Can Brazil Have Its Food and Its Forest Too? - Years Of Living Dangerously

Can Brazil Have Its Food and Its Forest Too?

By Hillary Rosner

A farm cut from the Amazon rain forest some 50 miles southeast of Santsarem. Photo: George Steinmetz, National Geographic.

Back in 2005, Greenpeace bestowed its “Golden Chainsaw” award to a man named Blairo Maggi, whose family company is the world’s largest producer of soy. At the time he was also governor of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. In two years as governor, a Greenpeace campaigner said, Maggi had turned Mato Grosso into the “state champion of deforestation,” responsible for almost half of the total forest loss in the entire Brazilian Amazon. Brazil was then losing six football fields a minute of forest as it was slashed and burned and turned into pasture and also cropland, including soy fields.

In the decade that followed, deforestation rates fell dramatically—but today Brazil is once again at a crossroads. No country exemplifies more acutely the knot of challenges our planet faces. The Amazon rainforest, of which more than 60 percent lies within Brazil, is a vast storehouse of both carbon and unique species; cutting it down warms the planet and drives animals and plants to extinction. And yet with global population expected to grow by 2 billion by 2050, the world needs more food. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that up to 40 percent of the increase will have to come from Brazil.

The question is whether Brazil, and the planet, can have its food and its nature too. In that context, the fact that earlier this year Maggi—whose family business still produces up to 10 percent of the world’s soybeans—was appointed Brazil’s minister of agriculture might seem like cause for concern. Even before Maggi took over, deforestation rates had begun to climb again—up 16 percent in 2015 from the year before.

Yet when you talk to conservationists and leading thinkers who know the country well, as I did recently, what’s striking is the optimism you hear. Brazil, they say, is on a path toward sustainability, toward a future in which it grows more food on less land, cares for its forests, and reduces its carbon emissions. Brazil “has a unique opportunity to do this thing right,” says Paulo Sotero, a former Brazilian journalist who directs the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C.

A Turbulent Half-Century

To understand the optimism, it helps to know a little history. For centuries deforestation in the Amazon was limited mostly to the corridors along navigable rivers. Then in the 1960s the Brazilian government began to build highways through the forest, and eventually to implement a broad government strategy of bringing “people without land to land without people.” Settlement of the Amazon, both government-sponsored and grassroots, soon hit a frenzied pace, along with a scramble to extract timber and other resources.

By the mid-1980s, deforestation rates were soaring. They peaked in 1995, then spiked again in the early 2000s (that “six football fields a minute” period). And then, blessedly, they came tumbling down.

Why? Part of the reason was a growing international concern for the Amazon.  Brazil began to worry that cutting down the forest could cut it off from overseas markets.

And so it curbed the frontier free-for-all. It cracked down on illegal logging, launched sting operations to catch rainforest raiders, and tried in earnest to scale back the destruction. It invested heavily in agricultural research, which has paid off in more efficient crop production. Growing more food on less land means less incentive to clear additional forest.

In 2009, at the Copenhagen international climate talks, Brazil stepped up, pledging to reduce its emissions by more than a third by 2020. Maggi committed his own state to a nearly 90 percent reduction in the deforestation rate. Mato Grosso reached that goal in 2012.

But the rate has risen again since then.

Brazilian law has abetted that reversal. Though the country’s forest code is among the strictest in the world, it still allows landowners in the Amazon to cut down a fifth of their forested acreage. According to Daniel Nepstad, an ecologist and executive director of the Earth Innovation Institute who has worked in the Amazon for 30 years, that means “you could have a completely legal deforestation dynamic and still see deforestation rates double.” In principle that process could allow an additional area the size of California to be cleared.

Another provision of Brazilian law encourages land-grabbing: It dictates that if you manage to farm otherwise unclaimed land for five years, you become its legal owner. Speculators cut down large patches of forest, throw down some African pasture grass, bring in a few cows, and then wait for a new road that will raise the land’s value. “That is still a very prevalent phenomenon out on the remote frontiers where there’s much less law enforcement,” Nepstad says.

But some of the recent up-tick in deforestation is an artifact of the last spike: people cleared so much land a decade ago, there was a surplus. So they stopped. Now, as soy production continues to expand, the surplus has been used up—and yet, though forests are shrinking again, people like Sotero, Nepstad, and others I spoke with remain optimistic about Brazil’s ability to produce food for the global population while protecting its remaining forest. To start with, Imazon, a conservation group based in Para, has been successfully pushing farmers to concentrate cattle—to reduce the need for additional grazing land. “Brazil until recently had one head of cattle per hectare,” says Sotero. “Why? Because we had so much land, we could afford it. But the idea is to concentrate, have 4 or 5 head of cattle per hectare and still do everything organic.”

A critical mass of international conservation organizations have been working to transform Brazilian agribusiness. Back in 2006, Greenpeace and other groups, for instance, showed consumers the link between soy production and deforestation; McDonald’s and many others pledged only to buy from deforestation-free sources, which helped push farmers to comply. Grupo Maggi was a strong backer of the move. Today, WWF is pushing to monitor the beef supply chain: Beef can be much trickier to track than soy, since one cow can pass through the hands of many farmers during its lifetime. Still, as consumers in the US, Europe, and even now in China begin to demand higher environmental standards for their food, “all the packers know they will have to address it sooner or later,” says Carlos Saviani, vice president for sustainable food at WWF.

Nepstad’s group is working on a different approach, putting together agreements between food producers and food buyers to create a system somewhat akin to wine denominations or regional fisheries, where eventually an entire region is certified sustainable because it is tackling issues like deforestation, indigenous land rights, and worker compensation. “That’s probably the wave of the future for cattle,” Nepstad says. He recently helped broker an agreement between the Chinese soy trade group and Brazilian soy growers on sustainability commitments.

There are other signs of progress. Brazil’s international climate commitments also incentivize new projects to limit deforestation—and other countries’ climate commitments help too. Norway, for instance, has promised $1.3 billion to curb emissions from deforestation. Germany pumped $25 million into the state of Acre, in the southeastern Amazon, under a similar program. (California alone could potentially put $1 billion into helping avoid deforestation in the Amazon, if Brazil changes current laws preventing a certain type of international carbon offsets. It’s unclear whether the country will change that law or not.)

As for Maggi, the agriculture minister, it’s still too early to pass judgment on his tenure. But there is hope that his desire to negotiate trade deals—including with the US, which is importing Brazilian beef for the first time in 13 years—will herald a new era of environmental standards. After the Golden Chainsaw award, “I told him, ‘You need to talk to members of the environmental community,’” says Sotero. Maggi finally did, and from that first meeting and others since, “he woke up and started reflecting about this”—a path that led to the soy moratorium  and the climate commitments. This past summer, The Nature Conservancy hosted a meeting in Washington, where Maggi was negotiating a beef agreement. A Greenpeace attendee reminded Maggi about the award, Sotero recalls, and Maggi recounted what happened to him afterward. Apparently he had returned home that night to face his then-adolescent daughters, who were ashamed. Sometimes, change—even at a global scale—begins at home.