I will begin by highlighting the relationship between two factors that are intrinsically connected, although this is not always apparent: the expansion of eucalyptus plantations and temporary migration, the clearest symbol of precarious work. This is a situation which in itself exposes the reality of the eucalyptus-pulp equation, integrated into the discourse of development and progress, given the fact that support for this economic activity is sought by publicizing its potential for creating employment, although the nature of the jobs created is never revealed.
This is a fundamental question in the case of Três Lagoas, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, a city that was recently proclaimed the “pulp capital” of Brazil due to the presence of pulp mills owned by such giants in the sector as IP, Fibria and Eldorado Brasil. In Três Lagoas, the dance of the numbers of jobs created is choreographed in such a way as to create a direct link between eucalyptus and employment in the minds of the public. As a result, the local press insistently reports certain figures from the general employment registry of the Ministry of Labour, such as the fact that 24,708 workers were hired in the local economy in 2011. However, that same year, the number of workers laid off was 22,818. Although the balance is positive, this should not and cannot be the main interpretation of the situation.
It is essential to point out, within these figures, a characteristic of the eucalyptus-pulp sector that is closely related to the instability of employment, because in the vast majority of cases, these are temporary jobs. In addition, the pulp mills operating in Três Lagoas are exempt from paying major taxes such as the ICMS and IPTU, as well as another tax, the ISS, while these plants are under construction. Added to this are the enormous amounts of financing granted by the federal government through the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDS). The most recent payout was 2.7 billion reais (1.5 billion U.S. dollars) granted to Eldorado Brasil – most of which is money from the public treasury, drawn from the Fundo de Amparo ao Trabalhador, or workers support fund.
Who are the migrant workers temporarily employed in construction in Três Lagoas? Let’s look at the recent case of the construction of the “biggest pulp mill in the world”, which is scheduled to be ready to enter into operation in 2014 and is owned by Eldorado Brasil. There are around 7,000 men working on its construction. The majority of them are from Northeastern Brazil, uprooted from their homes and in a highly vulnerable situation. As temporary migrants, they belong neither here nor there. They are viewed with distrust by much of the local population, and because of the low wages they are paid, these workers end up living in “accommodations” that in many cases could only be described as ghettos.
On four occasions in the past year, these workers have broken the silence with strikes and demonstrations, denouncing to the entire Brazilian public that they are currently the main victims of the social contradiction created by the eucalyptus-pulp model. What are they demanding? Rights, such as the payment of overdue salaries and overtime; better working and living conditions; more days off; and better transportation, not only to and from the construction site, but also into the city, since some of their lodgings are in the outskirts of the municipality. Despite the strikes, however, it has been observed that the situation has changed very little, and according to the workers, this can be explained by the fact that the agreements signed have goneunfulfilled.It should be stressed here that when we talk about work conditions, we should not limit ourselves to the construction of the pulp mills, but also consider work on the plantations where the eucalyptus trees are grown, which involves, for example, the application of toxic agrochemicals. Plantation workers begin their work day at four in the morning, and earn roughly a minimum wage. Another issue that is seldom discussed is the paradox underlying the expansion of eucalyptus plantations. It may be true, on the one hand, that they provide (precarious) jobs. But on the other hand, they also create unemployment, due to the leasing of ranching estates for the establishment of eucalyptus plantations, which leads to the destruction of pasture land and thus the loss of jobs for workers in the livestock sector. As a result of this process, dozens of families have emigrated from the countryside to the city of Três Lagoas in recent years, leading to the stagnation of local communities.
This precarization of work is intrinsic to the pulp-plantation sector. This most recent case is by no means an isolated one. When Fibria’s Horizonte pulp mill was under construction, during 2007 and 2008, the city of Três Lagoas lived through a similar experience. There are records which reveal that in order to lower the costs of providing accommodation for the workers on this construction project, the companies that hired them overcrowded residences and hotels with “beds that never got cold”, with no concern for the poor hygienic conditions in which the workers were forced to live, among other situations of precarity and violence. The situation was eventually denounced to the Public Ministry of Labour, which established a commission to investigate. It was determined at the time that there were over 120 places of lodging in the city (both residential homes and hotels) being used by approximately 250 companies subcontracted by Fibria for the construction of the mill. Inspections undertaken by the ministry also uncovered numerous irregularities, which even led to the interdiction of five locations used by the subcontractors to house workers.
Very frequently, as well, when strikes break out or the mistreatment of workers and violations of labour legislation are denounced, the companies attempt to escape scrutiny by the media, passing the blame for the situation onto the subcontractors or sub-subcontractors, as if they were not responsible for the construction project.
Because they know that periods of turbulence and coverage of labour conflicts tend to dwindle as the construction work moves closer to completion, these companies are careful to ensure that work stoppages do not cause the work to fall behind schedule. To achieve this, hundreds of new workers are hired to replace the ones who fight back against their exploitation.
And what about the work situation in the eucalyptus-pulp sector when the construction is completed and the pulp mills are in operation? In theory, there are no work stoppages, demonstrations or strikes, because living labour is scarce. Instead, there is a sophisticated degree of mechanization (dead labour), which can account for as much of 85% of the work involved in planting and harvesting the eucalyptus trees – as promoters of the model boast.
In Brazil, migration driven by the irregular rhythm of public and private mega projects is nothing new; on the contrary, it is viewed as cause for celebration and a symbol of progress. Nor is there anything new about the strategy of portraying this phenomenon as something natural, downplaying the conditions and social effects of this temporary relocation of individuals moved by capital, through which they are desocialized without being resocialized.
Nevertheless, history is not a mere repetition of events, which is why we see the migrant workers of today using the weapons of their time, such as mobile phones, social networks and newspapers, to denounce their exploitation and demand the rights they are denied in the land of eucalyptus.
Imagine, you work eight hours a day. You go back to the place you’re staying to have a shower, you’re ready to get in the shower, but, where’s the water. And somebody might think, “Wow, this guy is a real slob, he stinks, he doesn’t shower.” The next day you put on your uniform, you go to work, you come back, and there’s no water. So what are you going to do? You’re going to protest, because we are human beings. (Worker at the construction site of the Eldorado Brasil pulp mill, interviewed on Dec. 14, 2011 by Guilherme Marini Perpetua and Tayrone Roger Antunes de Asevedo)
By Rosemeire A. de Almeida, professor at UFMS/Três Lagoas Campus
– : Oil palm plantations erode the right to work on communal land
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the UN agency that oversees labour issues, shaping policies and programmes mainly related to labour standards for the protection of workers.
However, the right to work is wider than the right to a job. The ILO has also incorporated the concept of decent work which recognizes that “work is central to people’s well-being. In addition to providing income, work can pave the way for broader social and economic advancement, strengthening individuals, their families and communities. Such progress, however, hinges on work that is decent. Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives” (ILO, http://www.ilocarib.org.tt/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1096&Itemid=952).
For many rural communities, their traditional land and associated knowledge form the material basis of their way of living, their culture and their identity. If they lose their land they lose their right to work – a human right.
The Indonesian National Human Rights Commission and Sawit Watch – the Indonesian network of NGOs against oil palm plantations – have recently published a report on the collision of the right to manage land granted by the state to companies (HGU) and human rights (HAM). “HGU & HAM Land Use Rights and Human Rights” brings evidence for the argument that the right of companies to manage state land supersedes human rights, which usually receive less consideration and are even ignored by the State.
The following is an excerpt of certain parts of the report which we have edited in order to produce a summarized focus on the impacts of industrial oil palm plantations on local communities’ right to work on their lands.
Oil palm plantations in Indonesia cover a total area of 9.1 million hectares, 40% of which are large-scale plantations. Industrial oil palm production is controlled by 27 large groups with about 6,000 subsidiaries in 19 provinces. Yet, state-owned companies such as PTPN share the same large-scale model. And also, the type of plantation developed on people’s land is the so-called “plasma plantation”, i.e. plantations dominated by a core or “nucleus” company. This means that large-scale oil palm plantations account for most of the total area.
Oil palm is not a new plantation commodity in Indonesia. Large-scale planting of oil palm for commercial purposes began in 1911 in Deli Serdang, North Sumatra. After independence, in 1948, plantations of oil palm encountered some constraints, when then President Sukarno applied the policy of nationalization of Dutch and other foreign companies. However, the plantation industry bloomed by the end of 1980s when then President Suharto encouraged more large-scale plantations.
At present, various policies issued and applied by the Indonesian government have increased the rate of expansion of oil palm plantations, such as the agreement signed with the business sector for the allocation of three million hectares of land for oil palm, especially targeted at the production of biodiesel. The government has also provided incentives in the form of facilities and funds for revitalizing plantations and distributing state land to underprivileged people so they can work to meet the oil palm business’ needs.
Some media have reported the government’s plan, announced by the president, to open land in a total area of 1.8 million hectares along the border to develop the world’s largest oil palm plantation. Data compiled by Sawit Watch indicate that almost all provincial governments have planned to open and expand lands for oil palm plantations, up to 19.8 million hectares in total.
This fierce push of the large-scale oil palm business is colliding with customary rights to communal land.
In Sanggau district, West Kalimantan province, oil palm plantations have been established in the subdistricts of Kembayan and Parindu. The total area of Parindu –originally inhabited by two ethnic groups, the Malays and the Dayaks – is approximately 59,390 hectares.
The Dayak Parindu have a collective land ownership system under customary regulations where land is inherited but cultivation by each family/individual remains in the context of commonly held land or communal land. Traditionally, the Parindu community has applied shifting land cultivation, but this pattern has almost disappeared due to the expansion of oil palm plantations that have been sweeping across communal lands and forests.
One of the oil palm companies is PT. Perkebunan Nusantara XIII (Persero), also known by the abbreviation PTPN XIII, a state-owned corporation that has been operating in Sanggau since 1984. The company is engaged in the agroindustry business and its main commodities are oil palm and rubber.
PTPN XIII encroached on the Dayak Parindu’s “tembawang” (agroforestry) – the communal area where the community had been working the land according to their customs and had guaranteed their livelihood producing many kinds of useful plants, such as fruit trees. But the community’s plans and priorities are destroyed in seconds when an oil palm plantation is set up.
For almost 20 years PTPN operated in this region without the concession required for any company to cultivate land owned by the state for commercial purposes – called a Land Use Rights (HGU) concession and granted for a maximum term of 25-35 years.
At the beginning the company did not involve the community in the oil palm plantation and the workforce demand was fulfilled with migrants from Java. This led to complaints from the local community. So, in 1997, the company started applying the so-called plasma plantation model (Pir-Bun), under which the community formally gave 7.5 hectares of their land to the company and would receive 2 hectares of oil palm plantation in return. From then on the community would have to pay the credits to the bank.
Field findings in Sanggau showed that people were enticed to take part in the oil palm plasma programme under the promise that they would improve their welfare. However, members of the Dayak Parindu community expressed that they now realize they were deceived by PTPN XIII and that they have never enjoyed the prosperity promised by the company. In fact, the outcome is that the community lost most of their land.
When tens of hectares of the customary community lands in West Kalimantan were handed over to the government to be given to plantation companies in the form of leaseholds, the status of the lands legally changed to state lands. The consequence is that the customary community does not have rights and authority over the lands anymore, even when the term of the plantation leasehold expires.
The practices of acquisition of community lands for the benefit of the plantation business sparked protests that in West Sumatra were expressed in land occupation/reclaiming. Reclaiming has thus become a form of social movement in response to the attempt of various economic and political power groups to strip local communities of their rights to work and live on their ancestral land.
This article is based on the report “HGU & HAM: Land Use Rights and Human Rights”, National Human Rights Commission and Sawit Watch, 2011,