RIO DE JANEIRO/WASHINGTON — Pedro was just seven when he started work on a sugarcane farm with his father after refusing to go to school — little knowing what this small act of rebellion would cost him.

For nearly four decades, Pedro has cut sugarcane under the hot sun in Brazil, one of the world’s top producers of ethanol — a key material in the biofuel that powers vehicles worldwide and is seen as a key part of the global switch to cleaner energy.

It is backbreaking work. Pedro’s base pay is less than $7 a day — a monthly wage that falls way below Brazil’s statutory minimum of about R$1,045 ($192) — and he said he has seen co-workers collapse and die in the fields from heat and exhaustion.

Every day before going to work, he prays that he will be spared. “It’s not a good profession,” said Pedro, who asked that his real name be withheld for fear of reprisals for speaking out. “I want to stop, but I don’t know how to read. I’m old — I am 46, I’ll be 47 in April. I don’t have much hope, but if one day something better comes up, it would be very good,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his home in northeast Brazil.

Brazil is the world’s second-largest producer of ethanol, a biofuel made from sugarcane, corn and other crops that can be mixed with gasoline to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

Much of the gasoline in the United States now contains ethanol, and some climate experts see the industry as a key element of the world’s transition from a carbon-based economy to a greener one. Yet ethanol has a human cost. Nearly 8,000 people have been found working in slave-like conditions on sugar plantations in Brazil, which produces most of its ethanol from sugarcane, since the government began conducting rescue operations in 1995. An investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found the very workers who are contributing to the fight against climate change by harvesting sugarcane are also becoming its victims, as rising temperatures make the work increasingly hazardous.

Most workers the Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed said they knew of colleagues who had died while working. One expert who studies the issue said the combination of heat and overwork could bring on heart attacks in those with a predisposition. Yet exclusively obtained documents show companies producing ethanol in Brazil remained on lists of suppliers cleared to export to Europe and the United States long after Brazilian authorities had named them in labor abuse cases. 

In March, Brazilian labor inspectors found 45 workers in slavery-like conditions on a sugarcane plantation in the state of Minas Gerais at a facility that until recently was cleared to export to the United States. Documents from Brazil’s Labor Inspector’s Office show the workers had been brought there from the impoverished northeast by two men and were housed in sheds without beds or access to drinkable water.

Labor inspectors said its owner, Delta Sucroenergia, had engaged in slave labor and human trafficking. Delta said it has since rescinded its contract with the two men who hired the workers, provided assistance to the rescued workers and revised its guidelines for service providers.

“Delta has collaborated and continues to cooperate with the authorities in fighting work analogous to slavery or any other form of work that is against the law,” it said in a statement.

The company had been authorized by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to export ethanol from Brazil to the United States as long ago as 2011, a public information request from the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed.

US-based companies bought Delta-produced ethanol and imported it into the United States on a “few occasions” between 2011 and 2013 from different facilities, according to information provided by the EPA. The agency deregistered the Minas Gerais facility in August for failing to meet some of its reporting requirements, but a second facility in the state of Alagoas is still registered to export ethanol to the US.

The EPA said its renewable fuel program rules do not specifically address labor practices in fuel production, but that they would refer credible allegations of illegality to the appropriate authorities. It considers slave labor “horrifying and unacceptable,” an agency spokesperson said by e-mail.

In 2015, Delta had received a loan of $80 million from the International Finance Corp. (IFC), the World Bank’s private-sector arm. One of its stated aims was improving social and environmental standards at the company. The IFC’s website says it aims to advance economic development and improve the lives of people in developing countries through its investments. Asked about the findings of labor abuse, the IFC said it took the allegations seriously and would continue to work with Delta Sucroenergia “on issues related to labor and working conditions.”

Dozens of Brazilian sugar companies have been certified as sustainable by Bonsucro, a London-based nonprofit that aims to ensure the production of sugar and ethanol meet environmental, social and business standards. But Brazilian authorities say the scheme, whose certification is recognized by the European Commission, has routinely failed to detect abuse.

In 2017, Brazil’s Labor Prosecutor’s Office sued Bonsucro for running a scheme that “claims to verify the existence of slave labor (and) child labor … but in practice does not,” said a Brazilian court filing. In 2019, a firm bought sugarcane from a plantation that had engaged in slave labor, a document obtained by the Thomson Reuters Foundation shows. A year later, it was certified by Bonsucro.

Sao Jose Agroindustrial bought sugar from an independently owned plantation in the northeastern state of Pernambuco from which labor inspectors rescued 45 people working in degrading conditions. The company’s president, Frederico Vilaça, said it has more than 340 suppliers of sugarcane, and will not stop buying from the plantation until it is found guilty by a court. He said the company would itself take over production at the plantation to ensure the same thing did not happen again.

Labor prosecutor Rafael de Araujo Gomes wrote to the European Commission in 2017 asking it to withdraw its recognition of Bonsucro certification. Two years later, in a letter obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Commission declined to do so.

“The EU sustainability criteria are mainly aimed at the prevention of the direct conversion of land of high biodiversity value and land with high carbon stock while your complaint concerns other matters,” it said. The Commission said Bonsucro had promised to reform its certification scheme and improve coverage of social issues in the ensuing months.

Yet Gomes said there had been “a consistent failure” to investigate labor issues. This year, after a long legal battle in Brazil, Bonsucro signed a deal with Gomes agreeing to revamp its certification process by the end of 2021. “This is a clear demonstration of Bonsucro’s constant efforts for the continuous improvement of its standards,” the nonprofit said in a statement.

Bonsucro said companies must now disclose ongoing human rights risks in their sugarcane supply chain, under requirements introduced in 2021, adding that it would “review information in relation to” Sao Jose Agroindustrial.

Among the biggest concerns for workers on Brazil’s sugarcane plantations is worsening heat. Workers are becoming so severely dehydrated they suffer from a condition caused by severe dehydration that is known locally as “kangaroo” because it causes their hands to cramp, clenching into fists that resemble the animal’s front paws.

“We used to have 20 cases of kangaroo per harvest. Now it is 20 cases per week,” said a sugarcane mill manager who spoke on condition of anonymity. Lucio Verçoza, a professor at Alagoas’ Federal University who studies the issue, compared the challenge of staying hydrated with that faced by endurance athletes. “The effort is similar, but the conditions for sugarcane workers are different. (They run) a marathon every day.”

The industry maintains that it is cleaning up its act on labor as well as helping the environment. Mario Campos, president of Brazil’s Forum Nacional Sucroenergético, an association of ethanol producers, said there had been significant improvements to working conditions on sugarcane plantations, crediting mechanization.

Farmworker Pablo said conditions had improved since he first started, when workers were transported in trucks, there were no bathrooms, and they had no water to drink during the day. But minimum harvest quotas for workers introduced in the 1990s have steadily increased and some mills now dismiss those who cannot cut at least seven tons a day.

Overwork in such hot, demanding conditions can lead to sudden death by heart attack, said Verçoza, the professor, who has recorded 10 such cases since 2008. “We see workers who at 40 are used up,” he said. “How to explain a job that leads to the risk of sudden death?” — Thomson Reuters Foundation