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Local Communities Facing Severe Water Pollution: Consequences of the Sugarcane Industry in Brazil

By Ruhena Randhawa

Home to a variety of natural resources, Brazil is famous for producing coffee, sugar, soybeans, rice, maize, cotton, wheat, and, of course, sugarcane. Not only is sugarcane production a facet of the economy, but it also characterizes a large role in Brazilian culture and history. Brazil produces 25% of the world’s sugarcane and more than any other country in the world. Due to production, Brazil is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change which is only further exacerbated by corporate greed and over-exploitation.  As a result of the overproduction of sugarcane, Brazil is experiencing severe cases of water pollution. Not only is water pollution detrimental to the health of the people of Brazil, but it also raises immense concerns about environmental degradation.

In most cases of overproduction of resources, the most obvious cause is corruption and greed; this is especially so in the sugarcane industry in Brazil. Due to the economic benefits that sugarcane production creates, the industry has continued to grow, despite concerns about its environmental impact. In fact, sugarcane corporations in Brazil make an estimated  43.8 billion dollars and create over a million jobs per year for the nation. Furthermore, sugarcane production is also helpful in combating global warming as it decreases carbon emissions. This is because sugarcane production uses ethanol, which is a much cleaner alternative than other traditional fossil fuels. For example, ethanol reduces greenhouse emissions by about 90% compared to gasoline. However, despite the economic prosperity and reduction of carbon emissions that sugarcane production creates, it also has its consequences. 

The impacts of sugarcane production have been distinctly felt in recent decades, as Brazil has doubled its production of sugarcane in order to meet global demand. Through this growth of production, we see rainforests and other plots of land become cleared in order to make space for more sugarcane farms. While the production of sugarcane is advantageous in minimizing carbon emissions compared to other resources like gasoline, it is still harmful to the overall environment. This is because of the large amount of water and additional artificial fertilizers required to produce sugarcane. Additionally, sugarcane production may cause irreversible environmental damage in the future due to the extent of degradation caused by water pollution. Although globally, we cannot see its impacts just yet, the deforestation taking place to develop more sugarcane farms will undoubtedly have its negative impact on us as a global community in the future, especially as climate change worsens. We know this because the people of Brazil are already experiencing the consequences of deforestation and ethanol production which has led to water pollution 

While ethanol production has its clear benefits, it also uses a large amount of water. Brazil has an abundance of fresh water, however, its original water supply is being depleted at an alarmingly high rate due to the high demand for ethanol. Furthermore, in order to fulfill this demand, natural irrigation in specific areas has also required the establishment of artificial water sprays. The use of artificial fertilizers and agrochemicals has led to runoffs which lead to water pollution in the surrounding communities of sugarcane farms. The effects of this are demonstrated in a prominent municipality in Brazil called Ipojuca. 

Ipojuca, sited near the Ipojuca River, has one of the highest per capita incomes in the country, largely due to the resources in the area and high levels of tourism. The communities of Ipojuca have been facing high levels of water pollution due to sugarcane cultivation which has impacted the river such as drastically changing pH levels. This pH disruption is due to the use of stillage, which is wastewater from cane processing, for fertilization and irrigation. The contamination from sugar cane cultivation is attributed to the processing techniques that have been used for decades. The impacts of these techniques are reflected in the river’s ecological problems like water heating, acidification, increased turbidity, oxygen imbalance, and increased coliform bacteria levels. 

As a result, the upper course of the Ipojuca river is highly polluted now and continues to worsen as the sugar cane industry grows. As the river continues to deteriorate, so does the health of those who reside in Brazil. Contaminated water is linked to a number of diseases and can even lead to death for those who consume it. The pollution is a result of traditional practices involved during sugarcane production; however, these techniques have proven to be unsustainable and harmful to human health. Therefore, there is an urgent need to enact changes to modernize techniques such that it will eliminate its impact on water bodies. 

As we live in this period of human-induced climate change, we must be cognizant of the impacts of our actions and change them to reflect the needs of our environment; we cannot hold onto old practices in an evolving world. To restore the river and eradicate its ecological issues, we must implement stricter legislation that changes the management system of sugarcane corporations, reduces the use of artificial fertilizers, cuts back on land use, and implements sustainable methods of agriculture. With innovation, we can find greater solutions. For example, areas that have a high risk of water pollution can become re-cultivated with the natural Atlantic forests. Additionally, buffer zones can be implemented along the banks of the river to reduce the input of fertilizers in the water. Other treatment options for sugarcane wastewater include a trickling filter or an activated sludge system. 

If we make changes to how sugarcane is cultivated, we will see an immense improvement in the quality of the Ipojuca river. With this positive change, the people of Brazil will no longer have polluted water, creating a healthier environment for everyone. It is imperative to hold corporations accountable and ensure that change is made. Although it is not too late to establish these solutions, we must act fast before the consequences of our actions become irreversible. 

Citations

Bordonal, R. de, Carvalho, J. L., Lal, R., de Figueiredo, E. B., de Oliveira, B. G., & La Scala, N. (2018). Sustainability of sugarcane production in Brazil. A Review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 38(2). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13593-018-0490-x 

Gonçalves, I. Z., Barbosa, E. A., Santos, L. N., Nazario, A. A., Feitosa, D. R., Tuta, N. F., & Matsura, E. E. (2019). Nutritional balance and production of sugarcane irrigated with treated wastewater through subsurface drip. Irrigation Science, 37(2), 207–217. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00271-019-00620-y 

Gunkel, G., Kosmol, J., Sobral, M., Rohn, H., Montenegro, S., & Aureliano, J. (2006). Sugar cane industry as a source of water pollution – case study on the situation in Ipojuca River, Pernambuco, Brazil. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, 180(1-4), 261–269. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-006-9268-x 

Igor, I. (2017, November 8). Sugarcane cultivation in Brazil: Challenges and opportunities. Medium. https://medium.com/remote-sensing-in-agriculture/sugarcane-cultivation-in-brazil-challenges-and-opportunities-fd93ca037e8d. World Wildlife Fund. (n.d.). Sugarcane. WWF. https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/sugarcane.

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