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Brasil de Fato, July 2th, 2008

by Maria Luisa Mendonça


The Brazilian savannah (Cerrado) is known as "father of waters" because it supplies the main hydrological basins of the country. The springs of the São Francisco River are located here, in Minas Gerais state, as well as other important rivers, such as Samburá, Santo Antônio, Rio do Peixe, and Rio Grande, which drains in the Paraná River. The fauna and flora are very rich and they guard many rare species. In Serra da Canastra over 300 species of birds and 7.000 species of plants were identified.


In the town of Lagoa da Prata already existed a sugarcane mill since the 70’s, owned by Antonio Luciano, a "Colonel" and large landowner, known as one of the biggest grileiros (illegal land-grabbers) of Minas Gerais. The French company Louis Dreyfus recently acquired this sugarcane mill, and expanded its plantations to produce ethanol. In the last two years, other companies have been participating in the process of expansion of sugarcane mono-cropping in this region.


The effects are devastating. In the farm of Antonio Luciano, the direction of the São Francisco River was diverted to facilitate the drainage of the production, without any environmental license or technical studies. Sugarcane plantations are replacing areas of food production, besides destroying forest reserves. In order to start new sugarcane plantations, the companies burn native forests, knock down and bury the trees, to escape inspection.


"Today it’s common to find dead animals on the roads, trying to escape from the forests devastation. We have found dead wolves, foxes, giant anteater, mini anteater, otter, coati, armadillo, snakes, herons, owl, and lizards, as well as dead fish in the rivers, like the surubins, which can weigh 40 kilos. They plant sugarcane by the rivers and lake sides," explains Francisco Colares, a professor of zoology at the University of Iguatama.


According to Mr Colares, the mill of Lagoa da Prata uses water from the São Francisco River in the whole production process, for irrigation during the cultivation, to wash the cane after the harvest and to cool the boilers in the processing. In one of the points of abstraction, the pumping gets 500 litres water per second. This quantity of water would be sufficient to supply the whole municipality.


The process of mono-cropping expansion is intense. The company Total is building a mill in Bambuí and three more are planned in the region - two in Arcos and one in Iguatama, in addition to the expansion of production in Lagoa da Prata. The cultivation of sugarcane comes near to restricted conservation zones of the National Park Serra da Canastra, considered of extreme biological importance by the Atlas of Biodiversity in Minas Gerais.


The park is located between the springs of the São Francisco River and the basin of the Grande River. The expansion of sugarcane production has a strong impact in this area, because of its invading potential and the intensive use of pesticides. The Itaiquara mill, installed in the town of Delfinópolis, produced sugarcane in permanent forest reserve areas, close to the large water reservoir of Furnas.


"They plant sugarcane practically inside the water. The company deforested and burned the area, and it was a major threat for the whole region. The Public Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit against the company. We hope that the area will be restored soon, and that the company be punished because of environmental crimes. This activity brings serious environmental problems. Brazil should prioritize a diversified model of agriculture”, says Joaquim Maia Neto, chief of IBAMA (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente – Brazilian Environmental Institute) at the Serra da Canastra National Park.


The Secretary of Agriculture and Environment of the town of Luz, Dario Paulineli, describes other impacts in the region. “Sugarcane plantations expanded quickly in the last few years. The company Louis Dreyfus has made many lease-contracts with local farmers, and the environmental impact has been enormous. The mills spread poison from airplane, and it reaches neighbouring farms, as well as urban areas. They cut trees protected by law, like pequizeiro and gameleira, and they plant sugarcane near the springs of the rivers. They don’t respect any studies of environmental impact. Many animals are dying with the devastation of forests."


According to farmer Gaudino Correia, it is not worth to lease out the land. "The contracts are for 12 years, and after that the sugarcane has destroyed everything. The mill uses heavy machines to prepare the land, and it causes soil erosion. They burn sugarcane, and the ashes spread throughout the region. I did not want to lease out my land, and now I’m surrounded by sugarcane. Here there is no more land for farming, and therefore food prices have raised a lot. My neighbours have stopped producing corn, beans, coffee, and milk, and leased out their lands. I still plant corn, beans, and produce milk, but for small producers the price did not increase, only for the middleman and for consumers."


Farmer Sebastião Ribeiro has the same opinion. "The company insisted, but I didn’t want to lease out my land. My neighbours who did it ended up getting into depression, because it is the same as if you lose your land. What will happen if all farmers stop planting food crops?” Mr Ribeiro also explains that the ethanol companies use the water of the São Francisco River to irrigate sugarcane.


Local environmental organizations are concerned with the social and environmental impacts of ethanol production. "The government should give priority to the preservation of the rivers springs. It is like wearing the veins that lead the blood to the heart. This expansion is happening very fast, and the production of sugarcane is supposed to double in the region. Family farming is going to disappear, and foods can become scarce", says Lessandro da Costa, director of the Environmentalist Association of Alto São Francisco.


Despite the propaganda of ethanol companies, saying that their activities bring employment and development, local organizations denounce several cases of environmental and labour laws violations. "They use aggressive poisons that affect the health of workers and the population. Banco do Brasil (Brazilian National Bank) has plenty of money to foster large mills, which destroy the Cerrado and the Amazon region, while small farmers have no access to loans for food production. This policy will lead to bequeathing destruction”, affirms Carlos Santana, adviser of the Rural Workers Union of Bambuí. He explains that, "sugarcane cutters are paid by the amount they cut, not by the hour, so this causes exploitation. Many workers get sick and are unable to continue in the job."


The President of the Rural Workers Union of Lagoa da Prata, Nelson Rufino, denounces that, “Louis Dreyfus Corporation causes great environmental destruction. They cut and bury the trees to hide the environmental crime. Only half of the conduits where they deposit the vinasse are made from cement. In other conduits the vinasse goes directly to the ground water and to the rivers. We call the vinasse stinking water.”


Mr Rufino describes the social impacts in local communities. "Our towns are completely surrounded because sugarcane plantations reach up to urban areas. The mills spread poison by airplane, and the number of cases of cancer in the population is enormous. Only in my family we have five cases of cancer, and that is common in the region. In our town, there are more than 140 workers removed from their jobs because of health problems like tendonitis, column problems, asthma and other lung diseases. We have registration of five death cases from accidents at work. Two workers fell in the fuel boiler, one died during the burning of sugarcane, and two others died in accidents with the tractor."


Most of the workers in the sugarcane plantation are migrants, so they are more vulnerable to exploitation and prejudice. The place where they live in Lagoa da Prata is called "Carandirú" (as a reference to an infamous prison). Mr Rufino explains that, “For the workers the situation has worsened because we have lost income. Last year we did a strike for 45 days, and we got an increase from R$ 2,50 to R$ 2,80 for ton of cut sugarcane. But the company wants to incriminate us, and has filled a lawsuit against the Union."


Another way to manipulate workers is stimulating competition. The company divides the workers into groups, according to the amount of sugarcane they can cut. Those who don’t achieve the target (which is usually a minimum of 10 tons of sugarcane per day) would not be hired for the next season. Those who achieve the highest results go to the class of "bulls", which cut from 17 to 25 tonnes of sugarcane per day. Many workers in that group have been dismissed because of health problems and now they are called "sick calves."


Even in areas where there was already agricultural activity, sugarcane monoculture produces a much larger degree of devastation, because it substitutes diversified agriculture for homogeneous and continuous cultivation, which leads to the total destruction of forest reserves. The demand of ethanol corporations for large quantity of good quality lands, with access to water and infrastructure, results in the devastation of natural resources and local agriculture. So, it is not true that sugarcane plantations are expanding in degraded areas and marginal lands, as the Brazilian government claims.


Moacir Gomes, former president of the Rural Workers’ Union of Bambuí, concludes that "President Lula doesn’t know the reality. How can he say that sugarcane has not replaced areas of food production? The mills are bringing poverty to our regions, and we can predict that our people will have less access to food”.


- Maria Luisa Mendonça is a journalist and coordinator of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil. Translation from Portuguese into English by Julian Pinto Rocha, from FIAN.