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Can Brazil Have Its Food and Its Forest Too?  May 20, 2017 – 09:10 am
Brazilian Food: Typical & Traditional Cuisine

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.


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