Musings on sugar, meat, and civil war

Posted by Bob on Thursday, February 9th, 2006

We’ve been spending a lot of time learning about sugar these past few days. This has included visiting the sugar cane fields and processing plants and sampling plenty of caipirinhas, a cocktail made from pinga which is a rum distilled from sugar cane. Brazil is at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution and they are the world leaders in producing alcohol (ethanol) from sugar cane. A plant we visited yesterday produces 50 % sugar and 50% alcohol from the cane they process. They also produce enough electricity in the process to power the entire plant and sell energy to farms in the area. We thought coffee was the wonder drug before this. Now we realize that sugar is the cure for all of the world´s problems. In Brazil, 8 of 10 new cars sold run on flex fuel, which means they can use any combination of gasoline and alcohol. Most people use straight alcohol (in their cars I mean) and it´s not hard to understand why. Gas costs about $4.50 a gallon here and alcohol is about half that.

Brazil turned to renewable energy out of necessity in the 1970´s when the oil crisis and rising interest rates threatened to collapse the Brazilian economy. They needed to eliminate their dependence on foreign oil or they would go bust. Today Brazil produces enough alcohol to meet the energy needs of their country and they are no longer beholden to foreign oil interests. I think there´s a message in there somewhere for us.

I am developing a great affection for the people of Brazil. Everyone we´ve met here has been very open and welcoming to us. Above all, the Brazilians are a peace loving people. Time after time, the people we´ve talked to express the opinion that they don´t understand why nations use war to settle problems. They told us that Brazil did have a civil war, in the early 1900´s, and they still seem embarrassed about that. There is a story that, during that war, the two sides were firing on each other from across a river. The guns were not powerful enough to reach to the other side. At some point, a German manufacturer provided a cannon to the troops to shoot across the river. The first shot of the cannon killed 2 or 3 men. The second shot killed another 3 or 4. Before the third shot could be fired, the soldiers yelled, `Stop! You are killing Brazilians!´

Today we visited a university to talk with a professor and some students. We had an interesting discussion about agricultural economics with the professor (coffee, sugar, world markets, etc.) Much of the information we´ve gathered on this trip has been via serious, formal interviews with business, educational or political leaders. As valuable as this information is, my most enjoyable interviews have been those with students and other young people. The energy of today´s group kind of pumped us all up. None of these students had ever been to America but they all had ideas about what we were like. The general opinion was that Americans think mainly about their own country and not about the rest of the world. This was presented as a negative trait. However, when I asked what they admired most about the US, they said it was the opportunities our country has and how patriotic they believe Amercans to be. Afterward, we all went to eat at a churrascaria restaurant. This is a place that specializes in meat, meat, and more meat. Teams of wait staff bring skewers of all varieties of beef, pork, chicken, and whatever to your table about every 30 seconds. Every time you look up there is some sort of steaming animal product staring you in the face. I guess this would be a vegetarian´s nightmare. I loved it.

My role in this documentary will be ending very soon. It has been an unforgettable journey as well as a tremendous learning experience for me. I´ve learned that there are cultural, economic, and political differences between America and other countries. I´ve learned that although many people have issues with our `imperialistic´ foreign policy or our self centered behavior as a nation, most people seem to have a quiet admiration for what America stands for, or is supposed to stand for. There are basic commonalities wherever we go. All people, regardless of what language they speak, value respect, dignity and human relationships above economic, political, or geographical differences. Despite all of the problems in every corner of the world, I remain optimistic about our future. And you ain´t gonna change my mind about that.

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