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Friday, February 20, 2009

Lie of the Day

By ROBERT BRYCE
For years, the US has been inundated with claims that it should follow Brazil’s lead on biofuels. These arguments have largely been made by a small, but influential group of neoconservatives who claim that the US should quit using oil altogether. They claim that using more ethanol – produced from sugar cane, or corn, or some other substance – will impoverish OPEC and America will once again be returned to prosperity.


But these claims wither in the face of a story by Clemens Hoges in the January 22 issue of the German magazine Der Spiegel. Hoges writes that sugar cane “is considered an effective antidote to climate change, but hundreds of thousands of Brazilian plantation workers harvest the cane at slave wages.” The story is one of several published in recent years that have exposed the brutality of the Brazilian sugar cane fields. But before looking at Der Spiegel’s coverage, let’s do a quick review of the Brazilian ethanol boosters.

Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times has frequently advocated the mirage of “energy independence.” And he has cited Brazil as a model. In an August 2005 column, he conflated the issues of oil and terrorism “we are financing both sides in the war on terrorism: our soldiers and the fascist terrorists,” he wrote. He went on to claim that many of the technologies needed for energy independence are “already here – from hybrid engines to ethanol.” He then quoted Gal Luft, the neoconservative who heads the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and created Set America Free, a group that advocates “energy independence.” Luft claimed that Brazil’s success in cutting its oil imports was due to the fact that the South American country was “bringing hydrocarbons and carbohydrates to live happily together in the same fuel tank.” In Luft’s view, ethanol has brought “Brazil close to energy independence” and insulated it from higher oil prices.

(Luft’s claim completely ignores the fact that since 1980, Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company, has been growing its oil production by an average of 9 percent per year thanks to its offshore drilling prowess. Since 1998, Brazil has doubled its oil production and is now producing about 2 million barrels of oil per day. Neither Friedman nor Luft bothered to mention that fact.)

In late 2005, in a speech to the National Press Club, Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell said that “No longer is investing in alternative fuels a fringe idea….Brazil is perhaps the world’s greatest success story. Due to 30 years of hard work, research and investment, Brazil will not need one drop of imported oil this time next year. If anyone suggests to you that these ideas aren’t ready for prime time and cost too much, they are living in the past.” Mr. Rendell, you are lying, sir.


A big reality check is in order.

First and foremost, over the past two years, 14 studies have found a direct link between the ethanol scam and higher food prices.

Second, Brazil is not the epicenter of ethanol production, the US is. In 2008, the US produced about 9.1 billion gallons of the fuel, all of it from corn. Brazil produced about 6.8 billion gallons. And while sugar cane may be a far better feedstock that corn, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and energy balance, the key issue is one of labor. While US corn is harvested mechanically, the Brazilian sugar cane is harvested almost exclusively by hand. And it is dangerous, back-breaking work.

In 2007, London’s The Guardian newspaper ran a story which quoted human rights activists who said that the men who harvest sugar cane for ethanol production “are effectively slaves” and that Brazil’s ethanol industry was “a shadowy world of middle men and human rights abuses.” It cited figures provided by a Catholic nun, Sister Ines Facioli, who runs a support network in a small town about 200 miles west of São Paolo. She claimed that between 2004 and 2006, 17 cane workers died due to overwork or exhaustion. One laborer, Pedro Castro, told the Guardian’s Tom Phillips, that the hot climate, combined with the heavy protective clothing needed to protect his body from the sharp machete blades used to cut the cane, was like working “inside a bread oven.”

For their work, the average cane worker gets paid about $1 for every ton of sugar cane they cut. They often work 12-hour shifts. Their housing, according to Phillips’ article, consists of “squalid, overcrowded ‘guest houses’ rented to them at extortionate prices by unscrupulous landlords.” The average cane cutter makes less than $200 per month. And some, it appears, make nothing at all.

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