Challenges of Sugar Cane Production in Brazil: Human and Social Costs of Ethanol

By Terry-Ann Jones.

Published by The International Journal of Environmental Sustainability

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Sugar cane cultivation has long characterized the economies of many Latin American and Caribbean states. Labor has shifted from the enslavement that accompanied sugar production under colonial powers to wage labor, yet in many ways the working conditions have remained similar. Working conditions on Brazilian sugar cane plantations vary widely, but there is ample evidence to conclude that the exploitation of workers is common in this industry. Brazil’s northeast has historically been the primary area of sugar cane production. However, centuries of poor agricultural practices have resulted in diminished soil fertility in this region. This environmental degradation is compounded by the Northeast’s historical dependence on agricultural production, contributing to high rates of unemployment, and the vast income discrepancy between the northeast and the south. Labor migration from the northeast to the more affluent south is a consequence of these circumstances. This paper considers the working conditions of the seasonal migrant labor force that bears most of the responsibility for sugar cane harvesting in the center-south region of Brazil, and questions the sustainability of ethanol under the current mode of production, given the human and social challenges.

Keywords: labor migration, biofuels, ethanol

The International Journal of Environmental Sustainability, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp.13-20. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 367.855KB).

Dr. Terry-Ann Jones

Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT, USA