The Twilight of Proálcool: From Ethanol Shortages to the Flex-Fuel Engine, 1985-2003
Once the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship’s alternative energy agenda in the 1980s, the new democratically-elected administration dismantled the National Ethanol Program (Proálcool) as a fuel replacement program in 1990. This piece traces the demise of the program beginning with droughts in the late 1980s through the end of state subsidization in 1999. Few studies have explored the environmental factors that led to the fuel replacement program’s collapse and the contradictory environmental justifications to continue support in the 1990s. Using popular news sources, rainfall data in the dominant ethanol-producing region of Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, and car production data, I argue that untimely droughts contributed to the program’s abrogation, which accelerated the onset of neoliberal reforms that accompanied the democratic transition as popular support of state-led development eroded. Thereafter, private businessmen and government officials shifted their propaganda for the program toward a popular green energy agenda to garner, reignite, and maintain wavering public support for ethanol in the midst of the government’s decreasing financial support for the industry throughout the decade. This successful remarketing provided the support to launch of the flex-fuel car, running on any combination of the two fuels, in 2003, which transformed the global car industry. This approach places the environment and its politics at the center of Brazilian state development strategies and their transitions in the 1990s.