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Sugarcane or food?
José Pedro Martins
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Society reacts to imposition of sugarcane in Amazonia and Pantanal.

Brazil´s expanding biofuel industry, particularly sugarcane ethanol production, has thrown the country into a raging international debate about what this expansion means. One of the strongest arguments against this is that land destined for food production is now being used to grow the sugarcane.

Various international bodies have warned about the risk this poses. Jean Ziegler, the former Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for the United Nations called biofuel production a “crime against humanity” for its impact on land used for food production.

Fragile ecosystems at risk
Recently, the debate on Brazilian biofuels has turned to the increasing risk it poses to fragile ecosystems such the Amazon or the sprawling Pantanal wetlands. The government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has repeatedly said that it will not accept the expansion of sugarcane production in these delicate areas.

During the last Group of 8 meeting in Japan last July, the president defended ethanol as a means to fight global warming, assuring attendees that expanded production will not cause deforestation the Amazon or in the Pantanal.

“The Pantanal will not become a sugarcane plantation,” said Environment Minister Carlos Minc in late August, responding to reports that the government was planning to authorize ethanol production in restricted areas of the Pantanal.  “On the contrary, the entire bio-mass of the Pantanal will be protected.”

Minc is the successor to Marina Silva, currently a senator, who during her time in the ministry harshly criticized monoculture, such as soy and sugarcane, in protected areas such as the Amazon and the Pantanal.

According to the National Supply Company, or CONAB, which is linked to the Agriculture Ministry, Brazil´s 2008 sugarcane production is estimated at 558 million tons, 11.4 percent more than the 501 million tons processed by the sugar-alcohol sector last year.

CONAB figures show that in the northern region, which includes the states of Rondônia, Amazonas, Pará y Tocantins, 1.4 million tons will be produced this year. In the mid-western region, 2008 production is estimated at 63.2 million tons, in areas still far from the Pantanal.

The expansion
Sugarcane production for 2008 in the so-called Legal Amazon region —including Mato Grosso, a major sugar cane producer —  is estimated at 15.6 million tons.

So sugarcane is already being produced in the Amazon and mid-western regions, despite the fact that production has been concentrated in the northern and south-center regions in recent years, above all in the states of Pernambuco, Alagoas and São Paulo, the top producer in Brazil.

“Environmentalists are very worried about the risks posed by the advance of sugarcane for the production of ethanol in the Amazon and the Pantanal, since these areas are very rich ecologically,” said Márcia Corrêa, president of the Species Diversity Protection Association. “We already know the effects of sugarcane monoculture on the environment, in terms of burning, water contamination and the disappearance of wildlife.”

Researchers have repeatedly said that Brazil, with its vast extensions of arable land, favorable climate and abundant water (the country has 12.5 percent of the world´s fresh water reserves), has excellent conditions to sustainably expand the production of sugarcane and ethanol, without the need to use natural reserves such as the Amazon forest and the Pantanal.

Evaristo Eduardo de Miranda, an ecologist and head of EMBRAPA Satellite Monitoring, a unit of the state-run Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (EMBRAPA), has followed the development of Brazil´s alcohol fuel production for years, and says that sugarcane ethanol can mean significant environmental gains, if it is produced in an ordered and sustainable manner. Sugarcane means the absorption of 40-50 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare, while annual crops and pastures absorb on average less than 5 tons of carbon per hectare.

“Brazil produces a lot of food. What is lacking is buying power, so it is fundamental to broaden income-generating and inequality-reducing social policies,” said Miranda, who does not believe that the expansion of sugar cane production, if done in a sustainable way, will cause a food crisis.

Farm zoning
One proposal that the Brazilian government is studying is farm zoning, which would prohibit the expansion of sugarcane from entering the 4.6 million square kilometer-area that includes the Amazon and part of the mid-western region, where the Pantanal is located. The plantations that already exist would continue, but new licenses would not be granted.

The research being considered shows that between 30 million and 40 million hectares, mostly used for grazing pasture, are technically and environmentally apt for sugarcane cultivation in the mid-western, southeastern and northeastern regions. The study was conducted by a group of researchers from EMBRAPA, the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute, State University of Campinas, the Geological Service of Brazil and the National Institute of Space Research.

Naturally, the prohibition of crops on a large area of the national territory is a political move that would require significant negotiations, and the public opinion is key.

The 2009 World Social Forum will be held in Brazil, for the first time in the Amazon, in the city of Belem. The risks posed by the indiscriminate advance of biofuel crop production will be one of the main themes of the forum, particularly the impact on the Amazon and water sources.
—Latinamerica Press.


Sugarcane expansion for ethanol threatens wetlands. (Photo: Claudyo Casares)
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