Sugarcane Ethanol in Piracicaba, Brazil

Piracicaba is a city, county and river in the state of Sao Paolo in Southeastern Brazil. Sugarcane plantations occupy 80% of the land area[1] of the county and it has some of the largest and most productive sugarcane mills producing ethanol and sugar[2] (Fig. 1). Piracicaba has the geography of a city center surrounded by agricultural lands and the two distinct spaces closely interact with each other economically, socially and ecologically.

piracicaba refinery
Figure 1. Ethanol processing facility in Piracicaba, which has some of the largest distilleries in Sao Paulo. (Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz, 2008)

The rapid growth of the sugarcane ethanol industry from the 1970s onwards displaced much of the competing uses of agricultural land and came to dominate the county. While this led to the overall economic growth of Piracicaba in both urban and rural sectors[3], the human and environmental externalities of sugarcane cultivation result in an inequitable distribution of harm on populations of lower socioeconomic status, in particular migrant workers. These externalities tend to fall on other places, away from the plantations themselves, a result of the nature of Piracicaba’s sugarcane economy as an assemblage of many interacting networks facilitated by what geographers call “metabolism,” the flow of energy and matter in and out of population centers and homes[4].

History of Brazilian Ethanol

Brazil is the world’s second largest producer of ethanol biofuel, behind only the United States, and the largest exporter[5]. Its ethanol is derived from sugarcane, and the growth of ethanol biofuel as a major component of Brazil’s energy systems began with the Brazilian Alcohol Program in 1975 (Fig. 2), a response to rising oil costs, favorable sugarcane prices and emission reduction goals[6] (Fig. 3). From 1975 until 2003 when it phased out and released ethanol to market forces, the program empowered the ethanol industry via (La Rovere et al., 2011):

  • Mandate for a 24% ethanol mixture in gasoline
  • Investment in ethanol powered flex-fuel cars
  • Subsidies for sugarcane land expansion and distillery construction

Beyond the benefits of having a fossil fuel alternative, the ethanol industry also creates many jobs with above average wages for unskilled agricultural labor[7], as well as infrastructural and economic development in both urban and rural sectors[8].

Figure 2. Growing ethanol productivity per hectare in Brazil over the course of the Brazilian Alcohol Program. (José Goldemberg, 2008)
Figure 3. Carbon emission outputs from the burning of different biofuels and fossil fuels. Brazilian sugarcane ethanol has the lowest emissions of all biofuels. (Mike Young, 2008)

The sugarcane ethanol economy is strongest in the state of Sao Paolo[9] (Fig. 4). Many urban centers thrive in this state because of the booming sugarcane industry, while the rural countryside is well developed. Piracicaba is a key case of a prospering sugarcane community.

brazil sugarcane plantations
Figure 4. Sugarcane cultivation across South and Eastern Brazil. Plantations are most concentrated in the Southern state of Sao Paulo (circled). (José Goldemberg, 2008)

Air Pollution

Piracicaba is among the parts of Brazil that continue to utilize sugarcane burning as part of the manual harvest process, whereas many other regions have favored mechanical harvest, which releases fewer chemical and particulate pollutants than manual methods[10]. The pollutants from biomass combustion include[11]:

  • Carbon emissions
  • Organic acids
  • Nitrogen and sulfur compounds
  • Aerosols
  • Soot

Wind disperses the pollutants across the landscape, and they tend to accumulate in cities. Piracicaba city contains the most pollutants during the burning season and the times of day when burning most often occurs[12]. This poor air quality causes respiratory problems from the inhalation of particulate matter and harms the Piracicaba River basin by creating acid rain[13].

Water Pollution

Sugarcane cultivation in Piracicaba utilizes phosphorus and nitrogen enriched fertilizer, and the excesses of these fertilizers flow into the Piracicaba River, causing higher concentrations of nitrogen, sulfur and dissolved organic compounds[14]. These nutrient excesses are often associated with[15]:

  • Loss of species diversity
  • Algae blooms
  • Hypoxia
  • Shallowing of water bodies
  • Accelerating lake and wetland aging

The pollution of the Piracicaba river from fertilizers along with acid rain from sugarcane burning results in poor water quality in the Piracicaba River downstream from where sugarcane cultivation is most intense, creating another externality dislocated by geographic metabolism.

Environmental Injustice and Migrant Workers

These environmental externalities and the burdens of plantation labor disproportionately fall on poor migrant workers from outside Piracicaba. Plantation workers temporarily migrate to Piracicaba from less developed regions in the Northeast to find employment for unskilled labor (Fig. 5). While migrant workers often do find better wages than can be found in their places of origin, their livelihoods in Piracicaba are nevertheless exploitative and detrimental[16]. Because of their dire economic status and low education levels, these migrant workers accept low wages and are a source of cheap labor for sugar plantations[17]. Because of the power relationships between plantation owners and laborers, these migrant workers often cannot afford risks to their job security and must accept exploitative work conditions.

sugarcane worker
Figure 5. Manual sugarcane plantation laborer in Sao Paulo state. (João Henrique Rosa, 2004)

Sugarcane harvest labor involves strenuous physical activities like bending over, heavy lifting, exposure to heat and long hours, leading to severe fatigue[18]. The amount and intensity of the migrant workers’ labor determines their pay, but employers often underpay the migrants, who must compensate by working longer hours and living in cheap housing with little protection from the elements. These conditions alongside physical wear and exhaustion cause the migrants to suffer from exposure to the environmental effects of sugarcane cultivation, with a number of cases leading to death[19]. The mechanization of harvesting reduces the amount of pollution from cultivation and thus improves work conditions, but reduces the need for laborers, and as a result workers find themselves competing against mechanical harvesters to maintain their jobs[20]. This conflict between manual and mechanical harvesters leads to social resistance to technological changes in cultivation practices. While the migrant worker suffer in Piracicaba, the social impact occurs with the migrants’ families, far from Piracicaba, who must live off of the poor wages or handle the death of a relative and income provider.

Underlying Geographic Forces

Piracicaba as a city and as a county acts as an assemblage of Brazil’s ethanol industry, cultivation practices and technologies, atmospheric processes and migrant labor. Because ethanol is controlled by the capitalist free market, no sociopolitical mechanisms are inherently present to manage the environmental effects of sugarcane cultivation in Piracicaba, which are ignored by economic forces. Since the price of ethanol does not reflect the environmental harms, air and water pollutants cannot be controlled by the free market. Additionally, Piracicaba’s cultivation and harvest methods rarely affect the plantations themselves, but instead affect the city, regions downstream on the Piracicaba river and areas outside the borders of the county. Opposition to environmentally harmful practices came in the form of activism in many parts of Brazil, but Piracicaba was not among them. The prevalence of employment in manual plantation labor causes a social investment in maintaining current methods and a resistance to mechanized harvest methods (Fig. 6).

mechanical sugarcane harvesters
Figure 6. Mechanical sugarcane harvesters used in Sao Paulo. (Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz, 2008)


The question of sustainability of ethanol in Piracicaba presents a complex dilemma. Replacing fossil fuels with ethanol improves Brazil’s environmental and economic sustainability, but it cannot be relied on as a long-term solution to its energy needs. How the people of Piracicaba should proceed to create a positive future in sugarcane ethanol remains unclear. Technological solutions to the environmental problems threaten the value and employment power of traditional plantation labor. The continuation of current practices, however, perpetuates the accumulation of air pollutants in the city, eutrophication in the river and exploitation of migrants. Social and environmental sustainability seem to be at odds with each other in Piracicaba, but perhaps the two can be balanced if trade-offs were instead made with the economic gains from sugarcane in the form of government regulations.


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  2. Luz, V.G., H.R.C. Filho, A.J.N. da Silva, E.F. de Laat, R.A.G. Vilela, F.O.C. da Silva and L.T.O. Zingirolani. (2012). Trabalho e desgaste de migrantes no corte manual de cana de açúcar no Estado de São Paulo, Brasil. Cien Saude Colet, 17: 2831- 2840

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    Lara et al. (2001).

  14. Krusche, A.V., F.P. de Carvalho, J.M. de Moraes, P.B. de Camargo, M.V.R. Ballester, S. Hornink, L.A. Martinelli and R.L. Victoria. (1997). Spatial and Temporal Water Quality Variability in the Piracicaba River Basin, Brazil. Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 33: 1117-1123.
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