Fuel Economics | Is ethanol everybody’s fuel, or is it euphoric?

Fuel Economics | Is ethanol everybody’s fuel, or is it euphoric?
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First Published: Thu, Jan 10 2008. 11 57 PM IST

Renewable source: A file photo of sugar-cane harvesting in Brazil.
Renewable source: A file photo of sugar-cane harvesting in Brazil.
Updated: Thu, Jan 10 2008. 11 57 PM IST
Near the vestiges of the first sugar factory in CamposBrazil, built in 1877 with a sign in Latin over the entrance saying “Sweet is the Reward of Work”, Danuza Gomes Da Silva swings a glinting knife as she makes her way down the length of a field cutting cane.
She bends to slice the sticks of young cane dropped by other workers from the top of a truck. She straightens, again and again. A band of 12 labourers like hers can plant about 10 acres a day. Sugar cane buds easily from the ploughed furrows and it grows fast. But the work associated with it is hard.
Danuza, round-faced and soft-eyed, makes between $8 and $13 a day depending on her productivity. Aged 35, she has four young children. Only about 20% of the 7.5 million acres planted with sugar cane in Brazil is mechanized. The rest depends on manual labour like hers. “I don’t want to lose my job,” she says, a smile on her face, the oversized cleaver in her hand.
Renewable source: A file photo of sugar-cane harvesting in Brazil.
Machines that plant and harvest are slowly spreading across the great expanse of Brazilian cane fields. But Danuza’s harsh existence is a reminder that behind the global buzz over Brazil’s cane-based ethanol production— the 21st century’s environment-friendly biofuel par excellence—lurk enduring social problems.
Ethanol, renewable and relatively clean, is lovely. The life of the migrant Brazilian rural worker, finite and hot, is not.
Seldom has a country seen an image makeover quite as radical as Brazil’s in recent years. From the not-quite-serious land of samba, slums, soccer and smoking rain forests, it has become the realm of ahead-of-the-curve ethanol work, flex-fuel cars running on any combination of ethanol and gasoline, and a biofuel revolution that could deliver the world from ugly, $100-a-barrel oil.
Where the world once saw Pelé and poverty, it now sees a country where 80% of new cars run on ethanol or gasoline; all gasoline is sold in a mix that contains close to 25% ethanol, and ethanol accounts for more than 40% of fuel consumption. These numbers make new US targets that might replace about one-sixth of petrol consumption with ethanol by 2020 seem belated and meagre.
Brazil, in other words, was busy seeing tomorrow while America viewed it as mired in the past, a place too frivolous to be futuristic. In fact, both images hold some truth. Brazil has led the way in demonstrating the potential of ethanol, has vast land resources to develop the industry, uses sugar-based ethanol whose productivity is far greater than US corn ethanol being developed at the cost of higher food prices, and has shown the feasibility of a flex-fuel auto fleet.
But a day spent visiting the cane production facilities of CBAA, a major sugar and ethanol manufacturer, revealed the hardships and difficult social conditions from which these achievements were wrested.
A cane field opposite an area overrun by landless peasants had been burnt in an act of arson. A man searched forlornly for a horse he’d left to feed and then lost in the cane plantations. Outside a makeshift dormitory for migrant workers, men were slumped under clothes hung to dry.
“The social situation is complicated,” said Aristoteles Ramos Cardoso, a director. “We’re near the city, we need labour, there’s no shortage of criminals.”
If the vast potential of cane ethanol is to be realized, in Brazil as in poor African countries, its development must come in ordered ways that allow the likes of Danuza and her children to benefit. A new fuel should not carry what has often been oil’s curse: the enrichment of a narrow elite.
This will depend on several things: the labour standards adopted by the growing hordes of international investors drawn to ethanol; the opening up of the global trading system to this biofuel that many poor tropical countries will be able to produce; and the development of a global traded commodity market in ethanol with established norms. Without such standards, still lacking, development will stall. So will social progress.
“The US could really generate wealth for those who need it, while freeing itself from oil dependence,” said José Pessoa, the chief executive of CBAA. “It should be buying my ethanol rather than imposing tariffs. It should be helping to develop the sugarcane industry in Africa. This would be the intelligent way and the best for the environment.”
America can indeed do its part, not least by freeing up its ethanol and sugar markets to imports. So can Brazil, by seeing a 35-year-old woman in the sun, her children in need of education, and all the myriad people like them, amid the billowing carbon dioxide-lite clouds of ethanol euphoria.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Thu, Jan 10 2008. 11 57 PM IST
More Topics: Fuel Economics | Brazil | Ethanol | Fuel | USA |