By Jaylan Boyle, Contributing Reporter

Ethanol and sugar production plant in Piracicaba, photo by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz.
Ethanol and sugar production plant in Piracicaba, photo by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz.

RIO DE JANEIRO – The government has announced plans to legislate against the growing of sugarcane for ethanol production in certain environmentally vulnerable areas across the country.

The proposed bill, which will probably not land in Congress until next year, comes as campaigning in opposition to mass cultivations of sugarcane in the Amazon region gathers momentum.

Environment Minister Carlos Minc has said that if successful, the legislation will guarantee that production of ethanol for the automotive industry will be “100 percent green”.

The plan as unveiled by the Ministry is to limit the production of sugarcane to 7.5 percent of arable Brazilian land, an area equivalent to 64 million hectares. Another aspect of the plan will see the prohibition of ethanol distillation plants in food-growing areas or in the huge wetlands of the Pantanal. This last measure is perhaps designed to make sugarcane production less attractive to farmers in these areas, due to high transport costs.

“This legislation is extremely welcome because it sends a clear signal to farmers and to the world that the government wants to exercise control,” said Paulo Moutinho from the environmental group Imazon in an interview with the AFP news agency.

Critics of the current Brazilian administration have said that the proposed legislation is an attempt to strengthen the government’s green credentials ahead of next year’s election. The same critics have noted that the Lula government has been in the headlines recently on environmental charges, most prominently in a chastising of the US administration by Carlos Minc on September 9 of this year, for what he called a lack of commitment to the environmental cause.

Brazil is the world’s largest producer of sugarcane, and has long championed ethanol as a fossil fuel replacement. While the west is still investigating the viability of crop fuels, ethanol at the pump has been a reality in Brazil since the mid-80s. Within a short time of the program’s inception, ‘alternatively-powered’ cars outnumbered those fueled by gas on Brazil’s roads.

However, the push to make ethanol available to all drivers was not originally motivated by environmental considerations. It was actually patriotism that inspired the military dictatorship of the time, in response to the late 70s fuel catastrophes, to decrease Brazil’s reliance on the Middle East.

But after the return of civilian rule, a number of factors nearly saw the ethanol program relegated to history. The price of internationally sourced oil had fallen back to pre-crisis levels, governments were less concerned about national security, and state-controlled Petrobras had discovered lucrative new fields.

Completing the rise-fall-rise cycle, governments over the last decade realized that having a green agenda was gaining increasing electoral importance, and ethanol in Brazil leapt to prominence again. Tax breaks and the rising oil prices has driven the renaissance, and last year witnessed a milestone. Sales of ‘Flex-fuel’ cars, those that run on any combination of gas and ethanol, overtook their gas-powered cousins for the first time since the mid-80s.

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