Brazil and the US are the world’s largest producers of biofuel, cranking out 72 percent of the global ethanol supply every year. In 2007, both countries committed to a pact that’s supposed to help wean the world off the oil industry’s massive, petroleum-lactating tits. If you’re like most nonboring human beings, you probably have no clue and don’t give a shit about how ethanol is made. We’ll spare you the drawn-out science-y explanation and make it simple: Ethanol is produced from corn or sugarcane. In the US, ethanol companies buy corn from farmers and everybody goes home happy. But Brazilians rely on a much different and more dubious source of production: migrant workers who are bused in from surrounding villages and paid around $1.60 an hour to cut and harvest sugarcane in 90-degree heat.
A recent study by sociologist Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva of São Paulo State University shows that cane harvesters are treated shittier and have shorter life spans than 19th-century plantation slaves. They also frequently suffer heart attacks in the field due to exhaustion. You’d probably have chest pains too if your daily existence consisted of cutting half a mile of sugarcane, which is the typical quota for a harvester.
Every morning a company bus picks up day laborers from the villages surrounding the Santa Cruz ethanol factory on the east side of Brazil. They’re handpicked by asshole opportunists, aka gatos, who “hire” migrants in the town square around harvest time. Given that only a select few workers possess an employment contract, it’s a marginally legal way for the ethanol factories to dodge taxes, employer fees, and liability.
Laborers wash their filthy, sweat-stained clothes in a communal sink outside their living quarters.
An engineer processes sugarcane extract into ethanol.
Fresh from washing up, a worker pauses to reflect on his day in the fields inside his (very tiny) room.
A sugarcane harvester hacks through his workaday predicament.
The day I arrive is just like any other. The fields were full of young people who are unable to find a better way to make a living. Geraldo is a 22-year-old who recently experienced his first shift as a sugarcane cutter. Early in the day he ripped off his long-sleeved shirt and collapsed in the shade. “Do what you like!” he shouted. “Fire me! I’m not going to continue. I’m not made for this. It’s inhuman.”
Just last month a 20-year-old worker named Lourenço Paulino de Souza died from a heart attack on his first shift as a day laborer. It’s a paradox: In one of the richest regions in Brazil, migrant families chip in for bus tickets and send their sons off into the sugarcane fields to meet uncertain fates. “What are we supposed to do?” asked Eufrase Nobre, a 35-year-old immigrant from the inhospitable inlands of Bahia.
Two cutters wear the excitement of the job on their faces.
The following day Nobre awoke before dawn and fired up the camping stove used to cook family meals. Lunch consisted of reheated rice and beans left over from yesterday’s dinner. By noon the food will have long since cooled. It’s no coincidence that the workers are collectively nicknamed
, which translates to “cold grub.”
In the afternoon, the silent human cutting machine paused in its tracks for the first time all day as an agonizing cry echoed throughout the field. In the distance, a worker uncontrollably bounced between the canes as if a rattlesnake had bitten him. Seconds later, a colleague ran to his rescue and pinned him to the ground.
Two workers catch some rare R&R after a hard day’s work.
“Bloody hell, not again!” he shouted as he attempted to cool off the 18-year-old guest laborer with a hoop through his ear—it was crucial that he stayed still so the muscle contractions wouldn’t reach his heart.
Later, the exhausted kid stumbled across the field and plonked down in the shade. His name was Evanilson Nascimento Chavez, and he was from Santa Inês in Maranhão, one of the poorest regions in Brazil.
“I know I’m going to die here,” Chavez said. “If I were debt free, I’d quit today. But I still have to pay for my room and food from last month. The foreman is taking it out of this month’s paycheck. And after that I still need money for the bus ride home.”
It will take Chavez at least two more months in the field to have any chance of getting back home. I asked him how he felt about President Lula’s speeches heralding the “green workers” of Brazil, the ones who are helping the world reduce global warming by producing environmentally friendly ethanol: “Ethanol? What do you mean?” he asked, eyeing the sugarcane in a state of bewilderment. “They make sugar out of this stuff, don’t they?”
Another day, another scorching stroll to the fields.