Back
March 12, 2014

Brazil Quickly Converting to Mechanical Sugarcane Harvesting

The state of Sao Paulo is the largest sugarcane producing state in Brazil and by the end of 2014 it will be the first state in Brazil to prohibit the burning of sugarcane prior to harvest. When sugarcane is harvested by hand, the dry leaves are burned off in order to facilitate the harvesting process, but when hand-harvesting is replaced by mechanical harvesting, the burning is no longer necessary.

The conversion from hand-harvesting to mechanical harvesting started several years ago and during the last harvest season, 80% of the sugarcane in the state was mechanically harvested. That figure should approach 100% by the end of 2014. The primary exceptions will be for small land owners or sugarcane grown on steep slopes where mechanical harvesting is not possible.

The sugarcane producers and the state government agreed to phase out hand-harvesting and the burning as a way to reduce pollution and the adverse health issues related with the burning. In the concentrated areas of sugarcane production, the practice of burning off the leaves resulted in huge amounts of particulate matter being released into the atmosphere which in turn caused widespread respiratory problems for local residents. During the peak of the burning season, it was not uncommon for a blue haze of smoke to hang over large sections of the state of Sao Paulo for weeks or months at a time. The burning took place during the dry season so there was little chance of rainfall "cleansing" the atmosphere.

The phase out of burning is expected to result in significant environmental advantages including: less air pollution, reduced carbon emissions because each hectare of burned sugarcane releases four tons of carbon into the atmosphere, improved health of local residents, reduced soil erosion and increased water infiltration due to improved ground cover, and improved soil fertility and higher organic matter as a result of returning the leaves to the soil instead of burning them off.

There is a negative impact though of this switch and that is reduced employment in the sugarcane fields of Sao Paulo that produces nearly 60% of the sugarcane in Brazil. In the state of Sao Paulo alone, more than 200,000 people were employed as cane-cutters, but those numbers have been falling in recent years and by the end of the 2014, only a small fraction of those jobs will remain.

In the other sugarcane producing states in Brazil, the same conversion from hand-harvesting to mechanical harvesting will be completed by the year 2020. Nationwide, an estimated 470,000 to 480,000 people are employed as cane-cutters and the vast majority of those jobs will gradually disappear. These workers will either need to be retrained to use mechanical harvesters or search for employment elsewhere. Unfortunately, many of the cane-cutters are manual laborers and they will need to seek other employment.