During President Bush’s visit to Brazil thousands of poor, rural members of the international Via Campesina social movement and the Brazilian Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST) orchestrated massive, non-violent occupations of multinational agribusiness corporations throughout the country.
Nine hundred women occupied the Cevasa ethanol distillery in São Paulo. According to the press statement released by Via Campesina, the protest was against “the proposal by the United States government to benefit large ethanol companies in Brazil, which is not in the interest of the majority of the Brazilian population.” Cevasa is the largest producer of sugarcane in Brazil, and last year 63 percent of its shares were bought by the US-based Cargill corporation.
Other occupations included paper mills in Rio Grande do Sul, owned by Stora Enso Oyj of Finland and Votarantin and Aracruz of Brazil. All of these actions were taken to protest the model of economic growth via industrialized agriculture for export. The social movements and their supporters in civil society assert that while Brazil’s agroexport boom may boost Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP), it is increasing poverty and marginalization for the rural poor due to land concentration, environmental destruction, unemployment and labor exploitation. According to the Via Campesina press statement, for every 100 hectares (250 acres) planted with sugarcane (from which Brazilian ethanol is produced) only one job is generated, while on a family farm, 35 jobs are generated. In Brazil, agribusiness is controlled by a handful of multinational corporations that are usurping more and more Brazilian territory, and expelling more rural poor to the already-swollen urban centers.
The occupations’ organizers were careful to highlight that their critique is not of ethanol itself, but of the paradigm being imposed on the industry: large-scale, industrialized production for export to the Global North (especially the US), entirely controlled by multinational agribusiness corporations. At a press conference – held by Via Campesina, the MST, the Central Union of Workers (CUT), and the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) – Bishop Tomás Balduino said, “The pact between Brazil and the United States for the promotion of ethanol is sinister. It’s just going to promote death, marginalization, poverty and the destruction of the environment because it defends the interests of large multinationals.”
Ethanol is emerging as a way for powerful international capital interests to ally, merge and strengthen. João Pedro Stedile, of the national coordination of the MST and Via Campesina, declared: “Bush came to Brazil as a messenger boy for the multinational companies, the agribusiness companies, the oil companies and the automobile companies that want to control the biofuels.” George W.’s brother, Florida state Governor Jeb Bush, was recently appointed to co-chair the Inter-American Ethanol Commission (IEC), which has as its mission to “promote the usage of ethanol in the gasoline pools of the Western Hemisphere.” The other co-chairs are Roberto Rodrigues, President of the Superior Council of Agribusiness of Brazil and Luis Alberto Moreno, President of the Inter-American Development Bank. Formation of the IEC highlights the alliance being built between US and Brazilian petro and agro capital, and reveals why the current discourse of ethanol as a renewable and sustainable form of energy is cast in neoliberal language that ignores the disastrous impact this corporate model has on society and the environment.
The social movements and their supporters propose that Brazilian ethanol production should be in the hands of small farmers, as part of a diversified agricultural system in which local food production for Brazilians is prioritized, thereby assuring land, livelihoods and jobs for the rural poor. Brazil should focus on producing ethanol for its large internal market, not to sustain US consumption.
Yet despite the widespread protests and opposition by the very segments of civil society that helped bring Lula to power in 2002, and re-elected him for a second term last October, an accord between Brazil and the US has been signed for joint research and cooperation to increase ethanol production, export, and trade as a global commodity. The agreement indicates that Lula is cooperating with Bush and agribusiness in order to ensure the industry remains controlled by large capital interests while the Brazilian rural poor sink deeper into poverty. “Today there is no more agrarian reform, there is agribusiness,” said Bishop Balduino. “Make no mistake, this accord will only benefit the multinationals and the elite.”
Regardless, the voice of dissent articulated through the occupations by Via Campesina and the MST during Bush’s visit garnered national and international attention, and strengthened the resolve of the social movements. The MST is determined to challenge the Lula government and is stepping up its land occupations, including the seizure of lands that could be used for ethanol production. According to João Pedro Stedile of the MST, “the Lula government is supporting the mode of agricultural production known as agribusiness that allies the landowners with the transnational corporations. This is going to provoke a popular reaction sooner rather than later.”
Isabella Kenfield is an Associate of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, California. Currently she is a journalist living in Curitiba, Brazil and has written on social movements, multinational corporations and biofuels.
Roger Burbach is the director of the CENSA. He has written extensively on Latin America, including, “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.” He is also the co-author with Jim Tarbell of: “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire.”