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close this bookCERES No. 097 - January - February 1984 (FAO Ceres, 1984, 50 p.)
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View the documentHeavy social costs raise doubts about Brazil's fuel scheme
View the documentRegional effort helps Near East to boost food output
View the documentLack of funding hampers campaign against rinderpest
View the documentPricing of timber concessions draws exporters' interest
View the documentBetter boats, gear being designed for Brazilian fisheries
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Heavy social costs raise doubts about Brazil's fuel scheme

Brazil launched its national fuel alcohol programme in November 1975, in response to the global petroleum crisis. The declared objectives were fourfold:

- to replace petroleum imports;
- to reduce regional income disparities;
- to use both land and labour more intensively;
- to encourage production of capital goods to enlarge and modernize sugar plants and refineries.

Between December 1975 and March 1979, the state of Sao Paulo received almost half of all related proposals or the installation of refinery capacity. It now accounts for 40 per cent of the nation's total sugar production and for almost three quarters of the fuel alcohol output. The state's sugar industry is concentrated chiefly in the Ribeirao Preto zone, which produces 1.025 billion litres of fuel aIcohol annually, one-seventh of all national production. Only in recent years have there been attempts to assess the impact of this agricultural transformation on the rural labour force in general and on workers in the sugar industry in particular. Now studies and statistics have begun to appear, revealing the social costs of a measure initially intended to ease the country's balance of payments problems. Research findings in Ribeirao Preto should not be generalized on a nation scale, but it is in one of Brazil's most economically and socially advanced states. Given the importance of local cane production and the conditions prevailing there, the recent studies have thrown a harsh light upon the reality that is already disturbing Brazilian authorities as well as public opinion. One research group that analysed social and nutritional conditions among itinerant rural workers (called boias fries, "cold meat", because their self-prepared meals are always eaten cold) confirmed the existence of serious malnutrition among those engaged in the rugged labour of the canefields. The group was directed by Prof. Jose Eduardo Dutra de Oliveira, director of the Medical Faculty in Ribeirao Preto, Titular Professor of the Medical Clinic and Chief of Nutrition. The results of the research have been published as a book under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences of the State of Sao Paulo.

The cane workers have now left the plantations, where they once lived, and have moved to the outskirts of the cities. They work on the plantations by day or by piece work, without being registered, with neither holidays nor annual bonus, without labour assistance, with none of the rights of urban workers. Moreover, 40 per cent of the workers covered by the study came not from the rural zones, but from urban centres. They were unemployed or underemployed who contracted their labour out to los gatos, truck-owning entrepreneurs who come by each morning to pick up the workers and transport them to plantations with which they have contracted to provide field labour. The trucks arrive at 5:30 in the morning, which means that the canecutter's day begins even earlier, when he prepares food to take to the field. Half the workers, the study revealed, leave for work in the morning without eating or drinking anything. Always tiring, the truck trips can also be dangerous as witnessed by many accidents.

The workers have a chance to eat their cold food at 9 a.m. and again at 1 p.m. Lunch consists of rice, beans, and bread, and occasionally a sausage, a sardine, or an egg. Average calory consumption is 800 calories, or 33 per cent below energy requirements. There is, however, abundant consumption of alcohol, averaging 110 ml per day among the male workers. It results in frequent hospitalizations for alcoholism as well as serious disturbances in the group living quarters and billets where the workers, generally single men separated from their families, are crowded together.

The research project also studied 400 sons of canecutters divided into three groups: preschool (two to six years); school age (seven to 12 years); and youths from 12 to 18 years. The weight, height, and mental and physical capacities of these youngsters were found to be far below the level of other children of the same age. For example, according to Prof. Dutra, there was an average difference of 20 cm in height between 15-year-old boys from cane cutter families and the norm for their age group.

"They are absent a lot," said one manager, "more than 50 per cent of the time on Mondays as a result of the weekend drinking. In general, they work only five days a week."

Efficiency is continually declining. "The work that one man used to be able to do now requires three," is one employer's complaint. Employers complain also that cane cutters learn with great difficulty, cannot endure continuous work, must rest frequently, and catch fevers and chills, testimony to their weakened condition.

"They are malnourished in the first degree," says Prof. Dutra.

The research team studied a group of cane cutters with the average age of 29 years. The men measured, on average, 1.65 metres, and weighed 57 kg. Women, on the other hand, measured 1.51 metres and weighed 52 kilos.

"The problem," says Prof. Dutra, "is not a lack of protein or of food quality but rather a lack of food. They are hungry, pure and simple."

Cane cutters are paid on a piecework basis and generally receive 90 cruzeiros for each ton cut, although a model plantation, such as at Sao Marinho de Pradis pays 625 cruzeiros per ton, or 2 000 cruzeiros per day for men and 1 700 for women. (Official exchange rate, about 900 cr. equal $1.) Workers get an account of the production they have achieved only on the following day. They do not work when it rains and accordingly are not paid. If they get sick, that is their bad luck.

Sometimes the labour contractors provide the meals, usually poor and inadequate, which the workers must pay for, and they usually still owe something at the end of the harvest. One of these workers, Orozimbo Perriera Lima, 23 years of age, lodged with 60 others on the Matinha plantation near de Ribeirao, says that in one month he earned 30 000 cruzeiro and had to pay 16 000 for food. Another, Vicente Paula Santos, claimed that he earned 869 cruzeiros per day and had to pay 600 for food. Many workers prefer to suck raw cane in the fields rather than fall into debt and return to their villages with nothing. Some workers make a soybean soup which may temporarily alleviate hunger but does little to counter malnutrition.

To cap it all, the work is not permanent, and between harvests the workers have no income. Their dependence on labour contractors is thus so much the greater.

In 1970, workers who were registered or recognized by the plantation and therefore enjoyed some social and salary advantages, represented 83.49 per cent of the canefield workforce. By 1980, this figure had dropped to 61.90 per cent while the proportion of nonresident workers grew from 16.51 to 38.10 per cent the total.

Because it has been impossible to count upon a stable and efficient work-force to maintain production or plan the work of the plantations, some of the more advanced managers and enterprises with better levels of technology have, in recent years, gun to show concern about the workers' problems. They are trying to develop a skilled, productive, and dependable workforce, registering a lager number of workers and at the same time increasing mechanization the cane harvest.

To some extent, this surge of conscience has been prompted by the eat of workers to return to their native villages. Nevertheless, says prof. Dutra, "This relatively new problem, linked to sugar-cane monoculture, demands immediate measures once there is no state or federal agency responsible for the canecutters." It is necessary, he mention, to regularize the conditions of work and give workers the right medical assistance, holidays, and retirement with pensions. 'When one is past middle age and not as strong, then it becomes easy the machete to slip and to have an accident," said one worker. "The boss says that we ought to use gloves, but don't like gloves. We want a fair salary. A canecutter's hour is worth than in any other work." And a woman agreed. "If public employees can have four months of maternity leave, women who cut cane could have the same right." Behind the fuel alcohol that powers the cars of Brazil's, behind the statistics concerning import substitution, lies another energy problem, that of the human energy being consumed in a drudgery that offers no future.