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Ossi Ollinaho: Is big really beautiful? Mini-distilleries, the lost opportunity of Brazil

In Finland, big is beautiful. But big production facilities and gigantic hypermarkets rarely serve the best interest of the common man – unlike decentralised solutions

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In Finland, big is beautiful. But big production facilities and gigantic hypermarkets rarely serve the best interest of the common man – unlike decentralised solutions. However, since decentralised solutions to issues such as biorefining and renewable energy challenge both the power structures which benefit from centralisation and the clout of big businesses, they need political support. Let the mini-distilleries in Brazil serve as an example of this for Finnish decision-makers.

Brazil’s ambitious biofuel programme, Proálcool, was launched in 1975. Besides saving the Brazilian economy, which was heavily dependent on oil, the programme was also intended to solve the problems of the over-invested sugar industry. Sugar producers were actually the ones who started to distil ethanol once the programme was up and running. While the production methods produced ethanol, they also increased inequality regarding income distribution, land ownership and regional development. Major producers looking to expand their production purchased land from their neighbours, small-scale food producers, which raised the price of food. Big production plants also caused pollution and required a large temporary work force, which created a problem social class in Brazil.

In 1978, Professor Romeu Corsini from the University of São Paulo, the most prestigious university in Brazil, presented a decentralised approach to ethanol production. Mini-distilleries that were fully self-sufficient with regard to energy would produce ethanol and power for local use as well for their own use, at less cost than large units. The amount of capital required would be modest, and the distilleries would use a range of raw materials, recycle all of their waste, and provide full-time employment for all workers.

Corsini proposed a campaign that would help Brazil become completely independent of oil: the country would need some 3,000 mini-distilleries, which could be built on any one of the about 150,000 small farms in the country, including far-off regions to which it is expensive to transport fuel. Engines could be converted to use a mixture of ethanol and water by means of inexpensive conversion technology. This way Brazil would solve the problem of its economy and create sustainable development also in distant rural areas.

Corsini’s idea still has not been implemented to this day. Instead, huge sugar cane plantations dominate the central Brazilian countryside. Mini-distilleries would not have benefited the big players such as producers, oil companies or the automotive industry. State authorities also shunned the mini-distilleries, as it would have been difficult to control and levy tax on the production. Although the concept received support even at high levels, ‘backyard-produced’ ethanol was made to look expensive and unsuitable for cars, and thus the entire concept was scrapped.

Of course, the Finnish countryside is different from what the Brazilian countryside was like a few decades ago, yet this case sheds light on the difficulties of implementing decentralised solutions in our country too. Decisions to decentralise operations are difficult, especially as regards energy-related issues. Control and safety are key aspects, as it is a question of a strategically important product. If you have several small producers instead of a few major ones, production control and steering change drastically. Yet by decentralising energy production we could achieve something that is not possible using the centralised model, something that has almost completely disappeared from Finland: a vibrant landscape.

Ossi Ollinaho

The writer is a systems sociologist seeking to understand the fundamental nature of communities. He is currently finalising a dissertation on the origin of change in which he reviews the Brazilian biofuel programme.

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