Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. The Brazilian Dilemma: Expansion: The Risks and Costs

Brazil has embarked on a massive expansion of its cropland area. Unlike the land planted to grain, which has changed little over the last three decades, staying at around 20 million hectares a year, the area in soybeans exploded from 1 million hectares in 1970 to 24 million hectares in 2004. Half of this growth came after 1996, most of it in the cerrado, with the remainder in the Amazon basin. 37

But is this expansion sustainable? As noted earlier, the last massive cropland expansion anywhere in the world was the Soviet Union’s Virgin Lands Project during 1954–60. Within a matter of years, the Soviets had plowed an area of grassland for wheat production that was larger than the wheatlands of Canada and Australia combined. Although it boosted production initially, this plan soon turned into an ecological disaster. 38

Not long after the expansion, which was centered in Kazakhstan, a huge dust bowl began to form. Not only has half the land now been abandoned, but the wheat yield on the remaining land is scarcely 1 ton per hectare—one sixth the yield in Western Europe. 39

Many ecologists are concerned about soil erosion in the cerrado if this region is cleared of vegetation on the scale that now seems likely. In the state of Mato Grosso there is already evidence of damaging wind erosion. To the west, across the border in Bolivia, soil erosion is undermining land productivity in an area near Santa Cruz that pioneered growing soybeans beginning in 1970. 40

One advantage that the cerrado has over the land cleared in the Soviet Union is that rainfall is much heavier, typically 39–75 inches a year. This helps explain why the yield per hectare of Brazil’s soybeans, grown largely in the cerrado, has eclipsed that of the United States, the traditional leader. 41

While the clearing of the cerrado is largely soybean-driven, that of the Amazon is much more cattle-driven. Nevertheless, it is the vast worldwide market for soybeans that is financing the transport infrastructure in Brazil’s interior, both within the cerrado and into the neighboring Amazon. This is what makes the Amazon accessible to small farmers, commercial farmers, and cattle ranchers. Phillip Fearnside, a leading authority on environmental issues in Brazil says, “Soybeans are much more damaging than other crops, because they justify massive transportation infrastructure projects that unleash a chain of events leading to the destruction of natural habitats over wide areas in addition to what is directly cultivated for soybeans.” 42

Beyond this, the commercial strength of soybean production also enables growers to buy land that already has been cleared by cattle ranchers and by small farmers located either near or in the Amazon, which drives the sellers further into the Amazon in their quest for cheaper land. Thus while the soybean is an unrivaled source of protein in a protein-hungry world, it is also a powerful new threat to the biological diversity of Brazil. 43

Unfortunately, the Brazilian government itself is working to open the Amazon to development. The principal umbrella for this, a program known as Avança Brasil (Advance Brazil), is intended to open up areas to industrial, agricultural, logging, and mining activities in a way that will accelerate development of the Brazilian economy. A recent article in Science reports, “Investment totaling about $40 billion over the years 2000–2007 will be used for new highways, railroads, gas lines, hydroelectric projects, power lines, and river channelization projects. The Amazonian road network is being greatly expanded and upgraded, with many unpaved sections being converted to paved, all weather highways.” 44

The devaluation of the reál and the progressive eradication of foot-and-mouth disease together have raised the price of beef and the profitability of cattle ranching in the Amazon. It is accelerating expansion “of the region’s road and electricity network and large investments in modern slaughterhouses and meat-packing and dairy plants,” according to the Center for International Forestry Research. The center further notes, “Very low land prices in the Amazon also help to make ranching profitable. These prices remain very low in part because farmers find it easy to illegally occupy government land without being prosecuted, and to deforest areas much larger than the 20 percent of each landholding currently permitted by law.” 45

As roads are cut through the Amazon, pulling settlers, loggers, and ranchers further into the region, the forest is becoming increasingly fragmented. Once the rainforest canopy is disrupted, the incoming sunlight dries out the land, leaving the understory vegetation vulnerable to fire. As a result, fires that are intentionally set to clear land sometimes burn out of control, making the forest more vulnerable to fires caused by lightning. A healthy rainforest does not burn simply because it is too wet, but once the forest is fragmented, it dries out and loses this natural defense.

One of the principal manifestations of this vulnerability is the growing number of forest fires now systematically recorded by satellites. The fire season in the Amazon, now an annual occurrence, has become an identifiable phenomenon only in the last few decades. 46

In addition to the soil erosion and degradation associated with the loss of forest cover, there is a risk that the forest clearing could jeopardize the recycling of rainfall inland. The traditional agricultural region in the Brazilian south, not to mention in neighboring Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and northern Argentina, is watered by moisture-laden air masses from the Atlantic that move westward across the Amazon and then flow south as they approach the Andes. 47

As land is cleared of vegetation for either farming or cattle ranching, its capacity to recycle rainfall inland is reduced. Some 20 years ago, Brazilian scientists Eneas Salati and Peter Vose published a landmark article in Science analyzing the effect of deforestation on rainfall recycling in the Amazon. They noted that when rain from the moisture-laden air masses that originated over the Atlantic fell on healthy rainforest, about one fourth ran off, returning to the Atlantic Ocean, and three fourths evaporated into the atmosphere either directly or through transpiration and was then carried further inland to again come down as rainfall. This explains how rainforests get their name. It also explains why rainfall is heavy throughout the Amazon basin and south of it, in the cerrado, as well. 48

By contrast, Salati and Vose showed that when rain falls on land that is cleared for grazing or cropping, the runoff/evaporation ratio is reversed as roughly three fourths of it runs off, returning to the sea, leaving only one fourth to evaporate and be carried further inland. Thus the loss of at least 2 million hectares of Amazonian forest a year is slowly weakening the water recycling mechanism that brings water to the agricultural regions of south-central Brazil. 49

Another cost, not only for Brazil but for the world, of clearing vast areas of the Amazon rainforest and the cerrado to produce corn and soybeans and to graze cattle is the loss of plant and animal species. The Amazonian rainforest is one of the most biologically rich regions in the world. Although there are mechanisms in place that are designed to protect this diversity, such as the requirement that landowners clear no more than one fifth of their land, the government lacks the capacity to enforce this. 50

The cerrado is also biologically rich, with thousands of endemic plant and animal species. It contains many large mammals, including the maned wolf, giant armadillo, giant anteater, deer, and several large cats—jaguar, puma, ocelot, and jaguarundi. The cerrado contains 837 species of birds, including the rhea, a cousin of the ostrich, which grows six feet tall. More than 1,000 species of butterflies have been identified. Conservation International reports that the cerrado also contains some 10,000 plant species—at least 4,400 of which are not found anywhere else. 51

On March 15, 2004, President Lula da Silva announced an “action plan to prevent and control deforestation in the Legal Amazon.” This plan allocates $135 million to a range of activities, including land use planning and greater enforcement of laws concerning both the illegal occupation of government lands and their deforestation. It also commits resources to monitor deforestation using satellite images. Notwithstanding this and other similar initiatives in the past, the forces that are driving the growing world demand for soybeans and beef, which in turn are driving the deforestation, continue to gain momentum. 52

According to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, just over 2.5 million hectares of the forest in the Amazon disappeared in 2002. If anything, that number is likely to increase when the data for 2003 become available. From 1990 to 2000, cumulative deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased from 42 million hectares to 59 million, an average of 1.7 million hectares per year. The area of Amazonian forest lost over the decade was equal to two Portugals. 53

A recent article in Science summed up the situation: “Conserving Amazonian forests will not be easy. If the world expects Brazil to follow a development path that differs from its current one, and from a path that most developed nations have followed in the past, then substantial costs will be involved. The investment, however, would surely be worth it. At stake is the fate of the greatest tropical rainforest on earth.” 54

If there is no coordinated effort for developing Brazil’s interior, including both the cerrado and the Amazon, that integrates economic and environmental goals, many species will be threatened and countless numbers of them will likely disappear. This could lead to the greatest single loss of plant and animal species in history, biologically impoverishing not only Brazil but the planet on a scale that we cannot easily imagine.


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