Slavery has been illegal in Brazil for more than a century. But as our correspondent Fabio Teixeira discovered, thousands of workers on the country’s huge sugarcane plantations continue to endure forced labour and dangerous working conditions.
At the same time, Brazil’s sugarcane industry has become a major global supplier of ethanol - a biofuel meant to help cut the use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
Fabio takes us into the fields where laborers spend the day bent over, hacking away at sugarcane stalks in perilous heat, with a growing number falling sick. And we learn that some of these plantations, with a record of abusive practices, have international clients in the United States and Europe.
Read the full transcript below or via the transcript tab above.
Iman: There's nothing sweet about cutting sugar cane by hand.
Fabio: You see the workers in a line just hacking away at the base of the sugar cane. And if you're hacking away at the ground all the time with a very sharp machete, the chance you're going to hit your leg is very high.
Iman: Brazil is the world's largest producer of sugar, with plantations spread across the country. Around 700,000 people work in the industry.
Fabio: If you ever see a worker working in the sugarcane plantation, you'll see that he’s bending down, a lot. The work itself is absolutely backbreaking. It's like the definition of it, because it literally breaks your back.
Iman: Many of Brazil's sugar plantations were originally built to be worked by slaves, and in some places, that continues today.
In this episode, “The price of sweetness” - how a global effort to switch away from fossil fuels may be encouraging the use of slave labor on Brazil's sugar cane plantations.
Iman: Welcome to “Just Transition”, a podcast from Thomson Reuters Foundation about the effort to make the planet cleaner and greener.
Clip 1: And recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.
Iman: Without leaving anyone behind.
Clip 2: Just transition, but affecting people and communities.
Iman: I'm your host, Iman Amrani.
This podcast will look at how we are to ensure a just transition, and what's at stake if it's ignored.
Clip 3: There is so much that we can do to keep this from getting worse.
Iman: Fabio Teixeira is understandably tired of some of the clichés about his country.
Fabio: Well, first of all, if you're looking at Brazil outside of Brazil, people just think it's a huge forest.
Iman: Fabio is Thomson Reuters Foundation slavery and trafficking correspondent in Brazil. That means seeing a side of the country that outsiders miss.
Fabio: Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse. So you have to realize that Brazilian agriculture has ties to the rest of the world at large.
Iman: And those ties to the rest of the world are closer than many of us realize.
Fabio: So, when I do a story about workers being enslaved in Brazil, I am not doing a story about, “oh, poor people in that place far away that has nothing to do with you,” which is the type of reporting that happens.
Oh, it's so sad. No, because here in Brazil companies that are funded by other, more advanced countries are connected to this in a big way.
Iman: Those connections came home to Fabio when he met a man called Jose Cicero.
Iman: What kind of guy was he like?
Fabio: He's a family guy, and he's already an older man by now, not old, but old enough by this business.
Iman: Old enough for this business, meaning in his 50s.
This meeting took place at Jose Cicero’s house in the Brazilian state of Alagoas, one of the poorest states in the country and a center for sugarcane plantations.
Clip of Jose (translated): With cutting cane I started with 14 years old, around that, 12 or 14 years old around 1980 or ‘79. The most I earned was when I cut 12 to 14 tons of sugarcane per week. I was a fast worker, around $500 Reais per week.
Iman: That's about $95 USD a week. And that was the most he earned.
Fabio: His house is like better condition than most of the houses that I've seen during my visits - the walls were actually painted, he had doors, the roof was in good condition - not the usual in these cases.
Iman: Having doors and painted walls can be a sign of relative success in this community - not something everyone can expect. But Jose has definitely not had it easy. He remembers the first time he experienced the condition that Alagoas sugar cane workers call “kangaroo”.
Clip of Jose (translated): Yes, that one time I had to stop because I thought my heart would explode. It was around two in the afternoon, I hadn't had lunch yet; that time was bad for me. I thought I would die, yes, I thought I would die.
Fabio: So what happens is that when the worker is cutting sugarcane, he's doing that under the sun. They basically work about 12 hours, 10 hours a day working. They are losing a lot of water, they are losing a lot of minerals. So what they have is an imbalance that can start to cause cramps all over the body.
Iman: Dehydration, lack of electrolytes.
Fabio: These cramps happen in a way they are almost like seizures, and the person falls down and they can't get up and they become completely unable to do anything.
Clip of Jose (translated): All over, all over. The worst cramp I had was on the neck. It went the side of the face. Then it got on this side here. Then I thought I would die. I was throwing up. I spent three days without working.
Fabio: Basically, they called it kangaroo because the cramps that happen, when they have this type of heat exhaustion, their arms get pulled back towards the body and it resembles the arms of a kangaroo. So that's why it happens.
Clip of Jose (translated): Sometimes you would get home and you can't even take your boots off. Your foot locks up, it doesn't come off. My wife would try to help me, and if you try move, well, better to leave it alone. I've spent like four, five days, you spend in pain.
Iman: And Jose's experiences aren't unusual.
Fabio: I spoke to a worker there right after he left work and he told me: “Oh no, today we had two kangaroos, they vomited all the way back from the sugarcane field.” So it's something that happens often enough that it's not treated seriously at all. It's not something that they even look at anymore.
Clip of Jose (translated): Yes, I witness one case where someone died. A friend of mine. He left three little kids and his wife. I saw it really. We went to see it. This guy, his body on the floor. I saw it. I've always loved to work a lot, but I'll tell you this: kangaroo kills workers.
Iman: In Brazil, conditions like these in the sugarcane industry have long been a scandal, a major concern for human rights groups and pursued by some government inspectors. In some places, they have met the Brazilian legal definition of slavery, even if the workers are technically paid a small wage. But Fabio was in Alagoas for a slightly different reason, to explore whether there was a connection between conditions for people like Jose and global attempts to transition to renewable energy. The possible connecting factor being a product of sugarcane: ethanol.
Fabio: I was previously working on slavery stories only, and I decided that I would look into ethanol production because I always knew that there was a lot of slavery in the ethanol business. And I also knew that ethanol was a green fuel that is supposed to be helping people avoid climate change or decrease the severity of climate change.
Iman: Ethanol is considered a green fuel because it can be added to gasoline, allowing vehicles to use less fossil fuels. In Brazil, there are vehicles that run entirely on ethanol, and ethanol enriched gasoline is a major part of the global strategy to reduce carbon emissions and transition away from fossil fuels.
Fabio: Every liter of gasoline has some ethanol mixed in it, and it's not just in Brazil, it's the same for other countries. Most countries have a small percentage of ethanol mixed in just to keep things a little bit greener. So it's something that it's already feeding cars all over the globe.
Iman: Brazil is the world's second largest producer of ethanol, producing just under eight billion gallons in 2020. So if you're listening to this podcast while driving in the U.S., there's almost certainly already ethanol in your tank right now, some of it possibly cut by hand by men like Jose.
Fabio: So basically, the slaves here in Brazil are making cars run cleaner in the U.S..
Iman: Could you explain your first journey out to the plantations?
Fabio: Yeah. It's kind of impressive because you take the car and it's just an endless field of sugarcane. It's like, completely endless. You are driving at 100 kilometers an hour and you just keep seeing sugarcane for like 30 minutes. It's insane how much sugarcane there is there. And every once in a while, you run into the sugar mills and you can smell a very distinct smell of what they called “vinhaca”. Vinhaca is basically a liquid that is produced when you crush the sugarcane to produce ethanol or to produce sugar. And the vinhaca used to be just a pollutant, but sugar cane producers managed to find a way to use vinhaca as a fertilizer for the sugarcane. But the side effect is the smell of vinhaca is all over the place.
Iman: When it comes to the actual work that people do and the cutting of the sugar cane. Can you describe what that involves and what protections they do have, if any?
Fabio: Yeah. So, on the first day we watched as workers were tilling the field to plant sugar cane and another group of workers cutting the sugar cane. You'll see the workers in a line just hacking away at the sugar cane, at the base of the sugar cane, and then throwing them aside. And it's very mechanical work. They look like machines the way they are doing it.
If you're hacking away at the ground all the time, with a very sharp machete, the chance you're going to hit your leg or your feet is very high. And it used to be that sugar cane workers would get very hurt while they were doing this because they have no protection. Nowadays, most places that are employing slaves, obviously, used those protections. Most of them at least have this kind of protector for their legs.
Iman: In footage from Fabio's reporting trip, you can see the workers in the fields, some of them wearing boots that cover their lower legs like shin guards for sports.
Fabio: And the protection that they have from the sun, usually is no more than a hat. I'm not very careful about my well-being in that I just forgot to put sunscreen on my face and I was completely burned. And I think I stayed there for like one hour, an hour and a half. The guys were staying there a full day doing that. Their skin is darker than mine. They can take more sun than my white, white skin can, but it's not enough for protection, what they have - right? - at that place.
Iman: Aside from dangers like the burning sun and kangaroo seizures, there are other risks that these workers face.
Fabio: If you ever see a worker working in the sugarcane plantation, you'll see that he is bending down a lot. You have to pick up the sugar cane that you cut and you have to put it in a certain place. And by doing that, you are basically screwing up your back in a permanent way. So, in a very short time, their backs are not fully OK anymore. And since the movements are so repetitive, like bending down, doing the strike with your arm and you soon get tendinitis and other stuff like that, and something that will make it impossible for you to work.
Guy that I interviewed, he has I don't know how to say this in English, hernias, several hernias.
Iman: Yes, we would say that in English. Yeah.
Fabio: He has had several hernias on his back and he was still working despite that. The work itself is absolutely backbreaking. It's like the definition of it because it literally breaks your back.
Iman: Even within the plantations, not all workers are treated equally.
Fabio: The sugar cane plantation that I did go to was one that was held by the side of the road. And later I spoke to a middle manager at a sugar cane plantation, and he told me that a strategy that they have is to put workers in very good conditions by the side of the road.
Iman: That's because the roadside positions are the most likely to get checked by labor inspectors. So, they treat people better there.
Fabio: The other workers, the subcontractors, they are actually put into harder to reach places. So that's where the abuses are most common. And it's not like it's a picnic by the side of the road. It's very grueling conditions.
Iman: What we're talking about is referred to as modern day slavery, but there's a history of slavery in Brazil as well. In the regions where the sugarcane is at the moment, those regions are, you know, where historically there has been slavery. Is that something that you think is relevant? Is it something that is connected in any way?
Fabio: Sure. Historically, it's connected. Because whenever there is worker rescued from slavery, there is a large number of Black workers rescued from slavery. So, the link is there. But the more prevalent link is geographic because Brazil is divided by a very poor north and the northeast and a little more affluent south and southeast Brazil. So it's not so much about color it’s more about geography. But what I can tell you is that sugarcane has been harvested in Alagoas state for centuries. So, there is some link to the historical slavery here in Brazil, especially because it's not too long since we ended slavery. We ended slavery in the very late 19th century, so it's not that far removed from our lives.
Iman: This history of slavery and sugarcane also has an impact on how Brazil defines slavery today.
Fabio: What happens here in Brazil is that we created a very specific legal definition of what constitutes slavery. And it's looking beyond just forced labor. So, we decided here in Brazil that excessive hours that can put someone's life at risk or keeping workers in degrading conditions can be considered a form of slavery. And usually when we find slaves here in Brazil, we find them because they are in degrading conditions. When a worker is reduced or is treated as something less than a human. What I mean by that is that when a worker is kept in a situation where he has no access to a bathroom or no access to clean water, stuff like that, they are being treated more like objects or animals than as humans.
I was doing a story on Venezuelan migrants being abused here in Brazil, and I have a lot of sources among labor inspectors, and I heard from one of those sources that Minas Gerais state there was a labor inspector that had rescued some Venezuelan workers from slavery like conditions. So, I decided to call this labor inspector. So I just started asking what he was doing. And said, “Oh, I am a little bit busy. There is this huge rescue I'm just doing right now.”
Iman: A rescue, meaning a government rescue of workers held under conditions amounting to slavery.
Fabio: When they say huge rescue, I know it's usually at least 20 or more workers. That's what constitutes huge. So I asked him what company was involved in this, and they told me that he couldn't tell me. It was because he had made a deal with the company that he wouldn't talk to the press about the rescue, and the company would then give the workers better compensation for the damages that they suffered while they were working for the company.
Iman: But Fabio is not an easy man to put off the scent.
Fabio: So what I don't think he knew is that whenever labor inspectors have a rescue, they need to file a report. And that report gets sent to the Ministry of the Economy and the Ministry of the Economy has a open system for filing documents. And usually, I take a look at this system just to see what's getting filed. So when I saw that he was doing this rescue, I decided to take a look to see where he was filing from. And so a few weeks later, when I had some time and I knew that he had probably filed his report by then, I just entered into the system and I saw that he had filed a report from the city of Delta in Minas Gerais. So Delta is a very unusual name for a city to have because it's not a Brazilian name, Delta. So I just put Delta into Google and Delta Minas Gerais, and I discovered that this city of Delta has a huge company, a sugarcane company also called Delta. So I knew it. So it's very likely to be this Delta company that he was looking into.
Iman: I have to say, the story, the way you're describing it is like it's real old school, traditional investigative journalism. It's impressive how much work and knowledge has to go into that. It's like pulling a piece of string, you know?
Fabio: Yeah, no, so I decided to look into the company and I very quickly found out that this was a company that had received funds from the IFC and had links abroad.
Iman: The IFC, that's the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank.
Fabio: So, OK, so this is a story.
Iman: Did you worry about your own safety when you went to go and cover this story?
Fabio: I didn't think I was in any danger, but I did go through a weird situation. The first person that I was interviewing was the widow of a worker that died while working in the sugarcane plantation. And when we arrived at the community that she was at, we drew a lot of attention because it's impossible not to. We are weird people coming in with cameras and stuff. It's hard not to call too much attention. So when we went in the house and interviewed her, we noticed that outside the house there was a guy watching us all the time. And when we got out of the house, the guy was filming us.
Iman: Did you find out who he was?
Fabio: Yeah, actually, he seems to be an employee of the sugarcane company. I wouldn't say boss, I would say more like a manager. He is what we call ‘gato,’ which would translate to cat in English. It's a slang for a person that is tasked by the sugarcane companies to find workers to work on the fields. So their job is to enlist workers for the sugarcane companies. And the figure of the ‘gato’ is very closely linked to slavery because the ‘gato’ is the guy that transports those workers from one place to the other. So in many cases, they are considered human traffickers.
Iman: And so you had somebody whose - whose role is almost a human trafficker; you had that person filming you when you went down to do this report.
Fabio: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that was happening. I don't feel like it was dangerous to me, but I felt like it could be dangerous for the widow. But I think they were just making sure that she was properly intimidated. Because obviously, if she starts to complain and try to fight for her rights because her husband is dead, that could cost the company money and they don't want that. So we got into our car and we left the community and we noticed that he was following us with his car. So that started scaring us a little. But he stopped following us when we left the place entirely.
Iman: When we're talking about, you know, the experience that you've had trying to do this investigation, it wasn't easy. You know, your sources have been intimidated. But do you think that on the whole, these investigations are successful? Do you think that conditions are getting better?
Fabio: No. I think the conditions are getting worse, I’ll explain why. Because in the early 2000s, labor inspectors were going hard against sugar cane plantations. They were like going all the time and rescue workers all the time in sugar cane plantations. And actually, that drove down the number of rescues because obviously the companies started taking better care of workers, but conditions started worsening in 2017. Now they are picking up more slaves and sugar cane plantations than they used to.
Iman: Fabio’s investigations into the global demand for Brazilian ethanol has been revealing.
He accessed a list of Brazilian ethanol producers who have been investigated for slavery. And that list includes companies that take part in green energy projects in the U.S. and EU.
Fabio: And I found out that Delta was on that list, so Delta was allowed for a period of time to ship ethanol to the U.S. while keeping the workers in slavery like conditions,
Iman: According to Fabio's investigation, Delta's ethanol exports made it to the US between 2011 and 2013. Delta has responded to these charges. They released a statement that includes a pledge that they, quote “do not tolerate the conduct of service providers or suppliers that promote the restriction of fundamental rights and guarantees of any citizen, particularly in work analogous to slavery.” They also promised to review their procedures and guidelines so that such events do not happen again.
Fabio: And finally, there is this one other aspect to the story, which is the certificates that some ethanol companies get to ship ethanol to the European Union.
Iman: These certificates are supposed to be the official stamp of approval that ethanol suppliers ensuring Europe only buys from suppliers who follow environmental rules and are not involved in slavery. A company called Bonsucro is supposed to set these guidelines and rules and oversee the inspection process. But Fabio's reporting has shown worker safety and conditions were not considered a high priority. Or sometimes not checked at all.
Fabio: The European Commission has been warned that they were accepting ethanol. From a company that was not checking for any labor abuses at all. The best word is cynical because it just said that “Oh no, we are looking at environmental standards, not labor standards that should be left to national authorities.”
Iman: So, you know, in terms of. A future and the price that's being paid for cleaner energy. That response implies that there's absolutely no kind of importance given to those workers and their lives.
Fabio: Yes, I think it's the easiest thing to do is to not care and just say, “Oh, we are going to do better.” Which is like the standard answer that we always get on any story about labor abuse. “Oh, we are going to improve our practices, we are going to do better.” And OK. In the end, my story is not going to like cost them money enough for them to change their ways, not really. I don't think that will have an impact as big as that.
Iman: In response to Fabio's work, Bonsucro, the company responsible for vetting sugar producers, released an official statement promising to improve monitoring of working conditions. The statement reads in part:
Clip 4: Our certification protocol is currently being strengthened to ensure that elements on labor are carefully considered and that all relevant stakeholders will be consulted by the certification auditors. Bonsucro has a zero tolerance of forced labor.
Iman: And the IFC part of the World Bank. They also responded and promised that:
Clip 5: IFC takes the allegations seriously, and we understand the company immediately implemented corrective and remedial actions for the workers contracted by the third party and discontinued its services.
Iman: As the world rushes towards using more and more sustainable energy, the question is, can something be sustainable when the people who make it are treated like slaves? Does our need to manage climate change trump our right to a safe and fair workplace?
What do you think it would take to have a bigger impact if this is going on? If people are working in these terrible conditions, doing this backbreaking work, what then do you think needs to come afterwards in order to make things better for those workers?
Fabio: You can't call something sustainable just because it is not hurting the environment. If it's hurting workers, it can't be considered sustainable and this is hurting workers a lot. So what needs to be done is to stop classifying ethanol as sustainable, because if you treat it as part of a solution, you are not going to solve its problems.
Iman: Jose Cicero. What do you think is going to happen with him now? What does his future look like? I'm trying. I'm begging, please. I'm looking for. I'm looking for a silver lining. Help me.
Fabio: I’m not a silver lining guy. In the case of Joseph Cicero, he’s retired, he managed to get some money in, he has his life, he raised his children, so has suffered a lot, but I think he's at least resting now. I worry a lot more about the workers that are still working now are looking at the future where they won't know what to do and have no employment after their bodies are wrecked by the job that they are doing. And about the next generation, I think conditions are going to get even worse for them. I think if we want to have a better future for them, we need to create alternatives because this sustainable job of harvesting sugarcane is not sustainable at all. It's something that is basically destroying people's lives in the long run.
Iman: That's all for this edition of Just Transition. Silver Lining or not. And you can read Fabio's work on Brazil's sugarcane industry at our website. Google “Thomson Reuters Foundation”.
Just Transition is made by Antica Productions and Context, a news platform powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
This episode was produced by Leo Hornak.
Our associate producers are Abhi Raheja and Paula Sant’Anna.
Sound design by Reza Dahya.
Legal help from Melissa Tesla and Murshed Anwar.
Our executive producer is Kathleen Goldhar.
The president of Antica productions is Stuart Coxe.
Our Context team includes Just Transition Editor Megan Rowling, and Editor-in-Chief Yasir Khan.
The CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation is Antonio Zappulla.
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The human stories behind the shift to a green economy