Brazil's Sao Paulo suspends daytime cane burning

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil’s largest sugar cane producing state, Sao Paulo, has banned the daytime burning of cane fields from June 1 to November 30 on environmental and human health concerns, an official said on Thursday.

A worker cuts sugar cane for raw sugar and ethanol fuel production on the property of the Sao Martinho mill in Pradopolis, 300 kms (186 miles) northwest of Sao Paulo July 6, 2007. REUTERS/Rickey Rogers

This is the second year the state’s government has suspended the burning of cane from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time for months during harvest.

Cane fields are burned before harvest to clear foliage and pests for manual cutting.

“We wanted to set clear rules so the industry can better organize how to do the harvesting,” said Ricardo Viegas, manager of the state’s government Green Ethanol Project.

Nighttime burning will also be suspended at all times when air humidity falls below 20 percent, the decree said.

In 2007, the daytime burning ban was set from July 6 to October 15 and then was extended for some more weeks. In the previous year, the state issued temporary restrictions depending on air conditions.

The rapid expansion of the planted area to cane in Brazil has increased environmental and social concerns, pressuring the sector to gradually change practices. The burning of millions of hectares of cane produces serious air pollution problems in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s leading cane and industrial state, for several months over the dry season (May-September).

Besides the respiratory health risks caused by the smoke in areas where cane is burned, especially when humidity is low, manual cutting of cane has also come under attack. On Wednesday, Amnesty International condemned working conditions in Brazilian cane fields in a report.

“All the movement is toward the reduction of cane burning and manual cutting as soon as possible,” Viegas said by telephone.

In addition to the state’s ban, two cities in Sao Paulo -- Americana and Limeira -- have banned the practice at any time.

The government’s decision to curb burning last year was criticized by mills, but it contributed to a drop in burning despite an increase of 500,000 hectares in the total cane areas harvested in the state.

About 2.02 million hectares were burned last year, out of a total area of 3.7 million hectares. In 2006, 2.13 million hectares were burned out of 3.3 million hectares harvested.

The government and the industry expect the burned area to be reduced to less than 50 percent of the 4.3 million hectares that will be harvested in 2008. Last year, it totaled almost 47 percent.

Under an accord signed by most of Sao Paulo mills with the state government, 88 percent of the state’s cane area will end burning by 2014. The remaining area, which is in slightly hilly areas, will end burning by 2017.

The practice of burning and manual cutting of cane will be replaced by mechanized harvesters, but demand is so strong in the booming sector that it often takes over a year to get delivery on a new machine.

Reporting by Inae Riveras; editing by Jim Marshall