While sugar cane ethanol is certainly less ecologically destructive than some other biofuels, the industry's boosters have overlooked one key fact: You've got to plant sugar cane somewhere. One couldn't pick a worse place to harvest cane than Brazil's Atlantic rainforest. There, sugar cane crops have led to deforestation and, paradoxically, more carbon emissions.
It's difficult to imagine that a serene and pastoral landscape lies just beyond São Paulo. Take a bus through the city and the miles and miles of grey industrial factories stretch on forever. But nearby is the Atlantic rainforest, also known as the Mata Atlântica. When the first Portuguese explorers stepped ashore in 1500 A.D., the forest may have covered more than 500,000 square miles, or approximately one-fifth the size of the current Amazon jungle lying 500 miles to the northwest. To put it in perspective, that's an area about twice the size of the state of Texas. Located in the Brazilian south and southeast, the Atlantic rainforest ranged all the way up to the Northeast in a long coastal strip. In some areas the forest even extended a full 300 miles inland or more and encompassed a broad spectrum of habitats, including coastal mangrove thickets and mountain massifs 3,000 feet high, covered in broad-leaved evergreens and conifers.
In a bad omen, one of the first things the Portuguese explorers did was to chop down a tree. They then built a cross out of it and celebrated Mass, claiming the land and rainforest for God and king. In short order the Portuguese went to work, cutting down trees and releasing the carbon stored in the rainforest. In 1525, the Portuguese began to grow sugar cane and introduced the crop to the Atlantic rainforest. Then, the colonists shipped six million African slaves to Brazil to do the cutting.
Over the next five hundred years the Atlantic rainforest bore the brunt of Brazil's economic development. The country's eastern seaboard has long been the main population and industry center -- 70 percent of Brazil's people live there and the area includes huge cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Over time, Brazil lost about 93 percent of the Atlantic rainforest and today only tiny remnants of the ecosystem remain.
Today, Rio and São Paulo are congested mega-cities, yet try as it might Brazil cannot escape its colonial sugar legacy. Just outside the urban center ethanol producers have set up shop in the Atlantic rainforest, and last year the government fined two dozen of these firms for illegally clearing the land. After the authorities clamped down the companies were obliged to restore 143,000 acres of rainforest.
Whatever the environmental advantages of ethanol, this thriving business now threatens our Earth's climate balance by its destruction of the Atlantic rainforest. It is ironic that a supposedly green industry could wind up imperiling such a valuable habitat. Though it's a fraction of the size of the Amazon, the Atlantic rainforest contains a similar range of biological diversity. Consider: The area has about 2,200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. There are almost 200 bird species and 21 species of primates in the Atlantic rainforest that are not found anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, there are approximately 20,000 species of plants, representing 8 percent of the world's total, and new species of flora and fauna continue to be discovered. Among biological hotspots -- environmentally threatened regions with a high number of species encountered nowhere else in the world -- the Atlantic rainforest ranks as one of the top five.
The environmental destruction unleashed by ethanol in the Atlantic rainforest is troubling enough, but what if sugar cane were to lead to more deforestation in other sensitive areas? Today the Brazilian sugar cane industry is centered in the state of São Paulo -- drive just an hour out of the city and you can see sugar cane fields stretching for hundreds of miles. Palmares Paulista is a rural agricultural town 230 miles from São Paulo. Behind rusty gates lies a squalid red-brick tenement building. Inside, weary migrant workers breathe the stale air and try to prepare themselves as best they can for the long day ahead. The cortadores de cana, or sugar cane workers, are crammed into tiny cubicles filled with rickety bunk beds and unpacked bags. They hail from the poverty-stricken, drought-plagued northeast and earn paltry wages.