Jason Barton

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Archive for the ‘Sugarcane Laborers’ tag

Educational Gaps Limit Brazil’s Reach

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This is probably the most important point that I took away from my doctoral research on the Brazilian bioenergy sector. It is in the midst of a market-led transition from its previous position as reliant on abundant, unskilled labor, to one that is much more mechanized and reliant on high technology.

This new approach relies on fewer laborers, but higher skill levels, as well as jobs that may more and are much safer. It’s not entirely or immediately positive, as with these new jobs that require greater education, there are fewer total jobs available. One tractor does the work of 80 field laborers, bringing with it another 20-30 jobs directly or indirectly.

Two developments are needed to make this transition as smooth as possible:

1. More jobs. The newer jobs are better, but what happens to the 50-60 field laborers who lose their jobs in Sao Paulo and return home to the Northeast, where President Lula was born, where there are few opportunities and rising problems associated with widespread unemployment and poverty?

2. More education. If Brazil is going to make the successful transition from commodities producer to producer of higher value, finished goods, it will need a much more highly educated and trained workforce.

From my own research, including interviews and surveys with people in Sao Paulo, and from the information in this article, it looks like many are aware of these problems and are dedicated to addressing them.

That’s great news.

André Vieira for The New York Times

A school in Caetés, Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s hometown.

Published: September 4, 2010

CAETÉS, Brazil — When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil’s president in early 2003, he emotionally declared that he had finally earned his “first diploma” by becoming president of the country.

One of Brazil’s least educated presidents — Mr. da Silva completed only the fourth grade — soon became one of its most beloved, lifting millions out of extreme poverty, stabilizing Brazil’s economy and earning near-legendary status both at home and abroad.

But while Mr. da Silva has overcome his humble beginnings, his country is still grappling with its own. Perhaps more than any other challenge facing Brazil today, education is a stumbling block in its bid to accelerate its economy and establish itself as one of the world’s most powerful nations, exposing a major weakness in its newfound armor.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

September 6th, 2010 at 8:34 am

Citizen Cane: Is biofuels’ future in the fields of Brazil, or the fields of home?

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It’s odd that we didn’t think much of these cane workers for the centuries when we were importing Brazilian sugar, when conditions were undoubtedly much, much worse than they are today. This has been a more common topic in the news of the last few years.

Mr. Lane proposes a series of cogent arguments why the U.S. should be more self-reliant in terms of our energy use, and some rather dubious ones on why we should not rely on Brazil and why we do not yet have a cellulosic biofuels industry here in the U.S.

Maybe it’s simply because of the age of information: now we have immediate access to the stories of people in rural areas on the other end of the globe, and the internet provides the space to tell those stories. Maybe it’s because, unlike the diminutive domestic sugar market, the burgeoning biofuels market and the already powerful corn lobby provide much stronger motivations to investigate the downsides of corn ethanol’s far more efficient competitor.

Having just returned from three months working with the cane industry in Sao Paulo, which produces 60% of their cane and ethanol, I can say that cane cutting is brutally difficult work, but work done by choice in a place where hundreds of thousands of people have no access to anything safer, smoother, or that pays better. They are not slaves; they are poor, without access to education, and without other options.

Perhaps an even more pressing set of questions is what will happen to these workers, and the Brazilian bioenergy market as a whole, as the sector becomes increasingly more mechanized and much more efficient over the next five years. These hundreds of thousands of workers will almost all lose their jobs, with one tractor replacing 80 workers. But it will also create another 15-25 jobs that pay better, require more training, and are much safer.

The increasing access to education for workers, information for cane producers and ethanol refineries, and the capital flowing into the sector from Brazil and abroad will help to streamline cane and ethanol production, shed light on best, and worst, practices, improving the industry and increasing yields per unit of land.

Many producers making the move to mechanization have not yet adopted the changed planting patterns or harvest practices that will increase their yields dramatically. The Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC) a private research firm in Sao Paulo whose associates produce the majority of Brazilian cane, is constantly at work investigating best practices and disseminating them across larger and smaller producers around the country’s center-south region.

This brings us back to why so many people advocate increased importation of Brazilian ethanol, and why we don’t have a cellulosic biofuels industry here in the U.S.:  Brazilian ethanol is much, much more efficient. In the Global Market that Mr. Lane describes, unlike the Global Village, price is king. Unlike U.S. corn, which is the recipient of enormous subsidies and is protected by a $0.54 per gallon tariff, Brazilian cane and ethanol compete on the free market, with drivers of flex fuel vehicles making a choice at the pump based on which is cheaper, ethanol or gasoline.

Our lack of a cellulosic industry is not because of “fear of the unknown,” but simply because of feasibility. Cellulosic ethanol cannot come close to competing with cane ethanol, nor with petroleum, so it does not have a presence in the market.

Yes, we should foster research and development in domestic energy, and biomass-based biofuels will likely play a part in our energy independence, along with nuclear and domestic petroleum and, most important of all, energy efficiency. We need to use less energy if we want any hope of achieving energy independence.

So while I agree with Mr. Lane’s premises, the difference is in the details. Let’s strive to nurture our own domestic energy markets, but let’s be honest about how and why we do it.

by Jim Lane

“Let me tell a story ‘bout a man named Jed /
a poor mountaineer barely kept his fam’ly fed…”

By now, if you are a devotee of vintage TV or over the age of 40, you may well be humming along to the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies. The song told the story of how these comic hillfolk ended up owning a mansion in a swank part of Los Angeles, because of an oil strike on their land back home. It’s the dream of many of poor landowner for a long time now.


Cheap fuel! Cheap energy!

That’s what we want — or have wanted for a long, long time. Cheap fuel, and cheap food, and no questions asked.

So much of our cheap sugar comes from the cane fields of Brazil — for the Brazilians drove down the price with an efficiency that virtually extinguished the US sugarcane business. We don’t see the cane worker any more clearly than the Nigerian farmer.

We may tut-tut over reports of slavery in the industry when we see it flash across the Bloomberg Channel, or regret the conditions that every cane worker must experience, wielding a machete at high speed for hours, and days and years. The long years in the hot fields, the high prices in the company stores, the rude shacks used by the cane-workers — we might become agitated if we saw it, but we don’t see it, or rather we avert our minds rather than our eyes. It is the same with chicken farms or cattle feedlots — a 60 Minutes report might arouse our outrage for a day or two, and then we lapse into the old habit of taking the cheap price, and pushing inconvenient thoughts aside.

Read the entire article here.

Bloomberg to air documentary about Brazilian ethanol worker labor conditions

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As I’ve investigated more and more of the Brazilian cane and ethanol industries, I’ve become increasingly dubious about the validity of these negative claims. Certainly there are cases of worker abuses, and even in the best circumstances, manual harvesting of sugarcane is extremely difficult work, with very low pay.

This makes the growth of mechanized harvesting a very interesting issue: it is cutting the number of jobs by more than half, but the jobs lost are the worst kind, while the newer jobs are much safer and healthier, higher paying, and require more training and education. This leads many to point out that these are the kinds of jobs upon which healthier development can be built. Others may agree, but are still understandable concerned about what thousands of cane cutters will do when they lose their jobs, and are unable to compete for these new jobs that require skills that they do not have.

Clearly there’s much more to this issue than can be discussed in this one entry, so if you have questions or comments please feel free to contact me and we can discuss it further.

According to the video above, the Bloomberg TV network will air Deadly Brew – The Human Toll of Ethanol, a documentary about the horrible labor conditions of Brazilian ethanol workers on January 24th (next Thursday). The video above includes lines like “the cars run on human blood” and the video ends with a shocking story of a man that died after cutting “45 tonnes” of sugar cane in one day (see related post here).

Many environmentalists and now even the EU have really backed off in their support for ethanol and are taking a very hard look at how it’s made. While it can be sustainable, energy positive and include good labor practices, there are horrible cases like the ones Bloomberg will report on that have many questioning if ethanol is worth it. I will post a review of the documentary after it airs.

Read the entire article here.