Sugar, Ethanol & Bioenergy

Working in all weathers

Women are operating heavy equipment and taking part in mechanized sugar-cane farming at ETH Bioenergy’s Alcídia Distillery in São Paulo State

written by: Miucha Andrade
photos by: Edu Simões

Crisléa Rodrigues, Suzilaine Oliveira, Aparecida Silva Lima and Aline Silva Oliveira all have similar stories to tell: they are the first women to work at the Alcídia Distillery, in the town of Teodoro Sampaio, in the Pontal do Paranapanema region of São Paulo State. All three operate harvesting and planting machines and trucks in the plantation that grows sugar cane for ETH Bioenergy’s first factory. Getting no special treatment on account of their gender, they do the same manual labor as the men do, and have earned their respect.

The company is investing BRL 5 million in this first stage of mechanized farming. Each piece of heavy farm equipment costs up to BRL 800,000. “If the workers don’t take good care of these machines, there’s no point in investing in this new equipment,” observes Cristiano Bastos da Silva, who is in charge of mechanized farming. He believes that these women stand out from the rest of the workforce because they are more sensitive, detail-oriented and careful when doing their jobs. “Job candidates didn’t need any prior experience – just a desire to learn.”

Cristiano, 35, arrived in Alcídia in January 2008 after working at the Eldorado Factory, which ETH acquired in March 2007. He started working as a cane cutter when he was 13, and went on to supervise mechanized farming and logistics. At Eldorado, he formed and groomed a team, organized the farming division, and developed the operational organization chart. He went back to school at the age of 22, starting out in the 5th grade. In 2007, he earned a business degree. At Alcídia, he recruited people to work on mechanized farming there, and made one thing clear to his team: “My life has been hard, but you don’t have to go the same way. You need to study and be the best you can be.”

Hard work routine
Crisléa Rodrigues, 25, is the mother of two children and lives in the Santa Zélia community, 10 minutes from the Alcídia Distillery. After spending two years behind the counter of a pastry shop in Teodoro Sampaio, she decided to go after a new career opportunity at the factory. Now she operates a harvesting machine. “I’ve always wanted to drive one of these,” she says enthusiastically. “I take care of it like it was my own. I spend more time at work than I do with my family.”

The women’s work routine is long and hard. They arrive at the fields at 7 am and work until 3 pm. Every day, they check the mechanical operations and status of their farming equipment, replace parts, if necessary, check the oil and water, and clean and sharpen the blades that harvest the sugar cane. To prepare them for these tasks, the equipment manufacturer gave them 16 hours of theoretical training, and then they spent another 16 hours learning to drive the machines in the Alcídia plantation’s cane fields.

Aparecida Silva Lima, 26, was born in Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul. She started working at the Alcídia Distillery in October 2007. After working in the cafeteria for five months, she decided to apply for a job in the mechanized farming area. “I learned to handle the equipment and replace parts,” she says. Now she makes more money as the shift-replacement operator of harvesting machine. She gets one day off for every five that she works.

Her goal is to grow professionally and get a business degree. This dream has already come true for Suzilaine Oliveira, a truck driver. She has a graduate degree and spent a year and a half in Portugal. She has also visited several other European countries, including Germany, France and Spain. “I was here in Brazil for a visit, and my parents said they didn’t want me to live far away from them any more. So then I heard about this job opening,” she says. She was interviewed and got the job, chosen over 17 male candidates. Suzi thinks that driving a truck is much easier than a car. “It’s comfortable, the visibility is better and the mechanism is very simple.”

All of the equipment used in mechanized farming is air-conditioned and equipped with adjustable reclining seats and high technology that enables the vehicle to drive over potholes without jarring the driver. The second phase of the plan to introduce mechanized farming involves installing GPS (Global Positioning System) equipment and on-board computers for all the machines.

The women take good care of themselves. “My regimen starts out with a long bath at 5 am,” says Suzi. Lipstick, lip gloss, hand cream and sun block are essential. “During the day, the red soil sticks to your skin, so you’ve got to be prepared for that.”

For ETH member Aline da Silva Oliveira, 19, this is her first job. Also a resident of the Santa Zélia Community, she operates a mechanized planting machine. “The challenge for me is knowing that I’m responsible for production. It all depends on me,” she says. “I have to keep an eye on the amount of fertilizer that the machine spreads, and check to see if the soil is covering the cane seedlings. I’ve learned a lot and I want to do my best every single day.”

A new type of professional
Mechanized farming requires a smaller workforce at the factories, but it also requires a new type of professional. For example, one mechanized harvesting machine can do the work of 90 manual laborers. At the same time, it provides employment for 10 skilled workers. At the height of their careers, these operators can earn as much as BRL 1,500 per month, over three times the minimum wage. There will be fewer job openings for cane cutters, but they can be retrained to find jobs in other areas, such as operating machines, tractors and equipment, managing satellite information systems, and working as farm technicians.

Best practices for the sugar/ethanol sector

“There will be zero unemployment here at Alcídia,” says Lamartine Navarro Neto, the Director of the factory. The distillery will expand its operations in the next two years, increasing its cane-milling capacity from 1.5 M to 4.5 M metric tons. And ETH plans to build eight more factories in the next few years: three in São Paulo State, two in Mato Grosso do Sul and three in Goiás. Mechanized farming has come to stay, and there’s no turning back, says Lamartine. “We are getting ready to take this technological leap forward, and we will definitely find other work for our cane-cutters to do – either at Alcídia or at ETH’s other units.”