Battlefields of Today: Take 4 The treacherous treasure of Brazil

A true story from the closed midlands of Brazil: the cerrados. It involves the blind eye of carbon fighters and the dilemma of food production and economic growth versus the destruction of life supporting systems.

by Caro Sicking

Brazilian scientists employed by the government agency Empraba came to COP16 in Cancun with an astonishing and promising story: very productive low carbon agriculture on wasteland. It seemed the ultimate solution for two of the worlds’ biggest problems, namely climate change and starvation.

Mr Gustavo Mozzer, who presented Brazils’ success, stated his country can ‘cut direct farm carbon dioxide emissions by 170 million tons a year, and save as much again by curbing the invasion of rainforests by farmers.’

Mr Mozzer described his country’s Low-Carbon Agriculture Program furthermore; ‘a well-managed pasture can accumulate carbon. In fact our research shows it can accumulate so much that it more than cancels out the warming effect of methane and other emissions from cattle production.’

At the Climate Conference in Cancun, the Brazilian tango with acid ill-affected soil was met with admiration and applause; Brazil is reducing emissions in what seems to be a win-win deal. Global population is predicted to grow with another 2 billion possible facebookfriends in the next decennia. And every human being needs food. Turning more grounds into food producing acres will surely be of help. Especially combined with an innovative low carbon manner of raising cattle.

A few months earlier, on August 20th this year, The Economist sang praise to the same wonder: ‘Brazilian agriculture – The miracle of the cerrado’. Again the theme is: multiplicity of food, notably with very low carbon emissions. Maybe, other tropical countries with lots of wasteland and hungry populations can copy the innovations? This is not only good news for Brazil, it is a feast for the rest of the world, especially developing countries in Africa, India et cetera.

Farming & Ranching

Brazil is the worlds’ fifth largest country, the biggest nation of South America with a fast growing economy running mainly on renewable energy sources and home-found fossil fuels. In rapid pace Brazil is preparing to become the global grain barn as well as one of the worlds’ largest cattle farms.

Agbrazil states: ‘Large to very large farms using modern mechanical, chemical and biological technologies dominate the commercial agriculture of the cerrados. It is common for farms to exceed 5,000 ha (12,500 acres), and many farms cultivate more than 25,000 ha. (62,000 acres).’

Thirty years ago Brazil had to import food to satisfy its inhabitants. Today it is one of the main exporters of grain, next to the US, Canada, the EU, Australia and Argentina. In ten years time (1996-2006) the value of the crops rose with 365% from 23 billion reais to 108 billion reais.

It overtook Australia as the largest meat exporting country, producing almost 40 million cattle a year. Brazil is in the top three of soybean exporters of the world.

Turning fruitful

The Brazilian government agency Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) was founded just for this: lifting the agricultural sector of the country. The Brazilians thought of ways to turn the acidic and unfruitful lands, called cerrado region (Cerrado is Portuguese for ‘closed, dense, bushy’), into productive agricultural area.

The cerrado grounds that comprise 21% of the country (2.031.990 km2) are comparable to woodland-savannah. It took five steps to turn the soil surrounding the capital into agricultural land:

1.   Battling the acid by pouring tonnes and tonnes of industrious lime (pulverised limestone or chalk) onto the soil to reduce levels of acidity. Then unleashing varieties of rhizobium, a bacterium that helps fix nitrogen in legumes and which works especially well in the soil of the cerrado, reducing the need for fertilisers;

2.   Importing the grass Brachiaria from Africa, crossbreeding it into a ‘supergrass’ that grows fast. On the pasture a cattle, offspring of the Indian Zebu crossed with other cattle races, forages. The emissions of the cattle are strongly reduced by their food;

3.   Turning soybeans into a tropical crop. Crossbreeding races to obtain a soybean that can be harvested twice a year from the cerrado soil;

4.   Leave the remains of the plant in the earth after harvest; abstaining from ploughing which is called ‘no-till agriculture’. Then plant the next crop into the nutrients that are left by the former generation, thus planting into a fertile mat;

5.   Alternating the use of the land from agriculture to cattle farming and leave threads of trees in the soil.

But before lightning the bonfires, hold your horses, don’t order that juicy Brazilian steak yet. There’s a downside to this story.

The price to pay

The costs of success in this case however, seem high, not only for Brazil. Dangerous loss of biodiversity and natural resources, like fresh water, lay ahead according to environmental groups and scientists. Already 40% of the cerrados is lost to agriculture and the effects start to show, say Bart Staes and Bas Eickhout, members of the European Parliament, who side with the Belgium NGO Wervel on saving the cerrados as South America’s ‘sponge’. (Source: VILT Vlaams Infocentrum voor Land- en Tuinbouw 28 okt 2010)

Deforestation (30.000 km2 a year) and water intensive monocultures like large soybean plantations are jeopardizing the water that nature stored underground. ‘Recent climate-vegetation models suggest that excessive cerrado clearance could lead to the drying up and loss of rainforest in south Amazonia,’ thus write a group of professors of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, in response to the above-mentioned article in the Economist.

The water household of the whole continent depends on this region, where rivers like the Rio Sao Francisco spring, and major cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro risk to fall dry.


The energy profile of Brazil as drawn by Encyclopedia of Earth, says the following: ‘Brazil generated 380.9 Bkwh of hydroelectric power in 2004, or 83 percent of its total electricity supply for that year. Together with Paraguay, Brazil maintains the world’s largest operational hydroelectric complex, the Itaipu facility on the Parana River, with a capacity of 12.6 gigawatts (GW).’

Itaipu means ‘the sound of a stone’ in Guarani, the language of indigenous people. Guarani is also the name of the worlds’ largest underground water reservoir. It obtains its water from the cerrados, Wervel writes in April 2009.

Herewith the circle is drawn perfectly round: the water producing energy for Brazil and Paraguay is the same water the (big scale) farmers and ranchers need. Apart from environmental objections one can pose on building large hydroelectric power plants, the competition between electricity production and food production is a no-win game anyone can relate too.


The cerrados harbour, among others, 4.400 endemic plant species, ten sorts of endangered endemic birds, four threatened mammals. The Brazilian Cerrado is one of the worlds’ biodiversity hotspots. Conservation International, airing the site: Biodiversity hotspots, writes: ‘The Cerrado region of Brazil, comprising 21 percent of the country, is the most extensive woodland-savannah in South America. With a pronounced dry season, it supports a unique array of drought- and fire- adapted plant species and surprising numbers of endemic bird species. Large mammals such as the giant anteater, giant armadillo, jaguar and maned wolf also still survive here but are competing with the rapid expansion of Brazil’s agricultural frontier, which focuses primarily on soy and corn. Ranching is another major threat to the region, as it produces almost 40 million cattle a year.’

The World Wild Life fund states: ‘The Cerrado is one of the most threatened and over-exploited regions in Brazil, second only to the Atlantic Forests in vegetation loss and deforestation.
Unsustainable agricultural activities, particularly soy production and cattle ranching, as well as burning of vegetation for charcoal, continue to pose a major threat to the Cerrado’s biodiversity.’

As for the Brachiaria, the supergrass, cows don’t seem to like it. They eat it when nothing else is available. Plus the plant can be aggressive reproducing, leaving no space for other plants.

Not only foreign parties and international organisations meddle into Brazils’ home affairs. Inside the country views are changing as well. The Fórum Goiâno em Defesa do Cerrado raises its voice, in favour of a different, more sustainable and small scale development. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the UN-development programme UNDP support the Forum. The latter initiated programmes to protect biodiversity of the cerrados by local, community driven, sustainable exploit and fair trade.

Global & local

The Brazilians have made a successful effort on producing their own food and more, exporting to other countries, thus making profit. The Economist is right in that way: the cerrados’ turnaround is a miracle; it resulted in producing food and lifting a poor country. It is a tragedy at the same time. A tragedy that exceeds the Brazilian borders, threatening vital life support systems.

The dilemma is obvious: live (rather: eat) now and pay later. Or: stay poor and hungry and conserve for generations to come. Both sides are unacceptable.

Therefore the solution GEF, UNDP and the Forum Goiâno present, may be the best of both worlds: bottom up, small scale, sustainable development and fair trade.

Ecolutie, December 15, 2010

The above is a deleted scene from JES! Towards a Joint Effort Society.

Authors: Frank van Empel & Caro Sicking

ISBN: 978.94.90665.111

Publisher: Studio nonfiXe

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