One way out of the costly dependence on oil imports for rich and poor countries alike might be to go the route of Brazil. Already nearly 20 per cent of that vast Latin American country’s gasoline needs have been replaced by ethanol distilled from sugar cane.
The Brazilian ‘National Alcohol Programme’ (PNA) is aiming for 100 per cent substitution by 1990. Testing in the Sao Paulo region has shown that car engines need no modification with 20 per cent ethanol and only minor changes with 100 per cent.
As a partial spur to the ‘gasohol’ push, the government is offering financial incentives for more cane cultivation and for building more distilleries. Eventually the Brazilians would also like to use manioc and sorghum as potential energy crops. Unlike sugar cane, manioc can be grown throughout Brazil. The PNA hints that manioc production in the poverty-scarred northeast could create up to a million jobs in the next two decades.
Seventy million hectares of Brazil’s 850 million hectares are now under cultivation: 120 million hectares could be cultivated by the year 2000. The PNA says 20 per cent of that would be earmarked for alcohol production.
Despite the fuss the Brazilian solution to the energy crisis is fraught with problems; the most crucial is the country’s highly uneven distribution of wealth and land. Already sugar cane has absorbed thousands of hectares of prime food land and forced peasants and small farmers off their holdings. In the Amazonian Basin isolated native peoples have been pushed aside to make way for new cash crops.
The gasohol scheme already saves an estimated $500 million in foreign exchange and that amount will increase as the substitution grows. But it’s unlikely the savings will benefit Brazil’s millions of poor. As things stand, a good portion of the money may well be used for luxury imports and foodstuffs demanded by Brazilian elites.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7