Expanding Ethanol Production in Brazil: Environmental and Social Consequences

New research published in the journal ‘Ecological Applications’ explores the environmental and social consequences of an expansion in the cultivation of sugarcane for bioethanol in Brazil. The amount of land used for sugarcane growth in Brazil is predicted to rise to 14 million hectares by 2016; a doubling of the current amount of land under cultivation for this purpose. Brazil could produce up to 44 billion litres of ethanol from this extent of sugarcane growth.

The production of ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil is predicted to have severe environmental consequences if sugarcane displaces other crops, such as soya, pushing them northwards. There will also be increased constraints on the availability of grazing land, leading to encroachment into the rainforests by ranchers and farmers. A host of other environmental concerns, such as increased soil erosion, siltation in rivers and de-oxygenation of water courses due to the waste water from sugarcane processing are also highlighted.

Conditions for those harvesting the crop are poor, with little legislation protecting the rights of the low-paid migrant workers operating under gang-leaders to work the land. An expansion of sugarcane production without accompanying attention to the rights of these workers could lead to yet more of the Brazilian people suffering within this industry.

The researchers say that major changes are needed if the expansion of ethanol from sugarcane is to proceed sustainably. First among their recommendations is the need for environmental impact assessments on the risks of expansion to new areas. They also call for a more constructive approach from international stakeholders to provide sustainable development incentives in countries where biofuel production is likely to increase.

Martinelli, L. and Filoso, S. (2008). Expansion of sugarcane ethanol production in Brazil: environmental and social challenges. Ecological Applications. 18(4): 885-898.