“A house built with palm oil, açaí, chickens, and flour.” This is how Raimundo Moreira Vulcão, a small farmer from northeastern Pará, proudly describes his new home.
Referring to the two-story building, now almost complete, and his 25-hectare farm, he explains: “I maintained subsistence farming for 14 years. We always had food on the table, but oil palm allowed us to grow. ”
Vulcão has maintained subsistence agriculture since he was a child, but in 2012 the 55-year-old farmer realized that it was possible to increase family income without having to cut down the forest around his farm, but rather by diversifying crops while protecting biodiversity.
He started growing oil palm on the already deforested part of his property, spurred by the introduction of palm oil cultivation in the region.
In Brazil, along with soybeans, palm oil has become one of the most controversial and rapidly expanding crops in recent decades, due to its industrial use – it is currently the most consumed vegetable oil in the world.
From Indonesia to Peru, the proliferation of oil palm plantations is causing deforestation and land conflicts.
In Brazil, a country that covers 64% of the Amazon, palm oil production is the subject of environmental debate, but it also represents an alternative for an economically disadvantaged rural population and a way to reforest former pastures – although some critics question whether the plantations of trees should, in fact, be counted as “forest”.
Today, Volcão serves as an example, chosen from among hundreds of small Brazilian farmers involved in the Rurality Project, to demonstrate how commercial agriculture can coexist with the conservation of the Amazon rainforest.
The Rurality Project is a program created by the Earthworm Foundation, a global non-profit organization that helps companies build sustainable commodity chains, strengthening the relationship between farmers and buyers, improving the social conditions of local people and protecting the environment.
Refuting a long-standing fallacy
A decades-old argument – used frequently by Brazil’s influential rural elite – is that conserving forests and protecting indigenous lands impede the country’s agricultural development and economic progress.
The scarcity of new land and pastures is supposed to prevent small farmers and large agricultural enterprises from expanding rapidly in the Amazon, Cerrado, and other biomes – putting Brazil’s food security and the country’s economy at risk.
It is said that developing countries, such as Brazil, cannot afford this luxury.
This belief helped justify the rapid increase in deforestation rates in the Amazon until 2004, the year in which 27,000 square kilometers were deforested. Stricter public policies and enforcement, along with the Amazon Soy Moratorium, significantly reduced deforestation after 2004.
However, under the governments of Michel Temer and now Jair Bolsonaro, an abrupt shift towards environmental deregulation has caused deforestation rates to rise again.
Bolsonaro and his ministers of Agriculture and the Environment have approved old anti-environmental policies, such as the legalization of the leasing of indigenous lands by agribusiness, through the old opposition between forest conservation and agricultural progress.
But recent studies show that the old assumption is wrong. Brazil currently has enough degraded land to support a major agricultural and economic boom,
without the need for new deforestation in the Amazon – provided that it is used in accordance with scientific research on sustainable management and production.
Likewise, organizations like the Earthworm Foundation anmd individuals like Raimundo Moreira Vulcão demonstrate on a daily basmongais that initiatives to protect Brazilian forests can also help increase agricultural productivity on already degraded lands, denying the old fallacy and the supposed link between deforestation and economic growth.
The key to curbing deforestation
“A study we carried out in 2014 with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) shows that Brazil can reconcile the greatest agricultural expansion ever experienced in the world, projected for the coming decades by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with zero deforestation and the restoration of more than 36 million hectares of native vegetation.
The key to this is better use of the [already] deforested areas,” says Bernardo Strassburg, executive director of the International Institute for Sustainability (IIS), an organization based in Rio de Janeiro.
Today, cattle ranching is responsible for most of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. But the country already has 200 million hectares of deforested and degraded land, three quarters of which are used as pasture, the majority with low productivity. This underutilized pasture could be made available for expanding cropland now and in the near future.
The team of researchers led by Strassburg calculated that Brazil could meet future demand for soy, beef and biofuels without deforestation if the productivity of existing pasture areas increased from its current average of around 33% of its potential to just 50%.
“By increasing productivity, you can free up millions of hectares to expand other crops, such as soy, sugarcane and other commodities produced in Brazil, in addition to freeing up millions of hectares for the recovery of native vegetation”, explains Strassburg.
The executive director of IIS also believes that other measures could be put in place to achieve even higher productivity, helping to achieve the goal of zero deforestation.
Among them, land zoning (when areas to be conserved are separated from those suitable for cultivation), government subsidies (subject to strict conditions, in which funding is rescinded if the farmer fails to comply with the environmental rules governing the concession ) and the recognition of those who use highly productive agricultural techniques without damaging the environment, through rewards such as their inclusion in a sustainable global commodity chain.
Environmental problems of palm oil cultivation in Brazil
Oil palm cultivation in Brazil has had advantages and disadvantages: while it has improved the lives of Vulcão and other small farmers, it has also brought environmental risks.
Hundreds of producers like Vulcão saw the opportunity to make good use of the degraded land on their properties when former President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva decided to encourage the expansion of oil palm cultivation in Brazil, with the intention of creating a center for the production of biofuels. no stop.
Aiming at this objective, Lula launched the Federal Program for the Sustainable Production of Palm Oil (PSOP) and encouraged large public companies – such as the mining company Vale and the oil company Petrobras – to operate in deforested regions, so that the cultivation of palm oil, which at the time reached modest production rates, could establish itself.
The idea was to encourage new palm producers not to deforest primary or secondary forests in the Legal Amazon, but to use land that has already been deforested – which the region has in large quantities.
Almost a decade after the start of the project, the country has yet to become a major player in palm oil production – it currently accounts for less than 1% of global production. But the crop achieved significant growth.
The total cultivated area was just 50,000 hectares in 2010. Today, the total has increased to 236,000 hectares, 85% of which are in Pará.
According to a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters , which evaluated palm cultivation and the consequent deforestation between 2006 and 2014 in an area equivalent to 50,000 square kilometers in Pará, the environmental protection initiatives carried out by the Federal Government achieved positive results.
While poorly regulated palm oil production was one of the main causes of deforestation in Southeast Asia and Africa, the results of the study on Brazil showed that 90% of the expansion of palm oil production in the period analyzed took place in former pasture areas or on degraded lands, not in forested areas.
However, this expansion, although subject to strict regulation, also left a negative footprint, which was demonstrated by research carried out in the community of São Luís do Caripi, in the municipality of Igarapé-Açu, in Pará.
Sociologist Luiz Cláudio Melo Júnior, a doctor at the Center for Sustainable Development at the University of Brasília, identified negative impacts of oil palm plantations in the region.
“The introduction and growing development of this crop had an impact on the environment and on local socioeconomic relations, such as soil degradation, concentration of land among a few owners, emigration of traditional family farmers and attraction of rural entrepreneurs, whose attitude differs from that of small farmers. farmers who settled in the region at the beginning of the 20th century”, observes Melo Júnior.
In 2015, a Reporter Brasil report released a survey carried out the previous year by the Instituto Evandro Chagas (IEC), an NGO from Pará.
The IEC evaluated bodies of water in an area of 840 square kilometers belonging to the Baixo microregion, where palm oil is produced in the state of Tocantins.
The results indicate that 14 of the 18 water samples collected were polluted with pesticides used in palm production and with cyanobacteria. Oil palm cultivation, as currently practiced, uses large amounts of pesticides.
“The biggest challenge is controlling the use of pesticides, which can contaminate both the soil and bodies of water.
The use of agrochemicals by family farming requires greater attention to education and support for this activity”, explains João Meirelles, a reference in Amazonian studies, writer and founder of the NGO Instituto Peabiru.
Biopalma: large producer investigated for socio-environmental damage
Currently, seven large Brazilian companies account for 90% of all palm oil production in the Legal Amazon. They plant palm trees directly on their land and buy palm oil from small farmers, to whom they provide seedlings, fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs for the soil, in addition to technical assistance.
Large companies benefit from tax exemptions when they buy at least 15% of the oil palm used in the production of vegetable oils and fats from family farmers.
This incentive resulted in the inclusion of oil palm in the diversification of crops on hundreds of family properties, which thus increased their income. Approximately 20% of all Brazilian palm oil is produced by these small farmers.
One of these large palm oil companies is Biopalma, a national company created in 2007 that today is a subsidiary of Vale and has an extensive record of conflicts with local communities.
One of them occurred when the Tembé (an indigenous group living in the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Land in Tomé-Açu, in northeastern Pará) sought legal assistance – compensation and impact mitigation – for the damage possibly caused by Biopalma’s activities in the Amazon. in 2012.
Federal prosecutors stated that there was evidence of meetings between the indigenous people and the company, in which the native population complained about pesticide contamination, which caused the death of animals and diseases.
Biopalma was also recently implicated in human rights violations when a former employee sued the company for illegal labor practices. The plaintiff argued that he was forced to work “rain or shine” from 6 am to 6 pm, with only a 15-minute break for lunch and no drinking water.
Biopalma received a small fine from the government, but its operations in Pará continue to function normally.
“In certain ‘frontier’ locations and regions, working conditions are extremely degrading, with high turnover rates and few possibilities [for workers] to climb the hierarchy,” explains André Cutrim Carvalho, professor of the Graduate Program in Management of Natural Resources and Local Development.
in the Amazon (PPGEDAM), from the Federal University of Pará. “Border regions often embody the culture of breaking the law in an organized and democratic civil society.
Under these conditions, despite its socioeconomic relevance, palm oil production on an industrial scale inevitably burdens the environment.”
The example of the Rurality Project
Seeking to reduce the negative impacts of the past – and also in response to international pressure to adopt sustainable agriculture – large companies are investing in initiatives such as the Rurality Project, in order to better integrate small farmers into the palm oil production chain.
This program was introduced in Brazil when Cargill and Nestlé, two of Biopalma’s most important buyers, became members of the Earthworm Foundation and began investing in new sustainable agricultural strategies.
“We are working on a 100% transparent, traceable and sustainable palm oil production chain, scheduled for 2020. This means creating a production chain without deforestation in areas of High Conservation Value (HCV) or High Carbon Stock (HCS) ,
in its acronym in English) without developing peatlands or exploiting the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities,” says Márcio Barela, sustainability coordinator at Cargill.
The idea of being part of a global production chain never crossed Sheila Oliveira da Silva’s mind until 2014, when she decided to start planting oil palms on her small property in Pará.
Similar to Raimundo M. Vulcão, Sheila, mother of 11 children and grandmother of 42 grandchildren, was encouraged to diversify and plant cash crops when Biopalma arrived in her region.
During the first years of production, the farmer was not sure which strategies were suitable for introducing the new crop to her property.
But once invited to participate in the Earthworm Program, she began to feel empowered by the central role she could play in the sustainability of the palm oil supply chain.
“Companies and small farmers do not use chemical products in their plantations, and the areas used for palm oil had already been deforested and were suitable for this crop, according to Embrapa’s Agroecological Zoning.
In the training we offer [to small farmers], we work on these issues both from the point of view of conservation and health and safety,” explains Julia Faro, project manager at the Earthworm Foundation.
“I feel that this is bringing advantages to us and to Brazil. If I had more land, I would plant more palm oil”, says Sheila Oliveira da Silva.
The fundamental role of environmental regulation
“Although initiatives such as the Rurality Project have had some success in promoting sustainable agriculture in Brazil, actions of this type need to be combined with the strict application of environmental laws”, says Erasmus zu Ermgassen, a researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, author of a study carried out in partnership with Trase – an initiative organized by Global Canopy, the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and other NGOs aimed at transparency in production chains around the world.
According to this study , recently published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics by Ermgassen together with Nicolas Koch (MCC Institute, Berlin) and Francisco Oliveira (former director of the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon), a good Government policy need not oppose agriculture and the environment.
It is possible to simultaneously reduce deforestation and increase agricultural production.
The research evaluated the List of Priority Municipalities , a Federal Government action launched in 2008 that aims to identify, inspect, and fine municipalities that have high rates of deforestation.
While previous studies have unsurprisingly shown that strict enforcement helps reduce native forest clearing, this study focused on the effect of the policy on agriculture.
“Contrary to claims that forest conservation hurts agriculture, we found that the policy helped cut deforestation in half and boosted livestock production,” reports Ermgassen.
By far the most impressive results of tighter regulation and control have been seen in beef production, with a 14% to 36% increase in stocking rate (number of cattle per hectare of pasture).
“We believe that discouraging deforestation by speculation made farmers think twice before deforesting new areas. Instead of expanding production by cutting down forests as before, farmers have started to intensify production, increasing cattle stocking rates,” says Ermgassen.
This evidence indicates that it is not cattle production that directly drives deforestation, but disorderly land speculation.
Brazilian rural elites make huge profits by cutting down the Amazon rainforest (often illegally) with the intention of selling the “improved” land to ranchers, already with added value. These actions have a strong impact on the deforestation chain.
The new government, new challenges
While scientific findings show that forest protection efforts can promote a more sustainable and profitable agricultural sector in Brazil, they also suggest that recent initiatives by the Jair Bolsonaro government to undermine Ibama and Funai may finally backfire and hit Brazilian agriculture.
According to analysts, the new policies of the Bolsonaro government seem to be aimed at encouraging increased land speculation, along with low-investment, low-yield forms of agriculture, where deforestation rates are rising and productive land use remains inefficient.
The current government’s policies are cause for concern, says Gerd Sparovek, professor at the “Luiz de Queiroz” School of Agriculture (Esalq), at the University of São Paulo, and president of the São Paulo Forestry Foundation.
“There are two ways to increase the volume of [agricultural] production: increasing production efficiency through productivity gains or expanding cultivated land by deforesting natural areas, and in Brazil, we have historically done both at the same time.”
Sparovek worries that the government’s actions, especially its attempts to loosen laws, but also a narrative that pits agriculture and conservation as adversaries, herald “a significant weakening of important measures that have reduced deforestation in the past”.
If this trend continues and becomes reality, we could once again experience high rates of deforestation, leading to huge losses to the environment – and agricultural production as well.”