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The Ethics of Ethanol

Brazil has led the way in developing this alternative to oil, but it needs to make sure the wealth is shared

By Roger Cohen


OPINION features excerpts of pieces by columnists from the Op-Ed page and other sections of The New York Times. All columns from the last seven days are available at nytimes.com; Op-Ed pieces (by columnists and outside contributors), plus Editorials and Letters to the Editor, are at nytimes.com/opinion. Please let us know what you think of OPINION at upfront@scholastic.com.

Seldom has a countryseen an image makeover quite as radical as Brazil's in recent years. The land of samba, slums, soccer, and smoking rain forests has forged ahead in ethanol production, flex-fuel cars running on any combination of ethanol and gasoline, and a biofuel revolution that could deliver the world from $100-a-barrel oil.

In Brazil, 80 percent of new cars can run on ethanol or gasoline. All gasoline contains close to 25 percent ethanol, and ethanol accounts for more than 40 percent of fuel consumption.

Brazil has led the way in demonstrating the potential of ethanol and has the land to expand the industry.

It uses sugar-based ethanol, whose yield per acre of land is eight times that of American corn ethanol. And Brazil's ethanol isn't boosting food prices around the world the way American ethanol is. (Higher demand for corn has sent its price soaring, which means the price of any product with corn as an ingredient increases.)

But a visit to a Brazilian sugar plantation reveals the hardship associated with ethanol production. Danuza Gomes da Silva swings a glinting knife as she makes her way down the length of a field cutting cane. She earns between $8 and $13 a day, depending on her productivity. Da Silva, 35, has four young children. Only 20 percent of the 7.5 million acres planted with sugar cane in Brazil is mechanized. The rest depends on manual labor.

If the potential of sugarcane ethanol is to be realized, its development must allow the cane workers to benefit. A new fuel should not carry oil's frequent curse: the enrichment of a wealthy few.

This will depend on several things, such as the labor standards adopted by ethanol investors and the opening up of the global trading system to this biofuel, which can be produced by poor tropical countries.

Without such standards, development will stall. So will social progress.

"The United States could really generate wealth for those who need it, while freeing itself from oil dependence," says José Pessoa, the chief executive of CBAA, a Brazilian sugar and ethanol manufacturer. "It should be buying my ethanol rather than imposing tariffs on it [to protect American corn and sugar producers].

"It should be helping to develop the sugarcane industry in Africa. This would be the intelligent way and best for the environment."

Pessoa is right. America must do its part, not least by freeing up its ethanol and sugar markets to imports. So must Brazil, by seeing a 35-year-old woman in the sugarcane field with children in need of education.