By Daniel Howden
Published: 04 July 2007
More than 1,000 "enslaved" workers have been released from a sugar
cane plantation in the Amazon following a raid that has highlighted
the dark side of the current ethanol boom.
Brazilian authorities said that the workers in the northern state of
Para were being forced to work 14-hour days in horrendous conditions
cutting cane for ethanol production.
Police said the raid was Brazil's biggest to date against debt
slavery, a practice reminiscent of indentured labour where poor
workers are lured to remote rural areas, then pushed into debt to
plantation owners who charge exorbitant prices for everything from
food to transportation.
The plantation's owner, Para Pastoril e Agricola SA, one of the
biggest ethanol producers in Brazil, denied the charges yesterday.
Brazil has become the poster boy for ethanol production as its massive
sugar cane plantations have fuelled a wholesale switch from petrol to
biofuels. Rising international demand has turned the country into a
major ethanol exporter.
Labour unions and conservationists have pointed to serious
side-effects of the industry - for the environment that ethanol is
supposed to be saving and the agricultural workers. The country is
under pressure to improve working conditions for the cane cutters, who
use machetes to chop down tons of cane for wealthy Brazilians and
corporations that own the plantations.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pledged in May to bring industry
leaders and workers together "to discuss the humanisation of the sugar
cane sector". The promise came after the President was criticised at
home for calling Brazil's ethanol producers "national and world
heroes". Critics say producers pocket huge profits while workers