Toxic Ash, Hopeful Leaves: Brazilian Sugarcane Histories and Biofuel Futures


Sugarcane scientists and industry actors in Brazil are working to expand the volume and scope of sugar-based fuels, chemicals, and other materials like bioplastic. They aim to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and mitigate problems like global warming through this versatile plant. Colonizers brought sugarcane to Brazil five hundred years ago and its cultivation, first through slavery and later through waged but brutal labor, is infamous for its intense and deadly conditions, as well as negative environmental impact. These dark histories are sometimes acknowledged, sometimes distanced from present practices, and sometimes reframed (one could say sugarcoated) as a source of tradition, knowledge, and experience for producers. This paper specifically starts with memories of toxic sugarcane ash, which rained down when cultivators burned fields to facilitate manual harvest, filling streets, homes, and lungs with harmful particulates. Today, with mostly mechanized harvesting, the cane leaves that previously combusted into ash are now being studied by scientists as a new source for even more sugar that could be extracted from the crop. Such technological advancements would increase sugarcane’s efficiency as a feedstock for renewable materials. With this molecular reconfiguration of this particular source of sugarcane toxicity, what toxicities still remain, and what new ones are created? Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork and historical documents, this paper ultimately takes sugarcane ash/leaves as an entry point into thinking more broadly about the multiple toxicities of sugarcane histories (such as toxic land use, labor, and masculinity) and how they are addressed and negotiated in contemporary renewable efforts.


Creative Commons Licence



Contributed date

September 8, 2021 - 3:49am

Critical Commentary

Abstract by Katie Ulrichsubmitted to the 4S 2021 Panel Toxic Goodness: Harmful Legacies, Hopeful Futures

Group Audience

Cite as

Katie Ulrich, "Toxic Ash, Hopeful Leaves: Brazilian Sugarcane Histories and Biofuel Futures", contributed by Duygu Kasdogan, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 8 September 2021, accessed 9 December 2022.