Full Tanks, Empty Stomachs

11 May 2007 - 4:55pm

What follows is a passionate defence of smallscale farming and a critique of Brazil's sugarcane industry. Sugarcane is a key component of ethanol:

We, representatives of organizations and social movements of Brazil, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic, gathered at a forum on the expansion of the sugarcane industry in Latin America, declare that: The current model of production of bioenergy is sustained by the same elements that have always caused the oppression of our peoples: appropriation of territory, natural resources and the labour force.

Historically the sugar industry served as an instrument to maintain colonialism in our countries, and the creation of a dominant class that has controlled, through today, large expanses of land, the industrial process, and the sugar market. The elite class depends on large estate ownership, on the overexploitation of labour (including slave labour) and the appropriation of public resources. This sugar industry was created by the intensive and extensive cultivation of a single crop, which encouraged the concentration of land, profit, and wealth in the hands of the ruling class.

The sugarcane industry was one of the main agricultural activities developed in the colonies. It allowed the elites that controlled production and distribution to continue accumulating capital and contribute to the development of capitalism in Europe. In Latin America, the creation and control of the state, beginning in the 19th century, continued to serve colonial interests. Currently, control of the state by this sector is characterized bureaucratic capitalism - the sugar industry defined the political structures of national states and of Latin American economies.

In Brazil, beginning in the 1970s during the global oil crisis, the sugarcane industry began to produce fuel, which justified its maintenance and expansion. In 2004 the new Pro-Alcohol program again encouraged the production of fuel from sugarcane, which principally serves to benefit agribusiness. The Brazilian government also began to encourage the production of biodiesel, principally to guarantee the expansion of large extensions of soy monoculture. To legitimise this policy and camouflage its destructive effects, the government stimulated the diversified production of biodiesel by small producers, resulting in single-crop farming expanding into indigenous areas.

In February 2007, the US government announced a partnership with Brazil, the "symbolic centrepiece" of which is to produce biofuels. This is clearly a strand of the US's geopolitical strategy to weaken the regional influence of countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia. It also justifies expanding sugarcane, soy, and African palm cultivation at the expense of food crops across Latin America.

Taking advantage of the legitimate concern of international public opinion on global warming, large agricultural, biotechnology, oil and auto companies now see that biofuels represent an important source of revenue.

Bioenergy - specifically renewable energy - is wrongly seen as the answer to energy problems. However, we know that bioenergy will not actually be able to substitute fossil fuels, and it is not renewable.

Environmental degradation and the overexploitation of labour are inherent to the sugarcane industry. Sugarcane cultivation relies heavily on migrant labour, which makes workers vulnerable and unionisation more difficult. The dangerous work of harvesting sugarcane has caused the deaths of hundreds of workers.

The Brazilian government is encouraging small producers to give their land, which currently produces 70% of the nation's food, over to biofuel crops. This poses a severe threat to food sovereignty.

We are therefore committed to:

  • Expanding and strengthening social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean through a collaboration of existing workers' organizations and support groups.
  • Denouncing and combating any agrarian model based on monoculture, the concentration of land and profit, destruction of the environment, slave labour and the exploitation of the work force. Changing the current agrarian model implies a full realisation of a profound Agrarian Reform that eliminates large estates.
  • Strengthening rural workers' organizations and joining with salaried and farm workers to construct a new model based on small scale farming and ecological agriculture with diversified production, and which prioritises food sovereignty.

We must fight for subsidies for food.

Our principal objective is to guarantee food sovereignty. The expansion of biofuels aggravates hunger in the world.

We cannot maintain our tanks full while stomachs go empty.

Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT)
Grito dos Excluídos Movimento Sem Terra (MST)
Serviço Pastoral dos Migrantes (SPM)
Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos
Via Campesina


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