The article on Brazilian bioethanol (see Sugar cane ethanol: Brazil's biofuel success) showed the importance of government support and a long-term strategy when aiming to build a viable renewable energy industry.

However, the main omission of the article stems from its treatment of the country as a monolith — it fails to recognise the huge differences between different Brazilian regions. Regional variation has implications on what can be expected in terms of further productivity gains, as well as on the environmental and social impacts of the expected expansion of bioethanol production in Brazil.

Unrealistic expectations?

The article refers to productivity gains, especially increases in sugar cane crop yields. However, this overlooks the highly unequal distribution of those gains across regions. Projections of biofuel potential in Brazil are often based on data for the best producers in Sao Paulo.

If ethanol production were to expand significantly across the country, the land area required — and the greenhouse gas emissions — would therefore be far greater than these optimistic calculations would suggest.

For example, in the poor northeastern region — the country's leading sugar cane producer until the 1950s — the average productivity in ethanol production has hardly increased at all since the mid-1970s.

Biofuel and ecosystems

The danger that biofuel production might lead to biodiversity loss is not a "malicious myth" as the advocates of sugar cane alcohol in Brazil often like to claim. While the direct impact on forests from increased sugar cane production is limited, the indirect impacts could be substantial.

Only 2–3 per cent of the land currently used for agriculture would be enough to double ethanol production in the country, but the key question is where this increase would be located.

Sugar cane cultivation may, for instance, push livestock and food production to areas of high biodiversity, notably the Cerrado, Brazil's savannah ecoregion. Information on these potential land use changes is limited, and predicting where land use change may occur is therefore riddled with uncertainty.

Social impacts in the northeast

Some criticisms concerning the social impacts may have been imprecise or exaggerated, but this does not change the fact that social issues are crucial for the sustainability of Brazilian bioethanol. It is true that the ethanol industry has created more than a million direct and indirect jobs, mainly in rural areas, yet a lot of these jobs are seasonal, and the poor sugar cane cutters live in appalling conditions, surviving on little more than the minimum wage.

Informal labour contracts, unpaid family labour and the use of child labour are not exceptional, and the northeastern Brazilian sugarcane industry has a particularly poor record in respecting workers' rights.

The increasing mechanisation of farming is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it alleviates the demand for hard manual labour, while on the other hand it forces unskilled workers — the 'surplus labour' — to migrate to cities, increasing the pressure on social service systems.

Finally, an expansion in sugar cane cultivation may increase food prices, hitting the poor hardest. On the whole, the ethanol industry has greatly increased the wealth of the sugar and alcohol sector's industrialists, and accelerated the concentration of landownership into few hands. Especially in the northeast, with its near-feudal conditions of landownership, the poor have borne the brunt of the negative impacts.

Power relations: Sao Paulo and the Northeast

More than three decades of intensive bioethanol production have changed the power structures within the country's sugar and alcohol sector, consolidating the absolute hegemony of Sao Paulo in both sugar and alcohol production and technological know-how.

At least a part of the traditional northeast sugar elite has been diversifying its activity through investing in Sao Paulo, where the natural conditions for sugar cane are more favourable. At the grassroots level in the northeast, not much seems to have changed. The powerful 'sugar barons' still retain their domination in regional politics, and the social conditions in the coastal sugarcane zone have not improved.

The potential breakthroughs in 'second generation' biofuels are likely to benefit the Sao Paulo region disproportionately, given its supremacy in technological know-how, and economic and human capital.

Certification to the rescue?

Actors outside the region and the sector, such as foreign governments, companies, and nongovernmental organizations, are increasingly influencing decisions concerning the Brazilian sugar and alcohol sector in general, in the northeast in particular.

Pressure from the outside — for example, in the form of international sustainability certification schemes — may well be our best hope to ensure that the likely expansion of ethanol production does not aggravate social and environmental problems, and that the near-feudal social conditions in the northeast might slowly begin to change.