Ethanol Industry Fuels Debt Slavery in Brazil

A report recently issued by the watchdog group Catholic Land Pastoral shows that debt slavery in Brazil has reached record numbers. The report stated that in 2008, there were 280 reported cases of debt slavery, a six percent increase from 2007.

Over one third of the cases were linked to sugarcane production which propels Brazil’s production of ethanol, a substance that is being promoted internationally as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. While it is good news for the environment that Brazil may be able to offer drivers worldwide cheap ethanol, the human cost of producing the fuel is often overlooked.

As reported by the Associated Press, debt slavery is common in Brazil’s Amazon region, where illiterate men who have few options are enticed to remote areas where they become dependent on and indebted to plantation owners who overcharge them for food and shelter while paying them slave wages.

Plantation workers endure back-breaking work under a searing sun, whacking a machete into sugar cane up to 3,000 times per day. According to Der Spiegel, men last an average of 12 years on the job before they burn out and have to be replaced.

As noted by CNN, figures from 2003 produced by the United Nations International Labour Organization estimated there were between 25,000 and 40,000 Brazilians toiling as slaves in debt bondage.

Although the government has made some efforts to free those who are trapped in debt slavery — the government’s Mobile Verification Task Force has freed 30,000 slaves since 1995 — the ratio of nine government inspectors per 140,000 workers in some areas is inadequate to create significant change. Moreover, the plantations and factories are mostly ruled by militia, making them difficult to penetrate and supervise.

Brazilian President Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva told Der Spiegel, “When we think of ethanol, our goal is to help the poor. The world must become cleaner, and the world needs jobs.” Lula’s benevolent vision, however, has been criticized by those working in an empathetic capacity with the exploited workers and their families.

Father Tiago, a Scottish Catholic monk who has for many years been helping the abused workers, told Der Spiegel, “The promise of biofuel is a lie. Anyone who buys ethanol is pumping blood into his tank. Ethanol is produced by slaves.”

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