Despite the hellish conditions for the workers, ethanol has been able to sell itself to the public on its ability to reduce carbon emissions. Again, however, there are other greenhouse gases to consider besides carbon dioxide. The Brazilian ethanol industry uses more than 240,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year at a cost of about $150 million. At a public senate hearing in Brasilia called to discuss climate change, experts expressed concern that nitrogen fertilizers used in conjunction with sugar cane production yielded nitrous oxide. What's more, when you cut cane by hand you've got to set controlled fires in the fields to smoke out razorsharp leaves, nasty snakes, and tarantulas. In the middle of the night, plantations look like a war zone as burning fields light up the sky and the wind blows billowing smoke clouds far and wide. Not only do the burnings pollute the air with soot, causing a number of illnesses, but they also release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and nitrous oxide.
Public officials declare that ethanol will not lead to deforestation in the Amazon or exacerbate climate change. They say that the particular soils and rainy weather characteristic of the rainforest are not suitable for the growth of sugar cane. Agriculture minister Reinhold Stephanes has been quoted as saying that "Cane does not exist in Amazonia." In a withering blow to Stephanes's credibility, however, authorities recently raided a sugar cane plantation in the state of Pará where 1,000 workers were laboring under appalling debt slavery conditions. In all, environmentalists claim, hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane have been planted in the Amazon.
Even if there are only a few cane plantations operating in the Amazon, ethanol may exert an indirect impact on the rainforest through a phenomenon known as "agricultural displacement." Though the state of São Paulo is located far from the Amazon rainforest, the sugar cane there can drive other crops toward the agricultural frontier. In the state of São Paulo, sugar cane has been planted on former pastureland and this has pushed cattle into Mato Grosso. Hundreds of thousands of cattle are moving into the Amazon every year as a result of displacement by ethanol in the state of São Paulo alone, say environmentalists. This migration is becoming all the more likely since one can purchase 800 hectares of land in the Amazon for the price of just one hectare in São Paulo. Additionally, some soy plantations in the center of the country have been turned over to ethanol production, prompting concern among environmentalists that this will lead soy producers to move into the Amazon. And local observers say that sugar cane plantations are already pushing soy farmers and ranchers into the rainforest.
There's been a fierce back and forth between European and Brazilian officials on the question of biofuels. The top scientist at the U.K. Department for the Environment recently warned that mandating more biofuel use as proposed by the European Union would be "insane," as this would lead to an increase in greenhouse gases. Sweden, the only European country that already imports Brazilian ethanol for its public transportation system, used to think biofuels were heaven but now believes they are hell. After allegations that some Brazilian sugar cutters were paid paltry wages, were underage, and even perished at a young age from exhaustion, Swedish motorists threatened to cease their use of this supposedly green fuel. To make matters worse for the burgeoning Brazilian ethanol industry, the United Nations has added its voice to the chorus of critics. Achim Steiner, head of the body's environment program, declared that growing international demand for ethanol would threaten the Amazon if safeguards were not put in place.
Shooting back at critics across the Atlantic, President Lula said that biofuels were actually an effective weapon in the struggle against global warming. Lula chided Europe further, claiming that the developed world was simply jealous of Brazil's emergence as a major agricultural powerhouse. "Just when Brazil appears on the world stage not as a bit part actor but as the lead in a play about agricultural production ... people start to get uncomfortable, very uncomfortable." Furthermore, the Brazilian politician remarked, European competitors were using the environment as a red herring to stall Brazil's biofuel industry. "We have adversaries that will make up any kind of slander against the quality of ethanol," Lula declared. But as Brazil attempts to roll into an ethanol-fueled future, the attacks Lula denounces will become increasingly valid.