Our sugarcane is greener than your corn: Brazil takes on US biofuel industry

Sugarcane plantation workers

Sugarcane producers have, in the past, been found guilty of using slave labour on plantations

Brazil claims to have clamped down on slash and burn tactics, slave labour and links to deforestation as it seeks to gain foothold in Europe’s lucrative biofuels market

Despite a poor harvest last year, Brazil’s ethanol industry is gearing up for expansion with a series of consolidations involving big companies such as Royal Dutch Shell and Petrobras showing it means business.

Ethanol, along with other biofuels, was once hailed as the green fuel of the future, but since fell from grace as it was linked to deforestation and air pollution from the harvesting process. An Ecologist investigation also linked it to the displacement of indigenous communities.

An Institute for European Enviroment Policy study last year claimed that biofuels could create an extra 56 million tonnes of CO2 per year due mostly to deforestation worldwide.

In Brazil, 90 per cent of the country’s new cars can run on either gasoline or ethanol, with both or a blend being offered at petrol stations. 

This has long been the case with ethanol being offered as a fuel choice since the 1920s. In 2011, it is expected to produce 28 million cubic meters of the fuel, or the equivalent of 486,000 barrels per day.

Now the industry is keen to show the rest of the world it is cleaning up its act. Producers and the Brazilian government point to more stringent regulation and claim greater mechanisation will in fact eradicate the need for harmful burning.

Cleaner than US corn

They are also keen to emphasise that the sugarcane ethanol produced in Brazil is a much greener alternative to corn-derived ethanol from the United States or further deforestation of Europe where land is relatively scarce.

‘There is a huge demand for sugarcane ethanol from environmentalists,’ said vice president of sustainability for Raizen, Shell’s joint venture with Cosan, Luis Osorio. ‘They want to make sure they can rely on sugarcane ethanol from Brazil.’

Currently, Raizen produces 2.2 billion liters of ethanol, but plans to increase this to 5 billion by 2016. These plans for expansion are echoed in the Brazilian government’s policy to find new areas of land and increase state investment over the coming years.

In the US, a federal mandate requires the production of 13.95bn gallons of alternative fuels this year, and 36bn gallons by 2022, with much of this to be met by ethanol.

The sugarcane variety is considered greener than ethanol derived from corn. However, the EU too has targets to meet of 10 per cent renewable energies in the transport sector by 2020, and Brazil is gearing up to meet this demand.

And a vigorous attempt to reverse the damage done to its reputation is now underway.

Brazil to clean-up sugarcane industry

A sustainability certification, Bon Sucro Standard, has been set up, with a Raizen mill in Maracai the first to be granted sustainability. The Bon Sucro Standard is awarded on principles such as safeguarding of biodiversity and ecosystems, sustainability-orientated process management and, critically, abidance by existing laws. The committee is made up from various stakeholders, including members of the industry itself, NGOs and companies including Coca Cola.

The government has passed a law that will outlaw manual gathering of the cane in Sao Paulo state by 2017, with the state of Rio de Janeiro set to follow suit by 2020. The ultimate aim is to extend this to the entire country.

Manual gathering is not only a dangerous and heavy job for the workers themselves, but it requires burning the sugarcane before harvest, releasing harmful greenhouse gases and damaging biodiversity.

A further government proposal aimed at increasing regulation by launching a government approval stamp for conditions in ethanol mills, to be monitored by a government body, has stalled following elections in October.

However, charities warn that the much-heralded universal mechanisation is not a panacea. Marcel Gomes, co-ordinator of ethanol research at the NGO Repórter Brasil, said: ‘I think few companies are truly improving their sustainability.

Many every year are fined by environmental and labour official inspections groups because there are persistent irregularities in their mills.

‘Many believe that harvest mechanization will solve all labour and environmental gaps, but this is not true. First, the mechanisation is expensive and most ethanol companies in Brazil still depend on cutting workers. Second, there are irregularities even in high-tech mills, as workers are cutting sugarcane for more daily hours than permitted by law.’

‘It is difficult to assess the validity of the Bonsucro Standard, as just three NGOs participated in this. They are working to improve environmental conditions and workers’ conditions, which is good. It would be very expensive to monitor every single mill however. Just four years ago, Cosan was fined for having slave labour in one of its mills in Igarapava, Sao Paulo, and it is difficult to see how it has improved so quickly.’

A country too big to manage

The problem is chiefly one of regulating Brazil’s vast terrain, especially when it comes to the complex issue of deforestation caused by sugarcane planting. The government is working with the industry to map out areas of Brazil’s vast countryside that can be safely used for expansion, including more efficient use of existing “brownfield” lands.

While sugarcane requires dry, hot land and so cannot be grown in the Amazon rainforest itself or the adjacent Pantanal swamp land, it can displace other activity such as cattle farming to these areas, leading to deforestation. 

This is exacerbated by the illegal purchase of land. In some cases, disputes over land ownership have led to the displacement of the indigenous people and legal battles that can last for years.

Raizen is currently involved in a legal dispute over land in Matto Grosso do Sul which contains the mill of one of its suppliers, Nova America, which has been contested by indigenous people.

Luis Osorio said: ‘We are committed to avoiding the purchase of illegal land. Spending 10-20 years in court is not good for anyone. We are talking to all the stakeholders to see if we can resolve this without that being necessary.’

Offering brighter hope for the future is the potential use of the bagasse, a byproduct of ethanol production, as a source of fuel.

Energy researchers such as Guilherme Dantas of the University of Rio de Janeiro have identified this as a currently underused method of generating electricity. ‘It is still a very new technology, but mills have long used the bagasse to produce electricity to run the production process and there is significant potential to develop this in the future,’ he said.

‘I challenge the blanket assertion that biofuels have a bad reputation,’ said Royal Dutch Shell’s Downstream Director Mark Williams. ‘You have to make distinctions between the different types of ethanol. We are developing some promising leads in research and development into second generation biofuels.’

One thing that seems guaranteed is the inexorable expansion of Brazil’s ethanol market to embrace a worldwide demand.

Repórter Brasil’s Marcel Gomes said: ‘Most current research, including that of the US government, shows that sugarcane ethanol produces less greenhouse gases than petrol and than corn-derived ethanol. The industry is certainly working very hard to get sustainability stamps.’


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