Derek studies the emergence of new ethical concerns about the socio-environmental effects of biofuel production in Brazil. Here, sugarcane ethanol producers are eager to tap into global markets for “sustainable” energies, but in order to do so, they must meet social and environmental criteria mandated by governments of potentially lucrative export markets. How these standards and practices are defined by energy experts, lobbyists and government officials and translated to rural sugarcane production sites will determine whether ethanol is successful as a major export and how its socio-environmental effects are distributed. Derek’s research analyzes the dynamic relationship between these actors as they negotiate ethical understandings of what constitutes morally acceptable production, what counts as an identifiable environmental or social “effect” within this process, and how accountability for it should be assigned. The project will trace socio-environmental standards and practices to where they touch down in rural Brazil among local residents and employees at ethanol refineries along the agricultural frontier who resist, accommodate or internalize these new environmental imaginaries in unexpected ways. By describing the interconnections and gaps between the everyday practices of each of these actors, Derek seeks to determine what work – of energy production, knowledge labor, negotiation and image management – is required to constitute this emergent green energy commodity chain.
Photo caption: The recent expansion of mechanized sugarcane harvesting has been a major component of campaigns by Brazilian ethanol companies to revamp the image of this industry. Biofuel proponents claim that the gradual replacement of manual sugar cane cutting by machines represents a break from the plantation labor system that has been so closely associated with sugarcane in the minds of many Brazilians. Critics, primarily among social and environmental NGOs and academics, remain skeptical about what they see as ongoing exploitation of agricultural laborers.
Photo caption: Several experimental sugarcane varieties are closely monitored in this São Paulo laboratory. As the global market for alternative energies grows, new funding for biofuel research in Brazil has spurred a wave of studies aimed at improving the productivity of sugarcane cultivation and processing. Many of the institutions conducting these studies simultaneously invest in research on the socio-environmental impacts of biofuel production, demonstrating how tightly ethical concepts of sustainability have become imbricated with concerns about cost efficiency for these scientists.