane farmers. However, we need to ask ourselves: have the farmers changed or has Lula?"
And Agrarian Conflicts prosecutor, Marcelo Pedroso Goulart, reminds that those people who Lula calls heroes are still exploiting workers. Goulart, who is also Environmental Prosecutor for the state of São Paulo, tells that there were 416 deaths just in 2005 due to the hardships of cutting sugarcane.
"Sugarcane farmers," Goulart charges, "keep on fouling the environment with the cane burning,Â use of agrotoxics and indiscriminate deforestation. Moreover, they concentrate property, income and wealth. In a democracy, businessmen with such a profile cannot be considered heroes. They should be investigated by the organs subordinated to the presidency."
Another one opposed to Lula's sudden change of heart is an old friend of the president, House Representative and president of Força Sindical (a central trade union), Paulo Pereira da Silva, better known as Paulinho. For him to call landowners heroes is nonsense:
"Lula is staying too much in Brasília, which is like a fantasy island. He has to travel more throughout Brazil to see how the working relations are here. I even believe that alcohol will become Brazil's main exporting commodity. But sugarcane farmers will always be sugarcane farmers.
"The numbers from the São Carlos University show that a sugarcane rural worker thrusts his heavy knife 36,000 times and walks 5.5 miles every day carrying sugarcane. This is insane. People are going to denounce this in some country and nobody will want to buy the Brazilian alcohol."