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« Land and power in Brazil | Main | Everyone's land »

March 22, 2011

Challenges of Mato Grosso

IATP is leading a delegation of U.S. environmentalists, academics and corn/biofuel producers down to Brazil (you can read our reports here) to learn more about the intersection of agriculture, biofuels and land use.

On Sunday, we travelled to Cuiaba—a city of half a million in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Cuiaba is a gateway city between two critical biospheres in Mato Grosso: the Pantanal to the south, and savannahs of the middle and northeast. The savannahs are home to springs that feed into many rivers in Brazil, including the Amazon, which dips into the northwest part of Mato Grosso. Aside from its biodiversity, Mato Grosso is culturally diverse, home to 35 distinct Indigenous peoples. The region is also home to some of the largest agricultural expansion in Brazil. While most agricultural land is for cattle ranching, and increasing number of hectares are going towards soy production.

1300626460089 On a hot and extremely humid day, we met with representatives from FORMAD (Mato Grosso Environment and Development Forum), which includes representatives of human rights, environmental, indigenous rights and small-scale farmer organizations. FORMAD is developing alternative models to help reach social and environmental goals together.

Like many other parts of Brazil, the main disputes in Mato Grosso are over land. Pressure to increase expansion of soy, cattle and lumber production are overrunning the need to protect environmentally sensitive areas, as well as traditional lands for indigenous peoples, according to FORMAD. Currently, there are geographic boundaries that define what is private and indigenous land. But enforcement is weak, and big landowners are pushing to redraw the boundaries.  

FORMAD members discussed how the growth of soy and cattle ranching has drawn indigenous people away from their land; leaving behind traditions, culture and a greater diversity of agricultural production.  This trend stands to be a major loss for biodiversity, as the pointed to research showing that indigenous communities are the best stewards of these lands, even better at protecting natural areas than national parks and other government preserves. “In indigenous land, the protection of biodiversity is part of a cultural tradition to preserve nature. Indigenous people have an economic model that is based on nature. And sacred values based on protecting nature,” a FORMAD representative told us.

The changes in agricultural land in Mato Grosso have had a number of adverse effects, according to FORMAD. There has been a major loss of rural populations, with many migrating to the cities. Slave labor continues to be a problem: In 2009, 5,000 workers were saved from slave labor in Mato Grosso by Brazil’s Labor Department. Pesticide contamination is affecting health (found in breast milk) and water quality throughout the region. Many pesticides currently banned in the U.S. and EU are still being used here.

20110320_cuiaba12 FORMAD representatives were very interested in the reality of U.S. farming. Several of the Minnesota corn farmers with our group talked about the loss of family farmers in the U.S., the increasing absentee ownership of farmland, the push to increase value in what they produce (through ethanol), the migration of children in farm families to urban areas, and the growth of larger farms and loss of mid-sized farms.(Left, FORMAD members talk to our delegation)

Transportation holds the key to Mato Grosso’s future. Right now, agriculture products are transported almost exclusively by trucks, but there is a growing push to expand and improve railways and river navigation. FORMAD believes that transportation improvements designed largely for agribusiness will bring increasing pressure to expand agricultural land in Mato Grosso, and further damage to the region’s rich biological and cultural diversity.

Ben Lilliston

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