May 10, 2011

Mechanized Sugarcane Harvest Results in Rural Unemployment

Author: Michael Cordonnier/Soybean & Corn Advisor, Inc.

Sugarcane producers in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil have until 2014 to switch their method of harvesting sugarcane from hand-cutting to mechanical harvesting. The switch is being forced by the government as a way to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. When the sugarcane is cut by hand, the dry leaves are burned off before the workers move into the field. The resulting smoke from the burning process greatly elevates the level of air pollution in regions of concentrated sugarcane production. Since most of the sugarcane is harvested during the dry season when there is limited rainfall in Brazil, the smoke can linger in the atmosphere for weeks or months resulting in increased levels of respiratory problems for residents in the region.

In order to reduce the air pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions, the government is forcing a phase out of burning the sugarcane fields and hand-cutting. Only limited burning will still be allowed in areas of steep slopes of over 12 where mechanical harvesting is not practical.

In the state of Sao Paulo, which produces approximately 56% of Brazil's sugarcane, 60% of the sugarcane is now being harvested mechanically. A major concern about mechanized harvesting is the resulting loss of rural jobs. In the state of Sao Paulo 40,000 sugarcane cutting jobs have been lost since 2007 due to mechanization yet only 10% of those workers have been relocated to other jobs in the industry. In May of 2010, which was the peak of the harvest period in Sao Paulo, 166,400 workers were harvesting sugarcane by hand in the state. Estimates are that 150,000 of those workers will lose their job by 2014 when all the sugarcane must be mechanically harvested.

Officials in the state of Sao Paulo, as well as other sugarcane producing states, are struggling to establish job training and job relocation programs for the displaced workers. Cutting sugarcane is a low skilled job and relocating these workers to more highly skilled jobs has been difficult.

Sugarcane producers in Mato Grosso already harvest more than 60% of the state's 230,000 hectares mechanically and the remainder will be switched over by 2017. State officials have also established job training programs in order to help displaced workers find jobs in other sectors of the state's economy. Government officials feel that the improved air quality and health benefits more than outweigh the negative impact of higher rural unemployment.