When one is told about slaves carrying out back-breaking work in sugar plantations, it is easy to think of it as a relic of history, a chapter in the text-books. Unfortunately, such practises are not just confined to the distant past. It is still happening under our noses, this time under the hypocrisy of green ideals, under the banner of biofuels.
Just the other day, in the darkest reaches of the Amazon jungle in Brazil, more than 1,000 slaves were freed. They were forced to work 18 hour days under crippling conditions, cutting down sugar cane with machetes in order to produce the “environmentally friendly” fuel.
The raid, which police claim was the biggest to-date took place in the northern state of Para. Apparently, behind this exploitative ring lie the biggest ethanol producers in Brazil, Para Pastoril e Agricola SA. They stand accused of using methods reminiscent of indentured labour, a practice where poor labourers were lured into remote rural areas and then pushed into debt by plantation owners who charged exorbitant prices for everything including food, water, housing and transportation.
Brazil has become a model for the rest of the developed world, having completely switched its fuel from petrol to biofuels. Increasingly, international demand for ethanol has turned the country into a major exporter. However, as Environmental Graffiti has previously reported, biofuels have some nasty side-effects, such as increasing food prices. Would an educated ethanol producer pocket gargantuan profits, at the expense of their workers really to save the environment or are they just hoarding cash?
President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva has been previously known to state that Brazil’s ethanol producers are “national and world heroes.” On a more sombre note however, he pledged to bring industry leaders together to discuss the problem.