By Emma Raynes (Lewis Hine Fellow, 2007-2008)
Letters written by Jose Maria Alves Gomes, a migrant sugarcane cutter, his wife, Mariana Romalho Gomes, and their children over the past twenty-seven years, and sugarcane growing in fields near Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, Brazil, in 2007
Photographic collage by Emma Raynes
Since the early 1980s, Brazilian migrant workers have traveled hundreds of miles from their homes in the Jequitinhonha Valley, the northern region of the eastern state of Minas Gerais, to cut sugarcane in São Paulo. Because of their region's devastating dry seasons, these workers fall into a rhythm of leaving their families for six to ten months a year to take advantage of low-wage labor opportunities afforded by the burgeoning sugar and ethanol industries. Their wives, left behind, are known as "viúvas de maridos vivovs," "widows of living husbands." Often, small children do not recognize their fathers when they return home.
From 2007 to 2008, as a Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow from the Center for Documentary Studies, I worked with a non-governmental organization called Centro Popular de Cultura e Desenvolvimento (CPCD) and their project Cidade Criança. Based in Araçuaí, a small town in the Jequitinhonha Valley, Cidade Criança is focused on issues related to early childhood development in populations deeply affected by seasonal migration.
As a Hine Fellow, my goal was to document and strengthen the connection between seasonal sugarcane workers and their families. With the staff of Cidade Criança, I initiated a letter-writing project that included forty families of migrant workers from Araçuaí. I began by making photographs and sound recordings of the workers with their children before they departed to cut sugarcane. Each family received a compact disc of the worker's voice along with a framed photograph. I also collaborated with these families to make visual letters to send to the men working in São Paulo. These letters included photographs, audio recordings, and drawings. The letter-making process encouraged children to communicate with their fathers and allowed the workers to follow the intellectual and physical development of their children. This project continues under the leadership of Cidade Criança's community-based staff.
While working on this project I lived with families whose lives and experiences are reflected in these photographs. The work was driven by their openness, generosity, and enthusiasm. Though this project is focused on particular migrant workers and their families in one region of Brazil, I believe that the voices and images of these Brazilians raise important issues facing migrant workers and their families in North Carolina, the United States, and other parts of the world.
Since the early 1980s, Jose Maria Alves Gomes has migrated from his home in Araçuaí, Brazil, to work in the sugarcane fields of São Paulo. Despite his inability to read and write, Jose has always corresponded with his family through letters he dictates to others. The letters—between Jose and his wife, Mariana, and their children, Leticia, Warley, and Euler—document this family's cycles of separation, reunification, and displacement.
In the spring of 2007, Jose was among 7,500 registered workers, and many other unregistered workers, who left Araçuaí to cut sugarcane. In São Paulo, he joined 250,000 other men who had migrated far away from their families to work for large sugarcane plantations and live in dormitories or urban slums.
Over the last three decades, the mechanization of farm work, persistent droughts, and economic incentives have encouraged seasonal migration from Araçuaí and the surrounding rural areas of the Jequitinhonha Valley. Every March, hundreds of chartered buses arrive in Araçuaí to transport 20 percent of Araçuaí's male population to sugarcane plantations. When one asks a worker why they go, a common response is, "A gente cai no corte," "We fall into cutting." The workers in this region have very few alternative sources of income. Schoolboys say, "Why study if you are just going to cut sugarcane?" And women in Araçuaí's rural communities have adopted a new verse for their traditional call-and-response song:
O dinheiro de São Paulo
É um dinheiro escumado.
Foi o dinheiro de São Paulo
Que robou meu normorado.
The money of São Paulo
Is a scummy kind of money.
It was the money of São Paulo
That stole my boyfriend.
In São Paulo, a sugarcane cutter currently earns $8 for working a ten- to twelve-hour day. His pay is calculated on an average weight per meter of sugarcane. This unregulated calculation is the source of much dispute between sugar workers and their employers. In order to meet output targets and compete with mechanized harvesting technologies, the requirements for manual cutters have risen from eight to ten tons of sugarcane per day in the 1980s to ten to twelve tons per day in 2006. For every ten tons of sugarcane cut, a worker has to make 72,000 machete blows and flex his legs 36,000 times. Many workers suffer from spinal injuries, deep lacerations, and dehydration. Between 2004 and 2007, the Pastoral of Migrant Workers registered seventeen deaths from excessive labor in São Paulo.
The recent growth of international and political interest in "renewable fuels" has encouraged international investment in the infrastructure of Brazil's sugarcane industry. In addition to Brazil's fertile soil and advanced ethanol production technologies, its unregulated exploitation of workers contributes to its ability to be one of the world's most cost-effective producers of sugar-based ethanol. Foreign investors have set up joint ventures that bring transnational capital together with Brazil's politically powerful, landholding families. Brazilian law also extends the same protections to foreign capital investments that it provides to investments by Brazilian nationals. Analysts expect that in ten years half of the Brazilian sugarcane industry will be foreign-owned.
In 2007, President George W. Bush visited Brazil, where he negotiated a long-term strategic agreement to promote the sharing of ethanol-production technologies between the United States and Brazil, as well as a trade agreement that would facilitate imports of Brazilian ethanol. Analysts have asserted that Bush was also seeking a new U.S.-Brazil ethanol alliance in order to isolate Venezuela and other countries that challenge the United States' hegemony in Latin America.
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's president, recently pledged a $6 billion increase in federal funding over the next four years toward developing the sugar-based ethanol industry. Petrobras, a Brazilian oil company, is currently constructing a $750 million pipeline that will transport ethanol from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, over one thousand miles, to facilitate Brazil's export of ethanol. Over the next twenty years, Brazil intends to export enough ethanol to replace 10 percent of the world's gasoline consumption. In order to accomplish this goal, Brazil will have to increase current exports by 620 percent and clear an additional 148 million acres of forest.
Despite all of the economic benefits of "renewable fuels" and agribusiness, monocultures cause environmental degradation and tear at the economic and social fabric of rural farmworkers. If these trends continue, in Brazil and in other nations all over the world, rural farmworkers will not be able to maintain ownership of their land, and their efforts will turn to harvesting crops for corporations that will be used as fuel by industrialized countries. Local food production will become increasingly scarce and rural farmworkers like Jose Maria Alves Gomes will continue to migrate far from their families and to work in substandard conditions in order to earn a living.
Subtítulos download no português (28 kb)
Pai, Estou Te Esperando / Father, I Am Waiting for You
Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy Building (lobby)
West Campus, Duke University
February 13–July 31, 2008
February 12, 2008, 5–6 p.m.