For nearly four decades, Pedro has cut sugarcane under the hot sun in Brazil, one of the world’s top producers of ethanol – a key material in the biofuel that powers vehicles worldwide and is seen as a key part of the global switch to cleaner energy.
It is backbreaking work.
Pedro’s base pay is less than $7 a day – a monthly wage that falls way below Brazil’s statutory minimum of about R$1,045 ($192) – and he said he has seen co-workers collapse and die in the fields from heat and exhaustion.
Every day before going to work, he prays that he will be spared.
“It’s not a good profession,” said Pedro, who asked that his real name be withheld for fear of reprisals for speaking out.
“I want to stop, but I don’t know how to read. I’m old – I am 46, I’ll be 47 in April. I don’t have much hope, but if one day something better comes up, it would be very good,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his home in northeast Brazil.
Brazil is the world’s second biggest producer of ethanol, a biofuel made from sugarcane, corn and other crops that can be mixed with gasoline to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles powered by fossil fuels.
Much of the gasoline in the United States now contains ethanol, which is one of the most common biofuels, and some climate experts see the industry as a key element of the world’s transition from a carbon-based economy to a greener one.
Yet ethanol has a human cost.
Nearly 8,000 people have been found working in slave-like conditions on sugar plantations in Brazil, which produces most of its ethanol from sugarcane, since the government began conducting rescue operations in 1995.
An investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found the very workers who are contributing to the fight against climate change by harvesting sugarcane are also becoming its victims, as rising temperatures make the work increasingly hazardous.
Most workers the Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed said they knew of colleagues who had died while working. One expert who studies the issue said the combination of overwork and heat can cause heart attacks in those with predisposition to heart disease.
Many are falling ill from a condition caused by severe dehydration that is known locally as “kangaroo” because it causes sufferers’ hands to cramp, clenching into fists that resemble the animal’s front paws.
Yet exclusively obtained documents show companies producing ethanol in Brazil remained on lists of suppliers cleared to export to Europe and the United States long after Brazilian authorities had named them in labor abuse cases.
One company implicated in a slavery and human trafficking case uncovered by Brazilian authorities earlier this year had received funding from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) for environmental and social projects in 2015, the IFC’s website shows.
The IFC, the World Bank’s private-sector arm, says it aims to advance economic development and improve the lives of people in developing countries through its investments.
Brazil has 369,000 people living in slavery, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, and the government runs a special taskforce of labor inspectors to identify and rescue victims.
In Brazil, slavery is defined as forced labor, but also covers debt bondage, degrading work conditions, long hours that pose a risk to health and any work that violates human dignity.
Authorities have registered cases of extreme labor abuse in three states so far this year, including Brazil’s richest, Sao Paulo, where production is mostly mechanized.
In April, labor inspectors rescued 22 workers from debt servitude at a sugarcane plantation in Ituverava, a town in Sao Paulo state.
Labor inspector Claudio Secchin, who led the operation, said the workers were known as “the bought ones”. When he brought them food, he said, “they went at it like hungry dogs”.
“It was sad to see. The most basic thing, food … was not being given.”
In March, Brazilian labor inspectors found 45 workers in slavery-like conditions on a sugarcane plantation in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais at a facility that until recently was cleared to export to the United States.
Documents from Brazil’s Labor Inspector’s Office show the workers had been brought there from the impoverished northeast by two men and were housed in sheds without beds or access to drinkable water.
The plantation had no bathrooms and nowhere out of the sun where workers could eat. When the water they brought with them ran out, they went thirsty.
Labor inspectors said its owner, Delta Sucroenergia, had engaged in slave labor and human trafficking.
Delta said it has since rescinded its contract with the two men who hired the workers, provided assistance to the rescued workers and revised its guidelines for service providers.
“Delta has collaborated and continues to cooperate with the authorities in fighting work analogous to slavery or any other form of work that is against the law,” it said in a statement.
The U.S. connection
Delta Sucroenergia had been authorized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to export ethanol from Brazil to the United States as long ago as 2011, a public information request from the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed.
U.S.-based companies bought Delta-produced ethanol and imported it into the United States on a “few occasions” between 2011 and 2013 from different facilities, according to information provided by the EPA.
The agency deregistered the Minas Gerais facility in August for failing to meet some of its reporting requirements, but a second facility in the state of Alagoas is still registered to export ethanol to the U.S.
The EPA said its renewable fuel program rules do not specifically address labor practices in fuel production, but that they would refer credible allegations of illegality to the appropriate authorities.
It considers slave labor “horrifying and unacceptable”, an agency spokesperson said by email.
In 2015 the IFC provided Delta with a loan of $80 million. One of its stated aims was improving social and environmental standards at the company.
The IFC cited Delta’s community work in areas including health and education and said it wanted to “support the company in the adoption of best environmental practices”.
Asked about the findings of labor abuse this year, the IFC said it took the allegations seriously and would continue to work with Delta Sucroenergia “on issues related to labor and working conditions”.
Most of the ethanol used in Europe is sourced locally, but Brazilian ethanol from sugarcane accounts for about 1% of the total.
Dozens of Brazilian sugar companies have been certified as sustainable by Bonsucro, a London-based non-profit that aims to ensure the production of sugar and ethanol meet environmental, social and business standards.
But Brazilian authorities say the scheme, whose certification is recognized by the European Commission, has routinely failed to detect abuse.
In 2017, Brazil’s Labor Prosecutor’s Office sued Bonsucro for running a scheme that “claims to verify the existence of slave labor (and) child labor … but in practice does not”, said a Brazilian court filing.
Labor prosecutor Rafael de Araujo Gomes said none of the audits done for Bonsucro’s scheme checked Brazil’s “dirty list” of companies that have engaged in slave labor, a well-known public registry used worldwide by banks and commodities traders.
To check for child labor, auditors looked at employee records in which a child would never appear, Gomes added.
In 2019, a firm bought sugarcane from a plantation that had engaged in slave labor, a document obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation shows. A year later, it was certified by Bonsucro.
Sao Jose Agroindustrial bought sugar from an independently owned plantation in the northeastern state of Pernambuco from which labor inspectors rescued 45 people working in degrading conditions.
The company’s president, Frederico Vilaça, said it has more than 340 suppliers of sugarcane, and will not stop buying from the plantation until it is found guilty by a court.
Vilaça said the company would itself take over production at the plantation to ensure the same thing did not happen again.
Gomes wrote to the European Commission in 2017 asking it to withdraw its recognition of Bonsucro certification.
Two years later, in a letter obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Commission declined to do so.
It said the certification was aimed at the environmental aspects of sugarcane farming, and issues of labor abuse should be “left to the national authorities”.
“The EU sustainability criteria are mainly aimed at the prevention of the direct conversion of land of high biodiversity value and land with high carbon stock while your complaint concerns other matters,” it said.
The Commission said Bonsucro had promised to reform its certification scheme and improve coverage of social issues in the ensuing months.
Yet Gomes said there had been “a consistent failure” to investigate labor issues.
This year, after a long legal battle in Brazil, Bonsucro signed a deal with Gomes agreeing to revamp its certification process by the end of 2021.
“This is a clear demonstration of Bonsucro’s constant efforts for the continuous improvement of its standards,” the nonprofit said in a statement.
Bonsucro said companies were required to disclose ongoing human rights risks in their sugarcane supply chain, according to requirements introduced in 2021, and that it would “review information in relation to” Sao Jose Agroindustrial.
‘A marathon every day’
For many workers on Brazil’s sugarcane plantations, one of the biggest concerns is worsening heat – particularly in the northeast, where most sugarcane is still harvested manually.
More and more workers are becoming so severely dehydrated that they are suffering from an imbalance of electrolytes that leads to severe cramps and vomiting, a condition known locally as “kangaroo”, doctors and labor experts said.
“My whole body would cramp,” said Jose Cicero Lemos, a former sugarcane worker in the northeastern state of Alagoas. “You are conscious, but you lose control of your body, and you vomit all over yourself.”
Lemos became so weak his wife had to remove his boots, as his legs were too cramped to do it himself. The next day, he would wake up at 3 a.m. and go to work to do it all over again, she said.
“We used to have 20 cases of kangaroo per harvest. Now it is 20 cases per week,” said a middle manager at a sugarcane mill who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Lucio Verçoza, a professor at Alagoas’ Federal University who studies the issue, compared the challenge of staying hydrated in the fields during harvest time with that faced by endurance athletes.
“Athletes protect themselves against this by … drinking Gatorade and other products like it,” said Verçoza. They also get medical assistance, a special diet, and rest up for weeks after endurance tests like running a marathon.
Sugarcane workers, meanwhile, work six days a week.
“The effort is similar, but the conditions for sugarcane workers are different. (They run) a marathon every day.”
The industry maintains that it is cleaning up its act on labor as well as helping the environment.
Mario Campos, president of Brazil’s Forum Nacional Sucroenergético, an association of ethanol producers, said there had been significant improvements to working conditions on sugarcane plantations, crediting mechanization.
Farmworker Pablo also said conditions had improved since he first started, when workers were transported in trucks, not buses, there were no bathrooms, and they had no water to drink during the day.
Beyond concerns over working conditions, some climate experts question whether biofuels such as ethanol should be part of a broader green energy transition at all, pointing to the impact on land use and food supplies.
“It’s just an extraordinarily inefficient way to produce energy,” said Tim Searchinger, who works on food issues at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
“People (have been) treating land as carbon free and ignoring the greenhouse gas costs of clearing more land to replace food diverted to fuel.”
Siobhán McGrath, an assistant professor in human geography at Britain’s Durham University, said it was clear countries should not be importing goods made using slave labor.
But she said import bans were only part of the potential solutions, suggesting additional measures such as opportunities for remediation and looking at whether key buyers are actively working to change labor conditions.
Since the 1990s, sugarcane mills in Brazil have had minimum harvest quotas for workers. But these have steadily increased and now some mills dismiss those who cannot cut at least seven tons a day.
Overwork in such hot, demanding conditions can lead to sudden death by heart attack, said Verçoza, the professor, who has recorded 10 such cases since 2008. Others suffer back problems or other work-related illnesses, he added.
“We see workers who at 40 are used up,” he said. “How to explain a job that leads to the risk of sudden death?”
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