By Mario Osava
May 22, 2010
RIO DE JANEIRO (IPS) - Brazil is a world leader in agriculture and on several environmental issues, but it will find it hard to reconcile both fronts, judging by the many battles lost by former environment minister Marina Silva, in spite of the political clout she wielded for over five years.
The advantages enjoyed by agriculture in this country are not limited to the availability of vast amounts of land and water, and a favourable climate. Brazil has developed technology and practices that have greatly increased crop yields, and made it an unbeatable exporter of a large number of products.
Brazil is a top producer of sugar, coffee, meats, ethanol, orange juice and soybeans. Output of grains has doubled in a decade, and it has surpluses of rice and maize, which it used to import a few years ago. Now it is dependent on imports of only one commodity for mass consumption: wheat.
Today, the boom of the biofuels industry and the soaring international prices of foods are encouraging Brazil to accelerate the expansion of its agricultural frontier, to the despair of environmentalists, because of encroachment on the Amazon rainforests and other ecosystems like the Cerrado, a vast, highly biodiverse savannah in the centre of the country.
This scenario led to Silva’s resignation as environment minister on May 13. Launching the Sustainable Amazon Plan, which she drafted and had been shepherding for years, but which President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva put in the hands of another minister, was her last action in government.
Her position began to be undermined much earlier, particularly when issues came up that placed her in conflict with agribusiness interests.
The first big battle she lost was in 2003, when the government granted permission for genetically modified soybeans to be grown in the south of the country. Later the measure was expanded, and cultivation of genetically modified cotton and maize followed.
International concern over deforestation of the Amazon has increased with the growing global awareness of the risks of climate change. The jungle region is a vast reservoir of biodiversity, and regulates rainfall in the most productive agricultural areas of the country.
Rapid growth in world food demand and the wave of enthusiasm for agrofuels are stimulating expansion of agricultural and livestock farming areas, which is resisted by environmentalists. Eventually this was too much for Silva, in spite of the political support she enjoyed both in Brazil and abroad as a staunch defender of the Amazon.
President Lula, cabinet ministers and business leaders argue that Brazil need not fell a single tree to raise production of biofuels and foods, because at least 50 million hectares of land suitable for agriculture have already been deforested and are available. Using that land could double the area currently devoted to grain crops.
Cattle ranching occupies 172 million hectares, according to the official farms census of 2006. Although much of this land is degraded, it could be recovered for agriculture. A small increase in productivity in this sector, which on average raises one animal per hectare, could liberate enormous amounts of land for crops.
But in practice that is not happening. Land tenure in Brazil is precarious, fraught with conflicts and illegal appropriations which frequently erupt into violence and interminable legal disputes.
In addition, there are enormous disparities in land prices: one hectare in the southern states costs dozens or hundreds of times as much as the same amount of land in the Amazon or surrounding areas.
This is pushing the agricultural frontier toward the west and north of the country, where native timber is also abundant, and it is easy to illegally occupy public lands.
The government itself gave plots of land in the Amazon region to many small farmers, carrying out its agrarian reform where land was cheap, until environmental protests forced a change of policy.
Agricultural development on the borders of the Amazon jungle have built up irresistible pressure for the construction or paving of highways across the rainforest, which open the door to deforestation and make it very difficult to control.
The governor of the state of Mato Grosso, Blairo Maggi, a major soybean producer, said that the advance of agriculture into the forests is inevitable in order to increase production of foods to help meet global shortages.
The state of Mato Grosso, whose northern portion forms part of the Amazon jungle region, has suffered the largest area of deforestation in Brazil in recent years.
Logging in the Amazon is directly correlated with agricultural prices. The years in which commodities, especially soybeans, have commanded high prices, are also the periods when rainforest destruction has been at its height, according to statistics tracked over several decades.
Marina Silva left the Environment Ministry with a commendable track record: in the last three years, deforestation of the Amazon has been cut by 59 percent. But in the second half of 2007, the destruction of the forests began to increase again, in parallel with the rising price of soybeans.
These are the unfavourable circumstances that Carlos Minc, Silva’s successor, will have to face when he takes office on May 27.
Brazil will also be in a quandary as it tries to recover the leadership role it exercised, in the last decade, in international negotiations on environmental issues, based on its enormous natural resources and innovative proposals.
Now it stands accused of violating the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety because it approved cultivation of transgenic maize without having carried out the required studies.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s major proposal for fighting climate change, ethanol, is blocked by trade barriers, environmental doubts, and a flurry of criticisms for supposedly exacerbating food inflation. (END)
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