Forests Vanish for Agricultural Development in Brazil

The consequences of such large-scale development of agrilculture has been devastating, causing large-scale environmental and social problems.

by Paul Wolda

Nildo Quiros is obviously disturbed as he surveys the road directly in front of his speeding Toyota 4×4 truck. I soon discover why. A series of deep potholes in the tarmac have yielded half of the road impassable at speeds exceeding 5 km/hr.

I quickly glance at the speedometer, which reads well above 90km/hr. I feel the vehicle beneath me move smoothly into the left lane and continue on its current trajec- tory, accelerating steadily. Then I see the real reason for the furrowed brow and steady, calculated expression. A transport truck heavily laden with soybeans is bearing down upon us, occupying the same lane. Nildo applies the accel- erator and the vehicle screams towards the oncoming truck. A quick glance to the right and I feel my stomach turn as Nildo guides the Toyota back to its’ own lane. My muscles relax and I turn my head to see the two passengers in the back seat. They continue to converse in the same musical tones. The exotic sounds of a foreign language fail to register in a lexicon derived purely from English. I swivel forward as Nildo looks over at me. Having regained his composure he gestures now towards the open grasslands, spotted with the occasional tree, comprising the cerrado eco-system of the Brazilian highlands.

“Bonito nao e?”

My mind swims as I go back to my high school Spanish course, desperately wishing I had paid more attention.

“Bonito,” I reply.

This is apparently the correct response because I am met with smiles and excited applause from everyone within the truck.

Surrounding me in that small vehicle was my newly acquired family, whom without ever seeing me or hearing my voice, now openly accepted me as part of their household. We soon arrived in Tangara da Serra, a small farming community in the northern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Here I was to live and study as a Rotary exchange student over the course of the next year of my life. Mato Grosso literally translated means thick forest. Where were all the forests? I had seen small stretches of forested lands between huge expanses of open pastures and areas of agricultural activity but I am quite certain that I never saw any vast impenetrable jungles or thick forests. Had this all been a misunderstanding? Had government officials in Brasilia made some colossal error in judgment when they named this state thirty years previously? There had to be some sort of explanation. Slowly I began to understand.

The second half of the 21st century was the beginning of the modern age of Brazilian agriculture, as a mechanized revolution of farming methods attempted to harness the rich store of resources within the interior plains and Amazon region. The drastic increase of agricultural activity occurring in the Brazilian highlands significantly increased Brazilian exports and Gross Domestic Product. The consequences of such large-scale development have been devastating however, with large-scale environmental and social problems.

The end of the industrialization cycle in the late seventies was accompanied by the transformation of the Brazilian native cerrado into areas of serious agricultural development. The Brazilian cerrado ecosystem, located in the Brazilian Highlands, is comprised of small stunted trees with twisted branches, dwarfed vegetation and poor acidic soil. The long roots of native plant species allow them to obtain water even during the extended periods of drought. The appearance of local fl ora can be explained by the lack of rain and the poor fertility of soils. Ground fi res, either man made or of natural causes, often ravage the few remaining intact areas, burning the root systems, fruits, and seeds of native plant species. In many places the elimi­nation of original vegetation has left the soil unprotected, resulting in immense amounts of surface soil erosion dur­ing annual periods of intense rain. Soil erosion contami­nates local river systems, provoking further environmental catastrophes.

Mato Grosso, a state situated in the central west, was created close to 30 years ago from the semi arid high alti­tude planes of the Brazilian interior highlands. This new state has begun to form with Brazilians from almost all regions rushing into the area, seeking the fortune hidden in the red tropical soil of the cerrado. Mato Grosso offers a bright future in agriculture. The region is already the largest global producer of soy and also features a climate perfect for cotton, corn, teak hardwood, sugar cane (used to create ethanol fuel), mamona (the raw source of Bio Diesel), and cattle.

Mato Grosso is a state in its infancy but has already been thrust into deep social turmoil. The Brazilian social movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST, has demanded that the Brazilian govern­ment address constitutionally mandated land reform. The Brazilian constitution states that where there is a large un­productive property the government is obligated to expro­priate. Large expanses of agricultural land remain unused in many Brazilian states. Members of the MST believe they have the constitutional right to lay claim to any unused properties and often do so by creating large agricultural settlements on private unused land. The members of MST have taken the enforcement of the Brazilian constitution into their own hands, which can often result in conflict be­tween landowners and members of the movement. MST is the largest farmers’ movement in Latin America, including some 350,000 families occupying inactive lands in 23 of the 27 states in the Brazilian federation. MST is a movement of Brazil’s majority, the working poor. According to the last Institute of Brazilian Geography and Statistics census, around four million families of poor illiterate farmers are now without land. But how did this happen? According to the Gini index, Brazil has the highest concentration of land ownership in the world. One percent of the proprie­tors, around 40,000 of the biggest ranchers, own 46 percent of the land, some 360 million hectares of fazendas (large farms of 2,000 hectares or over 5,000 acres).

In conjunction with the agrarian revolution many small farm owners who produced mainly for subsistence, selling a small surplus at markets, were unable to compete with larger farm operations. The amalgamation of farmland by more successful farmers meant that far fewer people were living in rural areas, resulting in urban crowding. Many farmers migrated to the large city centres competing for jobs that were few and far between.

MST has attempted to bring the many unskilled la­bourers out of the cities and into the encampments of the Sem Terra where former farmers maintain small labor-in­tensive farm operations on land claimed by the movement. MST supporters claim that the landed Brazilian elite has persuaded the Governing Workers Party, or Partido dos Trabalhladores (PT), that agricultural modernization, in­ cluding genetically modified crops and agro-exports, is the only solution for underdevelopment. Supporters of the MST strictly oppose this belief stating that the key to sustainable land development lies in land reform and the political and economic participation of the working poor. The MST has boasted an alternative model to the large-scale deforesta­tion of the interior plains and Amazon region.

Many Brazilians feel that the MST is only hindering agricultural development, lacking the organization and will power to bring about real land reform. Mrs. Ledi Bridi has been a working lawyer in Tan­gara da Serra, Mato Grosso, for the past 20 years. She is skeptical of the legitimacy of the MST: “The Sem Terra movement is a very serious so­cial problem in Brazil. About 20% of the people in the en­campments are real families without money or food but the other 80% are just people that don’t want to work.” Bridi con­tinued, addressing me directly with short precise hand mo­tions, “There are people who enter the villages, receive land and then sell it and move on to the next encampment. We have friends that have bought entire pescaries (large parcels of land along the river) from members of the MST.” Bridi pressed on, “They should have to keep the land, farm the land, sell the produce, and give money back to the governor.”

According to Bridi the MST is a huge burden for the rest of the Brazilian population. “People go to the encamp­ments to get workers but members don’t want to work. There is work but they don’t want it! They just want to stay in the villages and receive government money!”

Coordinators of the MST have stated that for the move­ment to be successful farmers must remain within the en­campments to deliver a strong message to the government. Millions of farmers now exist on partial or complete gov­ernment subsidies putting a serious strain on government resources and the cerrado is all but lost. What can be done to rectify this dire situation?

Fabio Cuellar, a coordinator at the University of Mato Grosso believes he possesses the answer. According to Cuellar, diversification of agricultural activity must be ad­dressed.

“Large farms need to stop producing only one crop. We are vulnerable to weather patterns and changes in demand. If we diversify, land can be used to produce various grains and create more jobs while producing economic sustain­ability. We need to optimize our chances of production. If one year the soy doesn’t do well then crops like corn, wheat, sugar cane or millet will compensate.”

Cuellar believes that Brazilian farms should produce food for Brazilians instead of securing huge gains in export crops like soy.

“Soy is an export crop. How many Brazilians do you see eating soy? Not one!” Cuellar continued, “The diversification of crops would create more food from smaller farms.”

According to Cuellar, Mato Grosso constitutes 4% of the national economic activity, but with a proper railway or system of trans­portation using the rivers in the state, Mata Grosso could very easily contribute up to 10% of the gross domestic product. “These would be very clean, inexpensive ways to transport large quantities of goods,” said Cuellar, refer­ring to the utilization of rivers or a railway.

The system of highways in Mato Grosso is congested with heavy transport vehicles laden with soy, sugar cane and cattle. Accidents are very common because of over use and poor road maintenance.

The left wing workers party (PT) headed by Luis Ina­cio Lula da Silva, came into power in 2003 when the party marked a historic victory, rising to government and control­ling roughly 60% of the Brazilian voting population, the largest victory every recorded in Brazilian politics.

Lula’s election in 2003 was accompanied by the aspira­tions of many Brazilians who looked at the PT party as the answer to the many problems plaguing this Latin American country. Among other statements Lula promised the Bra­zilian people that during his first term in power he would provide land and housing for 400,000 Brazilian families. Unfortunately the PT party has been unable to actualize Lula’s ambitious statement, settling fewer homeless Brazil­ians than the previous conservative Cardoso legislation.

The PT political party has done little to address Bra­zilian land reform and under the pretense of development and progress, human activity has seriously compromised the Brazilian cerrado ecosystem, running the risk of being practically irreversible.

Before human occupation the Brazilian cerrado covered nearly 25% of the Brazilian land base, or around 2 million square kilometres. Flora and fauna in this region have suffered drastically; close to 80% of the original bio­diversity of the cerrado has now been compromised. Ac­cording to data compiled by the World Wildlife Foundation, 60% of the Brazilian cerrado has already been substituted by pasturelands and 6% has been transformed into large ar­eas of cereal and grain production, frequently soy. Another 14% has been transformed into cities and roads. Today only 20% of the Brazilian cerrado remains intact.

Brazilians cringe as the PT government nears the end of its first four-year term. With the looming federal elec­tions in October of 2006 it is hard to say if the PT party will address the growing environmental and social problems festering in the backwaters of Brazil’s newest state, Mato Grosso, and much of the Brazilian highlands. Further development within the cerrado ecosystem continues as native flora and fauna are submitted to further degrada­tion, placing the very survival of this valuable eco-system in jeopardy. 350,000 families of poor illiterate farmers are without land as Lula’s ability to settle the large number of homeless Brazilians is put under close scrutiny. MST sup­porters claim that land reform is the only way to achieve sustainable land development, as the landed Brazilian elite press for further large scale deforestation in the interior plains and Amazon region.

Where have the thick forests of Mato Grosso gone? Up in smoke it would seem, to provide food for people on the other side of the world. While the tributaries of the Amazon fill up with silt, 350,000 landless Brazilian workers try to remember why they can’t grow crops on their own land.


Paul Wolda lived as a Rotary exchange student in Tangara da Serra, Mato Grosso for a year. The political, social and environmental issues in Brazil intrigued Paul as he moved through the country documenting the views and opinions of the Brazilian people.

[From WS May/June 2006]

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital