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SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Amnesty International criticized poor working conditions and forced labor in Brazil's fast-growing sugar cane sector on Wednesday, as the government tries to promote the cane-based ethanol industry as a way to reduce poverty.
The human rights group said Brazil's government has taken steps to improve working conditions in rural areas, but it has confirmed cases of forced labor throughout the country.
"Forced labor and exploitative working conditions were reported in many states, including in the rapidly growing sugar cane sector," Amnesty said in its annual report on the state of the world's human rights.
Brazil's powerful Cane Industry Association (Unica) dismissed Amnesty's report in a statement, saying it had focused on isolated cases.
"The document transmits a wrong, out-of-context vision that does not represent the reality observed today in the vast majority of the Brazilian sugar and ethanol sector," Unica said.
It said all Unica's 110 associated companies had stable, legal labor agreements with its workers.
Amnesty said that in March 2007, 288 workers were rescued from forced labor at six cane plantations in Sao Paulo state, and 409 workers from an ethanol distillery in Mato Grosso do Sul state.
In November 2007, inspection teams found 831 indigenous cane cutters working in poor conditions, also in Mato Grosso do Sul, while over 1,000 people "in conditions analogous to slavery" were released in June from a sugar plantation in Para state.
"We've been receiving accusations of rights violations against workers in the industry that range from precarious working conditions to threats against union leaders," Tim Cahill, Amnesty's Brazil researcher, told Reuters by phone.
He said punishment against companies has often been "symbolic."
In Sao Paulo state, home to more than 60 percent of national cane production, the state prosecutor on labor has increased inspections and prosecutions in recent years, but this has been insufficient in solving problems, Amnesty said.
"Clearly resources are limited, areas are huge and the number of companies in this sector is expanding in an alarming way," Cahill said, adding that Amnesty will further monitor the situation in the industry.
Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has defended cane-based ethanol around the world, saying it could combat global warming and also help poor economies by allowing people to have access to a "sustainable energy."
The country's industry has been booming due to fast growing domestic demand for ethanol and prospects for rising exports of the biofuel in the coming years.
About 40 billion reais are being invested in new mills and in the expansion of old plants from 2005 to 2010, by local players, investment funds and other national and foreign companies.
"It's time for Brazil to reconsider its position, how it will promote its economic expansion ... and whether it wants to build it on the back of human rights violations and let problems be solved afterwards," Cahill said.
The expansion of monocultures such as soy and eucalyptus has also been a source of conflicts, Amnesty's report said.
Additional reporting by Andrei Khalip; Writing by Inae Riveras; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Anthony Boadle