Sufferings of Brazilian Sugar Cane Workers

From EnergyResources:

In May 02, Abisel from Istanbul wrote:

Today I watched a short clip by "bbc-world" about the sufferings of the brazilian sugar cane workers. I wonder if Mr. Milton Maciel is aware and happy of the situation.
Regards, Abisel, Istanbul
Mr. Abisel:

Of course I'm not happy of the situation you mention, as I have being fighting against it both as an organic farmer/consultant and as a former Secretary of Agriculture. However, as certainly most of our fellows did not watch that short clip by BBC-World, I will bring a good description of the whole situation of sugar cane workers in the different Brazilian regions. And I'll present some comparisons too, so we may have a more realistic perspective of the high degree of GREED involved.

Anyway, I thank you for the oportunity you gave me to approach this subject of agricultural/industrial work and wages, not only in Brazil, but in a more world encompassing vision.


In Brazil 1 million men and women work in the sugar cane/sugar/ethanol industry. The largest part of them have permanent jobs in plantations, mills and distilleries. Around 200 000 have temporary (6 months) jobs cutting cane during the harvest time. THESE are the "suffering Brazilian sugar cane workers" that Mr. Abisel saw in "BBC-World". We're going to expose their inhumane work load, health risks and low wages with details.

There are two harvests periods in Brazil, for sugar cane:

Wages in Southeast are substantially higher than in Northeast. So, after the Northeastern harvest is over, a large contingent of sugar cane cutters move to Southeast looking for jobs during the rest of the year. As this region has a deficit of labor force, experienced cutters from Northeast are welcome. Many more workers come from other States, looking for best wages or, many times, just looking for any possible employment.

Cutting sugar cane is a physical exhausting task that demands a high level of muscular strenght and resistance. Vigorous men - and women - take this job under stressful conditions and use their force to the level of exhaustion, as they are paid by production - not by earning fixed wages. An average man can cut 8 tons of burnt cane stalks per day. Some push themselves much more and reach 12 tons/day. This extreme effort has leaded some of them to sudden death (12 cases reported in 2005).

When the sugar cane field is not submited to fire, an average man can only cut 3 tons/day and record holders barely surpass 6 ton/day. Burning cane also serve to kill or remove poisonous animals, as snakes. Because they get more tons/day and are free from snakes and the cutting edges of dry leaves of the plants, cutters prefer to operate in burnt cane fields.

When a property is Organic Certified, it is FORBIDDEN to burn its sugar cane. Then not only cutting yields are smaller, but salaries have to be higher, to compensate for the yield difference compared to burnt cane. In pratical terms, organic farmers pay the same as farmers that burn their cane, but get 50% or less of the mass of stalks for their money. They also have to invest in special clothes and protective glasses and boots, to protect workers from dry cane leaves, snakes and spiders. Manual harvest is an expensive part of costs for small size organic cane farms. That is why we're now working in the development af an electrical manual tool to perform the manual cutting of unburnt cane or 'green cane', that may increase yields by 70% and reduce fatigue by 60%. Of course, manual cut of sugar cane is not an adequate task for a human being. it is inhuman, so it has to be performed by machines. And machines that do not devore oil.

At the present state-of-art, 28% of all sugar cane is already harvested mechanically, by combo harvesters. One of these machines performs the work of 80 men. As its use is increased, much unemployment is generated in sugar cane fields. Cutters are a category doomed to extinction. There is another complicating factor for them: the burning of cane fields is under severe legislation and will be phased in 12 years. It causes many problems to people living in cities of cane producing regions. Air pollution by soot, particulate matter, airports that can't operate because of dense smoke. However, as we wil see after, burning cane is also very harmful to the cane cutters health and contributes to their very stressful working conditions.

So, large producers and mills, who own or rent 75% of all sugar cane areas, have increasingly been switching to mechanical harvest and employment opportunities for cutters decrease year after year. This option, forced not only by economic considerations, but also by environmental law enforcement, is very good, because it will extinguish the lamentable physical exploitation of sugar cane cutters. Additionally, the mechanical harvester leaves a lush layer of chopped green leaves over the harvested field, what means 'coating' soil with a protective layer that conserves water, protects from erosion, contributes with organic matter and recycle nutrients.

These harvesting machines bring two kind of problems. First, as already mentioned, is unemployment - but that is finding solution. Second is that combos are large machines, running on diesel oil and so, oil dependent. Here the foreseeable solution is biodiesel and many mills are already associating their ethanol regular production with biodiesel plants for their own use and for external sales. The first one start to operate in Minas Gerais State in next September.


Now we have to stare at a of that 20% working force in sugar cane industry that is directely involved in the inhumane manual harvesting task. This will introduce another subject that deserves much more attention and space, so I'll present it in a next post: SLAVE LABOR. I'll devellop this theme under a larger frame of view, encompassing Brazilian sugar cane cutters and their similars all around the world, in many different human (?) labor activities - agriculture, industry, construction and... well, OTHERS.

A pause for your rest.

Milton Maciel in Brazil