“So you see we get angry with how these people can worry about ethanol for cars instead of food for people. Who can live without food?”
Miraci Pereira Silva is an organic farmer from the Roseli Nunes settlement in western Brazil. For years, together with other members of her community, she has grown crops like lettuce, beans, and papaya, which are sold locally and provide a reliable income for the settlement’s farmers.
But as their business has thrived, large-scale industrial farms growing sugarcane for biofuels have continued to expand around them, to the point where the sugarcane now reaches right to the edge of the communities’ land.
As pressure builds to shift our economies towards so-called “green fuels,” demand in Brazil’s biofuels industry has grown. And much of this demand has come from the United States, with the Renewable Fuel Standard, written into law by Congress, committing us to long-term biofuels targets. In fact, the U.S. has become Brazil’s number one customer for sugarcane ethanol because of these targets approved by Congress, and means some of the biofuels produced by the plantations surrounding the Roseli Nunes settlement will likely end up in U.S. fuel tanks.
But not only are the environmental credentials of biofuels made from sugarcane dubious at best, the actual damage to local eco-systems often goes ignored. Residents of Roseli Nunes say that their land and water have become contaminated by pesticides sprayed on the sugarcane.
The situation has become so bad that farmers living on the edge of the settlement, right next to the sugarcane plantation, have complained that they are unable to grow food on their land, as the plants just wither and die. Yet, even if their crops did grow, the amount of chemicals in the soil mean that the food they produce would not meet the strict criteria in place to be called organic. In a rural community with very few other customers to sell to, not being able to be part of the group of organic food producers can have a major impact on these families’ incomes.
If this wasn’t already enough, the farmers also have to contend with the crop dusters that are unable to control where they spread their highly toxic cargo. Ailton Basílio da Costa, another farmer from the settlement told me on a recent visit: “The planes fly all over the place, over the fields and our houses as well. And the wind carries the pesticides even further.”
He said: “some people claim that this irritates their throats. The plane passes and a lot of them start to sneeze.”
His story is supported by another member of the community—Eliane, a young mother who lives right next to a sugarcane plantation. The sugarcane is grown at the end of her land and she, together with her baby daughter, showed me the impact that the plantation is having on their lives. A huge area of land, as far as the eye can see, has been cleared to grow food for fue—and today this is a common sight in many of Brazil’s agricultural provinces.
The shifting of cattle farming from these provinces and into the Amazon region has long been reported, but the environmental impacts of all-out sugarcane production are often ignored, unless a full scale disaster occurs–such as the contamination of more than 60 miles of the La Pasión river in northern Guatemala earlier this year, caused when pesticides leaked from a palm oil plant. Not only did the leak cause a huge amount of environmental damage, local families were left without food and incomes, as the fish they relied on were killed.
Such environmental issues and the impacts of changing our agricultural systems to produce fuel instead of food often go unmentioned when talking about “renewable energy”. But with global demand for biofuels set to soar over the next 10 years, largely due to the biofuels targets set by Congress, massive amounts of food crops will be needed to make the fuel to meet these targets.
Such a big increase is threatening the food and land rights of some of the world’s poorest people. Some, like the K'Quinich community in Guatemala, have already been forced to leave their land, while others like the people living at the Roseli Nunes settlement in Brazil face an uncertain future.
ActionAid USA is calling on Congress to reform its biofuels targets. Fuel for our cars must not be prioritized over food for people.