Ana Gabriela Verotti Farah

Ana Gabriela Verotti Farah

Staff Writer
The Brazil Business


Brazilian Sugarcane Industry

Ana Gabriela Verotti Farah

Ana Gabriela Verotti Farah

Staff Writer
The Brazil Business


Since 1532, sugarcane has already been the most important product of the Brazilian economy. In this article you will learn more about the sugarcane production, its history, its products and its importance to Brazil.

A little bit of history

Sugarcane is a plant that provides sugar and alcohol, and its cultivation is originated from the Southeastern Asia. It was introduced in Brazil five centuries ago, when the country was a colony of Portugal. By that time, sugarcane and gold had almost the same value, and the Portuguese were the very few people who had the resources needed to explore overseas, searching for new lands to conquer (and make money).

In these trips, they used to take the sugarcane plant to their colonies in order to have their own production. By the time Portuguese arrived here with sugarcane plant, in 1532, there were already plantations in Cape Verde, the Azores and Madeira islands, all of them introduced by Portugal.

In 1532, both Portuguese and Spanish had already arrived in America. Since nobody knew exactly the size of the New World, the two people decided to divide and explore it. The Tordesillas Treaty was a deal between Portugal and Spain which determined an imaginary line that separated the shares of the continent to both countries: to the west of the line, lands belonged to Spain; to the east, to Portugal.

In order to manage its part, Portugal divided Brazil in 15 hereditary captaincies, parts of land that went from the coast to the line established in the Tordesillas Treaty. Each one of these parts were given to members of the Portuguese aristocracy, that should manage them. From all the captaincies, only Pernanambuco (in the Northeast) and São Vicente (in the Southeast) prospered, due to the sugarcane plantation in the sugar-mills.

Brazil became the biggest producer of sugar in the mid 17th century, but then lost its position for many decades, reconquering it since the decade of 1970, when the government created a project called ProÁlcool or Programa Nacional do Álcool (National Program of Alcohol).

About ProÁlcool

In November, 1975, ProÁlcool was created to promote the use of the alcohol from the sugarcane as an alternative fuel for automobiles. The use of ethanol (which is the name of this alcohol-based fuel) started right after the 1973 Oil Crisis, when oil prices quadrupled. Since then, the production of sugarcane increased really fast in Brazil, and at the 1976/1977 crop it had already reached 100 million tons per year.

Latest crops

Considering the year crop as correspondent to the period from April to March, in the 2010/2011 crop, there was a record of 623,905 million tons of sugarcane produced in almost all the country. In the 2011/2012 crop, there were 560,36 million tons produced. São Paulo is responsible for 60% of the whole country production. Paraná, Triângulo Mineiro (Triangle Region of Minas Gerais) and Zona da Mata Nordestina (Forest Zone of the Brazilian Northeast) are the other production areas.

In the third estimate of Conab (Companhia Nacional de Abastecimento or National Company of Food and Supply), made in December, 2012, the forecast for the 2012/2013 crop of sugarcane is of 595,13 million tons, representing a 6,2% rise in comparison to the last crop (560,4 million tons). The final report will be made in March, 2013.

Brazil is the biggest worldwide producer of sugarcane, according to UNICA (União da Indústria de Cana-de-Açúcar or Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association), the biggest producer and exporter of sugar, according to USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and the second biggest producer of ethanol, according to F.O.Licht.

Even so, the sugar/alcohol sector has been facing difficulties. In the 2011/2012 crop, the debts reached BRL 48 billion. The cost of production increased because of the 2011 break in the sugarcane crop, the lack of competitiveness of ethanol and late investments in the recovery of sugarcane plantations and mechanization. The break in the sugarcane crop reduced in 11,61% the estimate for ethanol production and in 6,36% the sugar production.

Sugar and alcohol in 2012

Until December, 2012, there was a 3,58% rise in comparison to the 2011/2012 crop; 21,28 billion liters of ethanol were produced, being 8,84 billion liters of anhydrous ethanol and 12,44 billion liters of hydrated ethanol. From the 21 billion liters, 16,84 billion were commercialized (7,06 billion liters of anhydrous alcohol and 9,78 billion liters of hydrated ethanol).

Since the beginning of the crop until the last day of December, 2012, 34,07 million tons of sugar were produced, corresponding to a 8,84% rise in comparison to the last data from the 2011/2012 crop.

In 2012, until November, Brazil exported 2,88 billion liters of ethanol and 18,32 million tons of sugar. In the same period, the country imported 219,970 thousand liters of ethanol.

Wait. Imported?

Yes. Brazil imports ethanol that is produced from the corn crops, especially from the United States, in order to fill up the tanks of the Brazilian fleet of vehicles. In 2011, 1,1 billion liters of the North American fuel were imported.

The import happens because Brazil has the biggest production of sugar and is responsible for 70% of the worldwide demand. With such a high production of sugar, there is a competitiveness between its production and the production of ethanol.


Bioelectricity is a clean and renewable energy, made by biomass – in Brazil, 80% made by the bagasse of the sugarcane. At the same time ethanol is as alternative to the use of oil, bioelectricity is the alternative to supplement the hydroelectric system.

Brazil has a potential production of this energy, since it's main producers of sugarcane are concentrated in the region of main energy consumer centers. Nowadays, this energy represents the consumption of five million people, 2% of the national share.