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« Challenges of Mato Grosso | Main | World Water Day statement from the Water Justice Movement, March 22, 2011 »

March 23, 2011

Everyone's land

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.

Today we drove north five hours, from Cuiaba through soybean and cattle country, to a city that seems only possible in Brazil—Lucas do Rio Verde. The city was founded in 1988 and now is a bustling agribusiness town full of chemical and seed shops and farm equipment. As we drove into town many of the company signs were familiar to Minnesota farmers: Cargill, ADM, John Deere.

The town's population has grown from 19,000 in 2000 to 45,000 in 2010 thanks to agriculture. The giant meat processing plant takes chickens and pigs, fed by the large-scale soybean fields that surround the town (though we also saw a lot of corn). Forty percent of those soybeans go into the local biodiesel plant or animal feed for the poultry and hogs.

But the boom hasn't come without bumps in road, particularly related to land and environmental protection.

20110321_lucas43 Representatives from the Rural Workers Union told us how many small-scale farmers had difficulty getting access to land 10 years ago, and laborers faced terrible working conditions. But conditions have improved. Many who were previously landless now have land they have either rented or bought collectively (divided equally in two-hectare increments). They are on the verge of launching a coop that will include 500 farm families from 10 districts in the area, and hope to market a variety of foods—vegetables, milk, poultry, pork—produced by traditional ecological practices. Their goal is to meet the region's foods needs—somewhat surprising given the agricultural activity that surrounds the town. But similar to many U.S. rural farm areas, the large-scale production in Lucas Do Rio Verde is destined for elsewhere. Poultry to Arab states and the pork to Venezuela, a local government official told us. (Photo: trucks of soybeans heading out of town.)

Edu Laudi Pascoski, the Minister of Agriculture and Environment for the region, told us about the area's unique history when it comes to environmental protection. In the 1970s, the Brazilian government offered incentives to clear the land and turn it into farm fields. After massive deforestation, and under rising  international pressure to better protect the environment, the Brazilian government reversed itself. Farms in this region are required to leave 35 percent of the farm in forests or replant forests if they've alreay been cut (imagine such a law in the U.S.). And land along waterways is required to have a significant natural buffer from farmland.

Enforcement of these environmental requirements has been difficult, Pascoski told us. A farmer may buy forested land somewhere else in the country, just to cover his 35 percent requirement. This is difficult to verify. And, if a watered down revision of the country's Forest Code gets approved by the Brazilian government, the pressure to protect land won't be as strong.

20110321_lucas23 One result of Brazil's environmental requirements is that there can be no more agriculture land expansion in Lucas Do Rio Verde. But that doesn't mean production can't become more intensive and efficient. We were given slick marketing material (titled in English "Everybody's Land"). Pascoski mentioned that he had recently hosted 120 Americans visiting the region. He said U.S. and other foreign interests both rent and own existing land in the region. (Photo: A statue and biodiesel plant in front of our hotel.)

This optimistic town has another reason for optimism: A coming railway, which will reduce transportation costs and time. And send Lucas do Rio Verde's bounty to the rest of the world.

Ben Lilliston

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