Sugarcane decree poses latest threat to Brazilian biodiversity

. Nov 26, 2019
sugarcane harvest mailson pignata Photo: Mailson Pignata

2019 has been a year to forget for Brazilian environmentalists. The dismantling of protection agencies, uptick in Amazon forest fires and freezing of indigenous land demarcations have created a conjuncture in which Brazil’s environment is at risk. The sitting government’s latest move—issuing a decree to allow the cultivation of sugarcane in the Amazon and Pantanal regions—has come as another setback to those fighting to protect Brazil’s biodiversity, as the expansion of the crop could have catastrophic effects on these protected areas.

The decision to greenlight sugarcane cultivation for the production of ethanol comes as a suspension of a previous “zoning” rule from 2009, which allowed the planting of sugarcane only in predetermined areas of degraded forests or pastures, outlawing any expansion to the Amazon rainforest, Pantanal, or any old-growth forests.

</p> <p>The government&#8217;s decision has been met with criticism and perplexity, principally as the total area of sugarcane plantations in Brazil takes up less than 20 percent of the <a href="">available permitted cultivation zone</a>.</p> <h2>Green fuel? Not quite</h2> <p>However, the major worry of environmentalists is the damage that loosening these restrictions may cause to Brazil&#8217;s primary forest areas. Despite ethanol being lauded as a &#8220;<a href=",124b50e72ca05ec0742797f71852543eh7s33ddn.html">green fuel</a>&#8220;—being typically high-octane and resulting in more balanced carbon dioxide emissions than fossil fuels—the cultivating of sugarcane in forest areas has devastating effects on local biodiversity and is set to encourage deforestation and illegal land-grabbing.</p> <p>&#8220;Studies have proven that the cultivation of sugarcane results in a reduction of bee populations,&#8221; says biologist Alcides Faria, director of environmental conservation NGO Ecoa. Speaking to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, he explained that the crops require the extensive use of pesticides, sprayed aerially which have been shown to be fatal to bees, the insects which are crucial to the balance of these ecosystems thanks to their pollination.</p> <p>The major issue of producing ethanol, meanwhile, is the risk of leaking vinasse—a viscous, dark acidic byproduct of sugarcane which has a pungent smell—into nearby bodies of water. &#8220;The vinasse is always being accumulated so it poses a risk of spillage,&#8221; explains Mr. Faria. In 2003, a leak into the Pardo river in São Paulo state killed 15 kilometers of the waterway and compromised the water supply of several nearby municipalities. &#8220;Ethanol producing plants are more careful nowadays, but the risk of vinasse leaking into rivers is always significant.&#8221;</p> <h2>Deforestation</h2> <p>Revoking the zoning decree for sugarcane does not mean that plantations will pop up all over the <a href="">Amazon rainforest</a> and Pantanal swamplands overnight. In fact, for the former, the properties of sugarcane crops mean that they would not thrive in primary forest. Mr. Faria explains that these plantations require rainy seasons and dry seasons, which is not the case in the Amazon. What is likely to happen, however, is that sugarcane crops and ethanol plants will begin appearing on the outskirts of these biomes, on soil currently being used for pasture or other plantations.&nbsp;</p> <p>The knock-on effect of this is the displacement of cattle-ranchers, who will move deeper into protected areas in order to create new pastures, deforesting as they go. &#8220;Wherever you have sugarcane, it takes the place of cattle. These farmers will sell their land and go off in search for more,&#8221; says the biologist. This would provide a further boost to the deforestation and land-grabbing markets, at a time when Brazil&#8217;s levels of forest destruction are already hitting 11-year highs.</p> <h2>A change of tune</h2> <p>In 2018, a proposal in the Brazilian Senate intended to repeal the zoning law, but it was met with huge resistance, even from the sugarcane industry itself. Now, one year on, the change has been implemented without any official backlash.</p> <p>Despite being in favor of zoning in the past, the Sugarcane Industry Union (UNICA) changed its leadership after the election of President Jair Bolsonaro and released a statement last week claiming that the environmental zoning of sugarcane cultivation was no longer necessary, ignoring all scientific evidence.</p> <p>UNICA head Evandro Gussi mentioned the federal government&#8217;s RenovaBio program as sufficient to mitigate any negative impacts of sugarcane cultivation. The initiative provides tax incentives for producing biofuels, but establishes strict rules with regard to deforestation. &#8220;If you deforest, you&#8217;re out of RenovaBio, because ethanol must be sustainable from start to finish,&#8221; he wrote. However, as Alcides Faria explained to <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> above, deforestation is rarely directly caused by sugarcane or ethanol plants, coming instead as a knock-on effect in other sectors, thus allowing for loopholes in the accession to the RenovaBio program.</p> <h2>A trade hit?</h2> <p>What set Brazil&#8217;s ethanol industry above the rest of the world was that besides being produced from sugarcane—resulting in a more efficient fuel than ethanol made from corn—the zoning law assured foreign importers that Brazil&#8217;s products were free from any major environmental impact, with no clear links to deforestation.</p> <p>Raoni Rajão, a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), explained that the zoning law &#8220;is a condition for the European Union to maintain its [import] quota of 850 million liters of ethanol from Mercosur,&#8221; the South American trade bloc of which Brazil is a member.</p> <p>There are even concerns that the scrapped law could put the <a href="">Mercosur-EU free-trade deal</a>—agreed this year after decades of negotiations—at risk, leading environmental pundits to call the government&#8217;s decision &#8220;irresponsible.&#8221;</p> <h2>Years of struggle, undone</h2> <p>The sugarcane zoning law was the result of a prolonged struggle from activists, which came to a head in the mid-2000s. Planting sugarcane in the Pantanal had been outlawed since 1982, when a Mato Grosso do Sul state law determined that no such crops could be cultivated within the biome.</p> <p>In 2005, however, in a bid to attract <a href="">ethanol plants</a> to the state, Mato Grosso do Sul&#8217;s then-production and tourism secretary, Dagoberto Nogueira, attempted to overturn the prohibition, in a push supported by then-state Governor Zeca do PT, of President Lula&#8217;s center-left Workers&#8217; Party.</p> <p>The conflict between the state government and environmentalists came to a head in 2007, after the death of 65-year-old activist Francisco Anselmo de Barros, better known as Francelmo. During a protest in the city of Campo Grande, he purposefully set himself on fire and did not survive his burns.</p> <p>Francelmo&#8217;s death drew the awareness of Environment Minister Marina Silva, who clashed with her party colleague Zeca do PT and laid the groundwork for the 2009 zoning law, brought into force after Ms. Silva had resigned from the cabinet and left the Workers&#8217; Party, claiming she was being isolated by the Lula government for her environmentalist stances.</p> <p>Ecoa director Alcides Filho, when asked by <strong>The Brazilian Report </strong>about Francelmo&#8217;s legacy, was unable to hide his emotion. &#8220;He was a very close friend of mine, we were often by each other&#8217;s side.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;When Zeca do PT submitted the proposal [to overturn the prohibition], Francelmo thought that that would be the end, so he decided to give his own life for the cause. It took me a long time to process his death, it&#8217;s still difficult for me to talk about it.&#8221;

Read the full story NOW!

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at