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Brazil: Maryknollers' statement on ethanol

NewsNotes, November-December 2008

The following statement was written by the Maryknoll Brazil Mission Community, a collaborative effort of Catholic priests, sisters and lay people who work in various ministries with the poor and marginalized in Brazil.

We, the Maryknoll Brazil Mission Community, live in two areas that are affected by sugar cane production in Brazil. One of these areas is São Paulo, the Brazilian state that is the largest producer of sugar cane. The other is João Pessoa, a city in the northeastern coast of Brazil, where early Portuguese colonizers first brought enslaved Africans and sugar cane and built large plantations for its cultivation. The scope and history of sugar cane production, not only in our two areas but throughout many parts of Brazil, still have devastating economic and ecological consequences for the Brazilian people.

As world leaders look for energy alternatives, many are discussing the possibility of using sugar cane to make ethanol. In fact, Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has promoted the production and use of ethanol in Brazil and its exportation to the United States, Japan and European countries.

We find this proposed solution to the world’s energy needs problematic. While looking for fuels that reduce pollution is laudable, there are significant environmental and social justice concerns raised with the production of ethanol from sugar cane.

Ecological concerns

Current methods of sugar cane production in Brazil use up large tracts of land that are then not used for food production. Brazil is a land where food insecurity is a daily reality for a quarter of the population. The natural resources of the country need to be directed to addressing the problems of feeding its people. Ownership of these lands resides in the hands of the wealthy elite. Sugar cane is grown and harvested on land that has been cut, cleared and burned of trees and other plants. This threatens the rich biodiversity of Brazil as well as contributing to air pollution through smoke from the fires. Water sources are also threatened by the common practice of deforestation and pesticide use employed in sugar cane monocultures.

Social justice concerns

The tenant workers who plant and harvest sugar cane are cruelly exploited by their employers. Working conditions are commonly described as slavery. Workdays begin hours before dawn and last until nightfall. Payment is based on arbitrary decisions by a foreman who has incentives to underpay his workers. When workers are told that they have earned some little money, deductions are made for food, housing (often in inadequate, unsanitary conditions), rental of tools and transportation. The work itself is brutal. Workers are exposed to the heat of the sun, with only a short break for a meager lunch. The sugar cane leaves cut the arms of workers while they harvest, and fires burn beside the workers while they are clearing.

The people who often perform this work are those who are desperate to find employment in order to feed their families. At times the children of cane workers are also recruited at a young age to work in the fields. Without an opportunity to acquire a basic education necessary for other jobs, these children grow up to become adults stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Our hope

As we think about the very real problems of the United States’ dependency on foreign oil, the fluctuating prices of fuel for transportation and for heating, and the impact of burning fossil fuels on global climate change, we hope that citizens and policy makers will consider the impact of monoculture and large scale farming of sugar cane on the people of Brazil.

We pose these questions for further reflection:

  • U.S. society (and, increasingly, other societies) depend on the large scale production of energy. What are creative ways that we can reduce our use of energy as individuals, families, communities and whole societies?
  • Many modern cities are designed to accommodate mass automobile transportation. What is keeping us from making major investments in public transportation systems that are widely accessible? How can we think creatively about re-structuring our residential and transportation needs in the future?
  • Sugar cane-based ethanol raises a number of social and practical concerns about its use. Its production may cause more environmental damage than its “cleaner” burning prevents in comparison to fossil fuels. What are other energy sources and what do we need to know about their production and consumption to make informed choices about their use?

Our hope is to help all people who are concerned about the integrity of creation to make decisions so that everyone may have life in abundance.
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