The uprising of rural workers in Guariba

Image: Adrienne Andersen


The role of rural workers in the sugar-energy development of São Paulo

In 2024, 40 years will be celebrated since the so-called Rural Workers' Uprising of Guariba, a small city in the interior of the state of São Paulo marked, for a long time, by the predominance of sugarcane and sugar-energy production in its territory. Given the size of the city, the attempted cover-up by the local elite, the time that has passed and the abrupt and recent drop in the number of workers in São Paulo's agriculture, that event runs the risk of deserving few memories, beneath its historical and social importance.

We will try to describe the episode, some of its social and labor consequences and also, for the most recent period, how modernization is sublimating the role that rural workers had in the economic development of the sugarcane regions of São Paulo.

Ultimately, trying to revive, for older people, or revive, for younger people, a significant mark of the struggle of rural workers in Brazil. If we used the term boia fria or pau de arara, we might attract more attention, but it is worth saying that rural workers, even if temporary, have always preferred to be called that.

In 1984, Guariba had a population of close to 25 thousand inhabitants, which increased significantly between April and November. At this stage, during the manual harvesting of sugar cane, thousands of additional workers were brought into the city (as well as other cities in São Paulo), coming especially from Vale do Jequitinhonha (MG), to meet the greater need for labor in the sugarcane cutting.

In terrible conditions, some were housed inside rural properties or formed republics in peripheral neighborhoods, especially in João de Barro. There they shared (or multiplied) their anguish, discontent and desires, with the participation of a few social activists, especially those from the Catholic Church.

Without any prior organization or coordinating agent, at the beginning of the 1984 sugarcane harvest, the Guariba Uprising occurred, with the participation of almost all local rural workers. They revealed their dissatisfaction with the situation experienced by a large part of the Brazilian population, who lived with high unemployment, high inflation and, consequently, a drop in families' purchasing capacity. Not by chance, two events marked the Levante, one of them the looting of the only local supermarket, accused of charging abusive prices. Another was the destruction of Sabesp's municipal facilities, with water and sewage tariffs that compromised a large part of the meager salaries received.

In relation to sugarcane activities, workers quickly organized pickets preventing any truck from leaving the urban area for rural activities. A specific point served as the last straw of the strike (or revolt), the change in the width of the work force imposed, in 1983, by rural entrepreneurs, from five to seven sugarcane streets, which required greater physical effort from the worker. , without a corresponding salary increase.

Also quickly, the Guariba movement spread to other sugarcane cities in the State of São Paulo and reached rural workers in other activities, such as orange pickers. Discontent was widespread and, from one moment to the next, it surfaced and spread like wildfire, attracting the attention of the national and international press and scaring rural workers, unaccustomed to such a broad demonstration by workers.

The police force promptly intervened with violence rarely seen. Agents from the Military Police of the State of São Paulo not only sought to dissolve the pickets, but also entered and beat workers in their homes. As it was a government elected by vote in 1982, defeating the representative of the military dictatorship, the main artifact of repression gained the ironic nickname of “democratic baton”. Nothing different from any baton, in terms of the pain and marks left on the workers' bodies.

On the other hand, the state government took over the coordination of negotiations between the parties, held at the headquarters of the Rural Union (employer) in the neighboring city, Jaboticabal. The most significant victory for the workers was the immediate end of the seven streets. Another was that, from 1984 onwards, specific negotiations began to take place between sugarcane workers and employers, instead of generic negotiations involving all rural workers in São Paulo.

The Guariba Uprising played a fundamental role in the social and labor achievements achieved in the following fifteen years. Transporting workers from the cities to the countryside began to be done by bus, replacing the infamous class trucks, at ongoing became remunerated, the formalization of the labor market increased, child labor decreased, housing conditions for seasonal migrants improved, employers were forced to provide work tools and PPE, etc.

However, the bosses resisted and did not allow significant changes in the way sugarcane cutting was paid. It continued to be done based on the amount harvested on the day, encouraging workers, in an attempt to earn additional wages, to go to the limit of their physical capacity, causing immediate and long-term harmful effects on their health. Payment also continued to be made not per meter, but per ton of cut sugarcane, with weighing taking place at the mills' headquarters, out of sight of the workers.

In the 1990s, significant technological changes were observed in the industrial park of sugar and ethanol plants. Processes were automated and computerized with a reduction by half in the number of workers employed in the manufacture of sugar and ethanol. However, in the sugarcane industry, at the end of that decade, more than 80% of the harvested area was still carried out manually, with mechanical harvesting being concentrated in a few pioneering companies.

Manual harvesting was preceded by burning the sugarcane straw, tripling the worker's daily income compared to cutting sugarcane without prior burning. The bosses sought to defend themselves against environmental criticism, stating that the fire was necessary to guarantee the employment of thousands of workers with little professional qualifications and who would have difficulty finding another type of job. Pure hypocrisy, which would soon be denied.

In 2006, it was found that 40% of São Paulo's sugarcane fields were being harvested mechanically and, in the following year, it became clear that this process would be accelerated. More than 90% of São Paulo's mill owners, in 2007, closed an agreement with the Government of the State of São Paulo and signed the Agro-Environmental Protocol of the São Paulo Sugar-Energy Sector. The elimination of burning was expected by 2014, for mechanized areas or smaller than 150 hectares (ha), or 2017, for other sugarcane areas. These goals were achieved, with the practically complete replacement of the burned sugarcane harvest with the mechanized harvest of unburned sugarcane.

Among the reasons for massive adhesion by businesspeople to the Agro-Environmental Protocol, one can highlight the increase in investment capacity in agricultural and industrial machinery, provided by favorable prices for sugar and ethanol, the entry of new economic groups into the sector and debt with the sector. finance and BNDES. Another reason was the prospect of an increase in Brazilian ethanol exports, especially to Europe, during a period of rising oil prices. Continuing to burn sugarcane could harm the external image of ethanol as a renewable fuel.

By the way, after 2010, the prospect of greater ethanol exports was frustrated and dozens of companies closed their activities. Precisely, those who were most behind in the sugarcane mechanization process and who increased their debt to speed it up. The area planted with sugarcane in São Paulo did not fall, with a large part of the sugarcane fields from closed plants being transferred to those that continued to operate.

The effects of mechanization on sector occupation, helped by the low sugar-energy dynamism after 2010, were striking. The number of people formally employed in sugar-energy companies in São Paulo decreased from 316 thousand in 2007 to 217 thousand in 2019. Among the occupational groups, sugarcane workers – dedicated to cutting sugarcane and other activities without greater professional qualification requirements – fell from 179 thousand to 48 thousand, or 74% less. The number of agricultural mechanization workers increased by 16 thousand or 64% and, by 18 thousand or 29%, the total number of people employed in administrative, transport or support activities.

The mass dismissal of sugarcane workers did not become a serious social problem in the sugarcane municipalities or municipalities where seasonal migrants originate as a result of the boom in the job market in Brazil, which lasted until 2014. The Pastoral dos Migrantes de Guariba, after decades of operations, ended its activities in 2019, due to the lack of an audience to be served. The points in the sugarcane cities where rural workers gather to travel to rural areas have practically emptied or ceased to exist.

The selection, supervision and control of groups of cutters played a strategic role in the management of the vast majority of sugar-energy companies in the sugarcane harvest, at the end of the 1990s. The rhythm of the pruning had to be adequate and timely for the operation of mills and other equipment of the mills, especially because the sugarcane must be crushed within a few hours after it is cut.

Nowadays, everything has changed. The remaining manual labor is much less important. Agricultural operations controls depend on computing equipment installed in machines and vehicles, whose performance information is monitored on time by a group of administrative workers, whose number, as already seen, increased significantly, along with that of machine operators, mechanics and drivers.

Drones are used to map the terrain of future sugarcane fields, with the geographic coordinates later being used for mechanical planting and harvesting. In this way, the harvesters are able to operate without “stepping” on the sugarcane ratoons, an important fact to guarantee the crop’s longevity of six to seven years. What's more, it became possible to carry out mechanical harvesting 24 hours a day, adapting the pace of work in the field to that of the plant, which, for decades, except for setbacks, has operated uninterruptedly throughout the sugarcane harvest.

This flashy modernity is often mistaken as the result of the business acumen of the mill owners, which is a very simplistic or distorted view. Let us remember that the history of the sugar-energy sector is full of moments when, due to errors in business planning or unfavorable circumstances, public programs and resources were used in abundance to overcome crises and increase the sector's productive capacity. Furthermore, one should not forget the research carried out by private and public institutions, such as, for example, the development of sugarcane varieties more adapted to mechanical cutting, with a higher sucrose content and resistant to pests and diseases.

And, although they are very few at present, let us not forget the role played by rural workers in the accumulation of sugar-energy wealth. They were transported in degrading conditions in the backs of trucks, often becoming victims of tragic accidents with dozens of deaths and injuries. They literally sweated profusely, often accompanied by young children, in an attempt to obtain wages that would allow them to survive during the sugarcane harvest and off-season, when jobs tended to fall by half.

They traveled hundreds or thousands of kilometers from their small fields in the Semiarid region to harvest sugarcane and take some money home. They were subjected to precarious housing and scarce food, which, together with inadequate working conditions, compromised their health and life expectancy.

Let us also remember the Uprising that began in the small Guariba and spread to almost all rural work fronts in São Paulo, in 1984. It and other less comprehensive episodes resulted in important labor and social achievements, some of which have already been undone by time. For example, in one of the reforms of recent years, hourly pay ongoing is no longer mandatory.

Let this not erase from social memory the daily time spent by rural workers to generate sugar-energy wealth, from the moment they woke up, at four o'clock in the morning, to prepare food to be eaten cold, added to two hours, on average, to and from the farm and eight or more hours of strenuous work cutting sugarcane. Who knows, in 2024, we will be able to organize events with some expressiveness, honoring the role of rural workers in the sugar-energy development of São Paulo.

*José Giacomo Baccarin he is a professor at Unesp; of agrarian economics and agricultural policies on the campuses of Jaboticabal, at the undergraduate level, and Rio Claro, at the postgraduate level in geography.


BACCARIN, J. G. Competitive strategies and effects on the occupational profile of companies in the sugar-energy sector: State of São Paulo – Brazil, 2007-2019. RBEST: Brazilian Journal of Social and Labor Economy, Campinas, vol. 5, 2023.

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