International discussions on the sustainability of Brazilian ethanol biofuel and efforts
to develop biofuel sustainability certification have until recently concentrated on the
environmental effects of the expected expansion of sugarcane cultivation, notably
deforestation and the indirect land use impacts. The social impacts of large-scale
sugarcane cultivation have appeared in the debate only over the past couple of years.
However, most of the debate has focused on impacts in the main producing areas of
São Paulo and the areas of sugarcane expansion in the Centre-West of the country.
This paper brings into focus the socio-economic situation in the Northeast of Brazil
and the potential impacts of the current ‘biofuel boom’ in this poor region, whose
economy has been dominated by sugarcane cultivation since the 17th century. In
particular, the paper starts from the assumption that the highly unequal power
relations in the Northeast crucially shape the impact of biofuel expansion in this
region, and that the exercise of power should be given greater attention especially
when designing biofuel certification schemes.
The paper examines Brazilian stakeholders’ views on fuel ethanol policies in general,
on the role of the Northeast in those policies, and on the potential of certification to
improve the sustainability of the Brazilian ethanol sector. An overview of the socioeconomic
situation in the Northeastern sugarcane-growing region is followed by an
analysis of the views by the Brazilian government, sugar and ethanol industry, NGOs
and experts concerning bioethanol in general, and certification in the Northeast in
particular. Conclusions concern the implications of the unequal Brazilian conditions
and the diverging views of stakeholders for the potential of sustainability certification
to remedy especially the social problems associated with the expansion of ethanol
production in Brazil.
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