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For displaced families in Brazil, there's no sugarcoating the conflict over land

By Oxfam

For 41-year-old Maria Nazarete dos Santos, the two-bedroom brick house she now lives in may offer creature comforts like water and electricity, but if she can’t make a living there it’s not much of a replacement for the only life she had ever known before that—as a fisherwoman on an island in an estuary in Sirinhaém in Brazil’s Pernambuco State.

Since 1914, fishing families had occupied the 17 islands in the estuary, selling their catches to supplement the crops they grew and relishing the peacefulness of the place. But in the early 1980s, all of that started to change when a giant sugar production company, Usina Trapiche, which has access to 28,500 hectares of land, began trying to force the fishermen off the public islands. Pressure picked up in the late 1990s soon after the company changed hands. According to the islanders, that’s when Trapiche’s private militia cracked down, wrecking the homes and farms of the families living there and threatening them with further violence if they didn’t leave. In 2002, after years of fighting for their land rights in court, the islanders—53 families all told--were expelled.

Some, like Nazarete dos Santos, received small houses to move into, but others got nothing and, reportedly, are now homeless. For many, lives of hardship have replaced the self-sufficiency they once knew. They no longer have land for planting the fruit trees, cassava, and other crops on which they depend and the fishing grounds that help support them are now a great distance from the slums in which many live. And compounding their problems is the pollution the community says the Trapiche mill pours into the estuary, making fishing impossible for at least half the year.

“The loss of fish isn’t just felt by me, but everyone who fishes on the river,” says Maria Christina de Holdanda Santos, who has been fishing in the area for 35 years. “Production has really decreased. We are losing our income.”

The scramble for land in Brazil and beyond

The plight of the fishing families in the Sirinhaém estuary is being played out in poor communities around the world as the scramble for the sugar that is pumped into processed foods and drinks, coupled with a thriving market for biofuels, sparks conflicts and land grabs. Without compensation or consultation, many poor people are being kicked off their land to make way for huge sugar plantations.

By 2020, the demand for sugar is expected to rise by an estimated 25 percent, and will propel even greater competition for the land on which to grow it. Today, sugar plantations already occupy an area the size of Italy—or about 76 million acres. At least 10 million of those acres are linked to 100 large-scale land deals that have taken place since 2000.

Between 2000 and 2010, sugar production doubled in Brazil. In that time, the area of land planted with sugar cane expanded rapidly: In the country’s six main states, the crop took over 10.4 million more acres, climbing to 18.8 million acres all together.

The Brazilian government has actively supported the growth of the sugar industry. It has invested billions of dollars of public money into the sector, set advantageous interest rates for lending, and provided a guaranteed market for the industry’s output: Fuel must contain at least 25 percent ethanol, which is made from sugarcane. Against that backdrop of official support, Brazil has had a long history of land conflict caused by a lack of state presence, uncertainty over land ownership, the power of agribusinesses, and poor management of the clashes between indigenous communities and farmers.

Bitter secrets and a plea for survival

Land conflicts and land grabs are the bitter secrets in the sugar supply chain of some of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies, and Oxfam warns that the top 10—which include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Associated British Foods—are not doing enough to stop the problem. Oxfam is calling on those companies to commit to zero tolerance for land grabs throughout their supply chains, to disclose from whom they buy their sugar, and to use their power to encourage governments and the wider food industry to respect land rights.

“I want to say that those who are higher up in society should think about those who are lower down in society,” says de Holanda Santos, the fisherwoman from Barra de Sirinhaém. “I don’t think I can support my family over the next few years if we don’t get any help. Each year, the pollution increases with the increasing production of the mills . . . If the river continues to be polluted, I and thousands and thousands of others will not be able to continue to work and survive.”