Renewal of sugarcane ethanol industry creates jobs for cane cutters

Just as food security is becoming an issue for the coming decades, the demand for energy is also increasing globally as fossil fuel stocks diminish. In South America, sugarcane production represent a promising source of biomass, with Brazil leading regional production of bioenergy. Here, the sugarcane industry creates over 1.2 million direct jobs, of which more than 500,000 linked to sugarcane growing.

Harvesting machines replace cane cutters

In 2007, the state of São Paulo and the sugar-energy sector signed a Green Protocol to end all manual burning of sugarcane in order to reduce air pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Although fundamental to guarantee good environmental management, harvesting machines jeopardized the living income of thousands of rural workers who would inevitably lose their jobs.

The government had to find a solution for the large numbers of sugarcane cutters that were send home due the introduction of harvesting machines. For their political basis they needed the support of the rural population and they looked for new employment opportunities for the jobless cane cutters.

The roles government, industry and unions played was key to the success of the transformation of the sector. For all three actors the stakes were high. A retraining programme initiated by the industry (UNICA) and a union (FERAESP) was joined by Solidaridad and is now supported by the government.

Industry and trade unions retraining programme

To perform a responsible transition to mechanization and minimize its social impact, the sugarcane industry (UNICA) and the trade union (FERAESP) created in 2009 RenovAção, a retraining programme to direct displaced cane cutters towards new specialties either in sugar mills and ethanol plants, or in other sectors of the Brazilian economy.

Improve self-esteem and income

Solidaridad joined in 2010 to help the most vulnerable groups among the rural workers -those with very little schooling and women- improve their literacy level to be able to enroll the professional courses provided by mills.

Fatima Cardoso, Solidaridad’s project manager, comments: “It’s promising because it improves their self-esteem, too. Many of them say they will continue studying.” With a dropout rate of less than 2%, the programme has already retrained 4550 sugarcane workers and increased their income between 28% and 62% of what they made when cutting cane.

Successful example for change

Because of its broad design and effectiveness, the project has not only served as an example to other mills in the State that have retrained 16.000 additional workers, but has also served as a model for the government of São Paulo. Its requalification programme -Via Rapida- provides a supportive and realistic environment where participants receive both a scholarship and a stipend so they don’t have to work during their training programme.

Through the Farmer Support Programme, Solidaridad will support the government initiative to retrain 9000 ex-cane cutters before 2015 by:

  • ensuring women participation in the courses by a 15% and further qualify illiterate or semi-illiterates;
  • involving industry representatives – Case IH, John Deer, Syngenta, Iveco and FMC – to improve the effectiveness of courses by better identifying labour market opportunities;
  • reinforcing outreach in Brazil and promoting the programme in countries with mechanization processes in place like Colombia, Mexico and Bolivia.

Over the past four years the unique consortium of workers, farmers, industrialists, unions, mills, governments, businesses and non-profit organizations have created the first sustainable sugarcane ethanol supply chain worldwide. The ethanol from Brazil ended up in Dutch fuel tanks in a joint effort with Argos Oil.