The Brazilian company Verde Potash manufactures fertilizers. The company’s website touts the country’s booming agriculture industry, stating that Brazil is a world-leader in producing soybeans, corn, oranges, coffee, sugarcane and tobacco (and frozen chickens), thanks to its “vast arable land, abundant sources of freshwater and tropical climate that permits all year planting.” However, that “vast arable land” is not yet working to its potential, according to the company. “Despite the countries obvious agricultural prowess, only 14% of the potential arable land is planted…. Brazil is home to 60% of the world’s undeveloped arable land, land that will be needed to feed a growing world population with rapidly increasing dietary requirements.” Brazil’s economy is well fed by its agricultural resources. And its appetite is expanding.
Brazil’s population grew from 51 million to around 187 million people from 1950 to 2005. It is estimated the current population is around 199 million and the the current growth rate is around 1%. With a population that grew that fast (and continues to grow) it is important to figure out how to utilise and expand resources, especially food. However, at what cost to the environment and laborers?
It’s no wonder that a fertilizer company would be very interested in opening up more land for agricultural development. It’s also no wonder that Brazil’s business sector would support further expansion of agriculture, right up to and including supposedly protected rainforest areas. (Half of Brazil is covered in forests). According to the pro-business organization AgBrazil, the country’s “frontier region is booming…. The potential of this vast and largely untapped area — the largest virgin landmass on earth — is beyond rational speculation…. The agricultural area yet to be opened is more than 25 percent larger than the total crop acreage of the U.S.”
The cost to Brazil’s laborers is also “vast.” Brazil’s Landless Worker's Movement points to a social structure of land ownership and control that completely exploits workers to the point of “semi-slavery.” “We are producers of raw materials, sold and appropriated by only 50 corporations that control prices, the rate of profit and the world market,” says João Pedro Stedile. “Agribusiness holds back the Brazilian economy,” he says, and the only way to change the situation is for government to pay attention to the “socially unjust” companies it is blindly supporting and start supporting the rights of workers.
Add to that the problems that arise when land use changes bring about deforestation and a huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions. João Pedro Stedile adds that current agricultural practices destroy “all existing biodiversity in nature, [by] using pesticides so irresponsibly. And that imbalances the ecosystem, poisons the soil, water, rain and food. The result is that Brazil accounts for only 5% of global agricultural production, but consumes 20% of all poisons in the world.”
Last week, a story on NPR caught my attention. It was about Katia Abreu, an “old-fashioned farmer” who owns a huge area of land (12,000 acres) and is the president of Brazil’s National Agriculture Confederation, which represents 5 million farmers and ranchers. She also happens to be a senator, representing the interests of other land-owning senators and representatives, and a close friend of Brazil’s President Dilma Rouseff. “She and I work to improve conditions and strengthen agribusiness in Brazil,” says Abreu.
Her power and connections are a big concern for environmentalists. They know that the ultimate goal of these powerful agribusiness leaders is to loosen restrictions on land use and expand into the forests. "It's clear that the intention of the Ruralist bloc in Katia Abreu's group is to expand the agricultural frontier to the detriment of forests by felling forest in an unprecedented way in the Amazon for the profits of large agricultural interests," says Christian Poirier, an activist with the group Amazon Watch.
But the chances of fighting against these forces are pretty small. Nearly 40% of the nation’s lawmakers are big landowners or their friends. “Subjects related to agriculture, to land ownership are not discussed in Brazil or in the Brazilian Congress in a democratic way. Because there's a group with power to approve anything they want, they just approve," says Silvio Costa, who heads up a watchdog group.
In fact, Katia Abreu is taking steps to make sure that the public sees agribusiness in a positive light. Her organization just hired soccer star Pele to star in commercials touting Brazilian agriculture as good for people. The message is this: “as big as Brazil’s food production already is, it can, and should be bigger.”
The bigger is better mentality will take a toll on the people at the bottom of Brazil’s agribusiness and on the lands that are increasingly being used and overused.It’s a dilemma that resembles the debates over the upcoming FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games. What’s the ultimate gain to the nation if money pours into a small sector of the economy at the expense of people, traditions and the precious environment?