Ethnographies of Accommodation and Resistance
Edited by Rob Lambert and Andrew Herod
Chapter 7: At the cutting edge: precarious work in Brazil’s sugar and ethanol industry
The late geographer Milton Santos interpreted the changing Brazilian landscape as a dynamic social product of work, both past and present. What happened at each specific site was affected by previous practices and by their link to the globalized systems into which these sites were incorporated. ‘Space’, he wrote (1978, p._138), ‘is a witness to a moment in the mode of production in these concrete manifestations; it is where some processes adapt themselves to pre-existing forms, while others create new forms that are inserted’. His words resonate across the swaying stands of sugarcane, blood red soils and cloudless skies surrounding the biofuel refinery in Brazil’s São Paulo State where we base our study of precarious work in the production of sugar-derived ethanol. They begin to explain how it is that company engineers are flown to Canada to perfect advanced biotechnologies as sugarcane cutters disembark from a dusty bus and angle their machetes into the fields for their last season of employment. They help us understand why new public–private highways linking once-remote rural areas to expanding port terminals will be driven by those willing to risk their life to make a living wage.
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