Nothing sweet about it: Brazil’s indiginous communties and sugar


Tucked neatly next to the border of Paraguay and Bolivia, one must endure an arduous twenty hour drive in cloth-drenching humidity to reach the gem of Brazil’s ecological crown. Mato Grosso do Sul – a state roughly the size of Germany – is synonymous with natural beauty. The wetlands of the Pantanal are noted for their astonishing variety of flora and forna, woodlands and savannahs, whilst the city of Bonito has become an essential stop for weary backpackers who brave the journey from Rio for a refreshing dip in its freshwater rivers or an adventure through its ancient caves and forests. Unlike much of Brazil, it has been get relatively free of interference; an isolated paradise which has withstood the wider theme of change.

The state’s efforts to preserve its ecological gift explain both its low population density and economic prowess, but perhaps suggest how its Amerindian population – who at 0.84% of the state’s population represent four times the national average – have been able to live in relative peace.

Alongside this image of tranquility comes the story of Brazil’s boom during the first decade of the 21st century. Growing demand for basic commodities and a country seemingly taking charge of its own destiny for the first time in 200 years, very few areas were left unsusceptible to the countries boom in agricultural and industrial outputs. Between 2007 and 2012, Matto Grosso do Sul’s sugar cane cultivation saw an increase of more than threefold, jumping from 180,000 to 570,000 hectares.

The issue of indigenous land-rights in Brazil is no secret and the story of Matto Grosso do Sol’s Guarani-Kaiowa community is a promising one. Since the 1960’s, the Guarani-Koiowa had been eagerly seeking confirmed ownership of land in the Jatayvary area, briefly being evicted in the 1990s after violent aggression by the region’s agricultural community. The leftist government of Lula de Silva, quite rightly, began the four-step process of claiming the land back for the indigenous people in 2004, but until the procedure is complete the Guarani-Koiwa people anxiously watch as the sugar mills grow with astonishing pace.

It is highly likely that the 8,800 hectares declared by the tribe will be ‘demarked’, but until then, the sixty-odd families will have to endure the destructive environmental impacts the industry directly produces. These include exposure to pesticides and to smoke from the burning of sugar cane straw, pollution of waterways, and pollution and risks from the intense vehicle traffic that transports sugar cane, and which has resulted in the death of one community member.

In a new report produced by Oxfam, it is estimated that 2012 saw 58 cases of land conflicts, in Matto Grosso do Sul, one of the highest in the country, with 93% of those impacting indigenous territories. The largest contributor to these ‘land-grabs’ is Monteverde – a subsidiary of global commodity trader Bunge – who have opened several mills since the turn of the century.

Whilst Jatayvary’s indigenous communities have received both the backing of the courts and state government, other regions have been less fortuitous. At the impoverished north-eastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, 53 families were expelled from the mangroves they inhabited as the Ushina Trapiche sugar refinery moved in 1998. Whilst minor efforts have been made to secure ‘land-rights’ for the fishing community, the state – smothered by the sugar trades influence – has not endorsed it and the community claims to be the victim of both violent upheavals and man-made environmental degradation.

Many of the large sugar-based industries have strayed from these high-profile cases and it is certainly true sugar giants, such as Coca Cola and PepsiCo, are seldom involved in direct land-grabs, they do continue to buy from many of the companies more reputable mills. It is a case of turning a blind eye rather than enabling.

Brazils secretive indigenous communities have done well in avoiding the worst of globalisation and, to a great extent, the Brazilian government has respected their wishes to do so. The sugar industry is, however, one of many industries growing increasingly land-hungry. For the communities hidden by thousands of hectares of lush rainforest, it may be a while before the impacts are felt, but for those on the front-line of Brazil’s astonishing economic explosion, the effects may be considerably less sweet.

All statistics are credited to Oxfam’s report ‘Sugar Rush’, released Tuesday 1st October, 2013


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