Ines Ferreira dos Santos lives with four of her kids in a spacious, colourful house at the end of a dusty street.
“With money from sugar cane we built this house. It has been good to us, too good,” the 43-year-old housewife said.
This is the 11th year that her husband, Joao Barbosa dos Santos, has travelled the 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles) to work as a sugar cane cutter in Sao Paulo state in southern Brazil.
This time he is accompanied by three sons, also labouring in the cane fields, and a daughter, who cooks for the group. Every month, they send 2,000 reais (US$925) to the rest of the family.
The Santos’ story is that of most people in Princesa Isabel, a town of 19,000 people in the arid backlands of Paraiba state in northeastern Brazil. With few other options to make a living, three out of 10 residents have worked as cane cutters.
But that is about to change. The days are numbered for manual cane cutting, a gruelling job once done by slaves, in top cane-producing states such as Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais, which account for 70 per cent of Brazil’s sugar cane crop.
For environmental and public health reasons, cane burning in these states must be phased out by 2014 in flatlands and by 2017 in hilly areas. Similar initiatives are being discussed in fast-growing farming states Mato Grosso do Sul and Goias.
But the change is likely to have a big impact on cane cutters and the families who depend on them.
Controlled burning has long been used in cane plantations to remove foliage and make it easier for workers to move about the fields. But when humidity is low, thick clouds of black smoke billow above the fields.
Every year, a larger share of the crop is harvested by machines, a trend that is starting to drive up unemployment in faraway towns like Princesa Isabel.
In Sao Paulo, where more than half of the crop this season will be cut mechanically, the number of cane cutters dropped to 140,000 from 158,000 in 2006, according to the Sugarcane Industry Association known as Unica. About 70 per cent come from other states, mostly in the impoverished northeast.
“There will be a big number of unemployed people. What will happen to them? The government should help to settle them in their place of origin but little has been done,” said Pedro Ramos, a cane industry expert at the University of Campinas.
“Mechanized harvesting is today 25 per cent cheaper than a cane cutter. Each machine replaces 90 workers per day,” said Unica’s technical director, Antonio de Padua Rodrigues.
In a sign of the times, not a single cane cutting job was created in Brazil’s south-central region in the last two years, even as output surged to 487 million tonnes from 373 million tonnes.
The bleak outlook for manual cane cutting has people on edge in Princesa Isabel, which has been churning out migrant workers for 15 years. Cane cutting is the town’s main source of income after the public sector.
Every year, in February and March, about six buses leave town daily, southbound to Sao Paulo. About 2,500 to 3,000 workers make the journey, returning only in December.
“They send money every month. And when they get back, with the money from the contract’s termination and unemployment insurance, sales jump in local shops,” said Eduardo Abrantes, Princesa Isabel’s financial secretary.
“Cane mechanization is a big worry for all of us. It’s beginning to cause a very serious social problem.”
Blessed with a favourable microclimate, the region was a big producer of beans and corn 20 years ago. But irregular rains and the allure of cane have emptied farms. The rural exodus snowballed, causing a disastrous drop in regional grain production, Abrantes said.
“More than government money, the worst problem here is the lack of technical assistance for small farmers,” said Rinaldo de Medeiros Francisco, one of the region’s largest producers.
Ines dos Santos, who also once travelled to Sao Paulo, to work as an orange picker with some of her kids, fears for their future.
“The only way will be going back to farming, just like it was before,” she said.