More than 1,000 "enslaved" workers have been released from a sugar cane plantation in the Amazon following a raid that has highlighted the dark side of the current ethanol boom.
Brazilian authorities said that the workers in the northern state of Para were being forced to work 14-hour days in horrendous conditions cutting cane for ethanol production.
Police said the raid was Brazil's biggest to date against debt slavery, a practice reminiscent of indentured labour where poor workers are lured to remote rural areas, then pushed into debt to plantation owners who charge exorbitant prices for everything from food to transportation.
The plantation's owner, Para Pastoril e Agricola SA, one of the biggest ethanol producers in Brazil, denied the charges yesterday.
Brazil has become the poster boy for ethanol production as its massive sugar cane plantations have fuelled a wholesale switch from petrol to biofuels. Rising international demand has turned the country into a major ethanol exporter.
Labour unions and conservationists have pointed to serious side-effects of the industry - for the environment that ethanol is supposed to be saving and the agricultural workers. The country is under pressure to improve working conditions for the cane cutters, who use machetes to chop down tons of cane for wealthy Brazilians and corporations that own the plantations.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pledged in May to bring industry leaders and workers together "to discuss the humanisation of the sugar cane sector". The promise came after the President was criticised at home for calling Brazil's ethanol producers "national and world heroes". Critics say producers pocket huge profits while workers suffer.
by Daniel Howden