Why the Promise of Biofuels is a Lie
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.”
Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle have touted Brazil’s “energy independence miracle.” In a May 2006 opinion piece in the New York Times, they said that ethanol “could set America free from its dependence on foreign oil” and that Brazil proves that “an aggressive strategy of investing in petroleum substitutes like ethanol can end dependence on imported oil.”
In October 2006, former president Bill Clinton while in California stumping for Proposition 87 (an alternative energy initiative that later failed) declared that the initiative would “move California toward energy independence with cleaner fuels, with wind and solar power.” He continued, “There are people who don’t believe you can do it. I do. Look at Brazil. Don’t you think you can do it if they did it? They run their cars on ethanol.” Clinton later provided a sound bite for the pro-Proposition 87 forces in which he declared that “If Brazil can do it, so can California.”
The biofuels madness continued with a May 6, 2008 editorial in the Chicago Tribune, titled “Food vs. fuel, a global myth.” The piece, written by Set America Free’s Luft, and his fellow traveler, Robert Zubrin, a right-wing zealot who advocates colonizing Mars, claimed, incredibly, that “farm commodity prices have almost no effect on retail prices.” The two went on to declare that “rather than shut down biofuel programs, we need to radically augment them, to the point where we can take down” the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
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.
In July 2007, the Brazilian government freed 1,100 laborers who were found working in horrendous conditions on a sugar cane plantation in the northeastern state of Para. A story by the Associated Press said that the workers were forced to work 13-hour days and that they had no choice but to pay “exorbitant prices for food and medicine.” It then cited a source in Brazil’s labor ministry who claimed that many of the workers were “sick from spoiled food or unsafe water, slept in cramped quarters on hammocks and did not have proper sanitation facilities.” The government-backed raid of the plantation lasted three days. The plantation in question is owned by Para Pastoril e Agricola SA, which produces about 13 million gallons of ethanol per year. The workers were caught up in a situation known as debt slavery in which poor workers are taken to remote farms where they then rack up large debts to the plantation owners who force the workers to pay high prices for everything from food to transportation.
According to Land Pastoral, a group affiliated with Brazil’s Roman Catholic Church, about 25,000 workers in Brazil are living in slavery-like conditions, most of them in the Amazon, and many of them working in the sugar cane business. The 2007 raid is not the first. In 2005, 1,000 workers were found living in debt slavery on a sugar cane plantation in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.
The article in Der Spiegel makes it clear that little has changed over the past few years. Hoges reports that one worker he interviewed, Antonio da Silva, makes just $172 per month during the harvest season, which lasts about six months. During the rest of the year, he has to rely on charity to feed his family. Da Silva’s home in the village of Araçoiaba Nova, Hoges reports, is the same as it was five years ago. “They threw plastic tarps over a handful of branches to build the hut where they still live today. The door consists of scraps of cloth nailed to a board, and boards placed around a hole in the tarp form the window. The furniture, arranged on the bare earth floor, consists of the plank beds and a cabinet.”
The most compelling quote in the piece is from Father Tiago, a 66 year-old Scottish monk who has been working in Brazil for decades. The Scotsman makes clear what he thinks about the issue: "The promise of biofuel is a lie. Anyone who buys ethanol is pumping blood into his tank,” he said. “Ethanol is produced by slaves."
The photos that accompany Hoges’ story should be viewed by everyone who retains the misguided belief that the US should emulate Brazil’s biofuels industry. Here’s the link.
Alas, it doesn’t appear the members of Congress are paying much attention. Last month, US Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, announced that he would be pushing legislation aimed at eliminating the $0.54-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. Doing so, Engel said, “would enable U.S. refiners to purchase cheaper and more climate-friendly ethanol, no matter where it comes from. The result would be an overall increase in the supply of fuel, a decrease in its price, and a decrease in our dependency on petroleum from the Middle East.”
Sound bites like the one from Engel ignore basic arithmetic: Even if the US imported all of Brazil’s ethanol — all 6.8 billion gallons per year — that quantity would only provide the energy equivalent of about 1.4 percent of America’s total oil consumption.
Despite those numbers — despite the ongoing evidence of slavery in the Brazilian ethanol trade — the energy discussion in America remains stuck in an absurdist fantasy about energy independence and freedom from the sticky problems of the Persian Gulf. But given what has happened in the past few months with regard to rising food prices and the myriad other problems associated with biofuels, one thing is becoming perfectly clear: Ethanol isn’t the answer to our energy challenge. Ethanol makes it worse.
ROBERT BRYCE is the author of Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."
Edward G. Rendell, “An American Energy Harvest Plan: Jobs, Prosperity, Independence,” December 1, 2005.
Tom Daschle and Vinod Khosla, “Miles Per Cob,” New York Times, May 8, 2006.
California Progress Report, “President Clinton: Why I Support Proposition 87 and Why the Oil Companies are Wrong – The Complete Speech Delivered at UCLA,” October 14, 2006.
Shopfloor.org, “In California, A Bad Proposition,” November 3, 2006.
Tom Phillips, “Brazil’s ethanol slaves: 200,000 migrant sugar cutters who prop up renewable energy boom,” The Guardian, March 9, 2007.
Clemens Hoges, The High Price of Clean, Cheap Ethanol,” Der Spiegel, January 22, 2009.