Experimental Biofuel Governance: Historicizing Social Certification in Brazilian Ethanol Production

Labruto, Nicole


Journal article written by 2013 DPDF Global Commodity Studies Fellow Nicole Labruto in Geoforum.

Amid debates questioning the social sustainability of ethanol, Brazilian industrialists sought an exportable social verification that could accompany sugarcane ethanol technology transfers to global South countries. Despite an effective national anti-slave labor pact and marketing campaigns promoting the sustainability of ethanol, in 2008, members of the federal government orchestrated a series of meetings between representatives from the state, sugarcane industry, and national labor organizations to discuss labor practices. They created “The National Commitment to Labor Conditions in Sugarcane Activity,” a voluntary certification program that they hoped would attest to fair working conditions on plantations and provide acknowledgment for participating businesses. After reports revealed gross violations of labor practices on complying plantations, the certificate was abandoned in 2013.

In this paper, I trace the conditions that enabled this certificate to emerge and then fail as a state-sanctioned instrument for governing social justice in the Brazilian ethanol industry. I contend that understanding the emergence of neoliberal governance schemes requires analysis of the historical relationships that intersect with new geopolitical formations. In this case, the state engaged in an experimental form of governance in attempts to export a social certificate alongside technology transfers. This led to the conversion of rights into privileges with no official means for punishing non-complying companies, causing the certificate to lack efficacy and fail. I argue this by connecting the intersecting histories of labor unions, the ethanol industry, and the state to the contemporary factors that led to the need for a mechanism to attest to social sustainability.