Bolsonaro’s plan to undermine the environment ministry would backfire on Brazil’s food production

by Dr Erasmus zu Ermgassen and Tiago Reis | Université Catholique de Louvain
Friday, 26 October 2018 09:30 GMT

Agents of the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, or Ibama, supported by military police, make a survey in the Amazon forest during an operation to combat illegal mining and logging, in the municipality of Novo Progresso, Para State, northern Brazil, November 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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Enforcing Brazil’s forest protection law has boosted productivity and competitiveness of agriculture, but has angered some large landowners and farmers in Brazil’s congress

Erasmus zu Ermgassen is a post-doctoral researcher in sustainable supply chains at the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium.

Tiago worked for almost four years at a Brazilian science-based NGO to promote the conservation of the Amazon and Cerrado. Now he is a PhD candidate in land use sciences at UCLouvain, Belgium.

A group gathers in front of a hotel, watching a three-car bonfire. At 10 PM last Saturday, in the town of Buritis deep in the Brazilian Amazon, the suspects unloaded a canister of gasoline onto three vehicles, and set them ablaze. The target? The enforcement arm of the Brazilian environmental policy, IBAMA. The vehicles, stamped with the IBAMA logo, had carried a team of officers into town as part of an anti-deforestation drive. This attack is not unprecedented - last year, eight IBAMA vans were attacked in another Amazon state, Para - but it is part of a new wave of anti-environmental sentiment, coming right from the top.

Brazil’s front-runner for president, Jair Bolsonaro, has argued that IBAMA, which enforces Brazil’s forest protection law and hands out fines to farmers who clear more forest than is legally permitted, is promoting an “industry of fines”. He threatens to gut the entire ministry, merging it with agriculture. His hard-line stance has won him many supporters amongst the Bancada Ruralista, a coalition of large landowners and farmers in Brazil’s congress who claim that Brazil’s environmental protections are holding back development - so far, more than 200 congressman have pledged their support.

This move has environmental groups up in arms - they see it as part of an effort to dismantle Brazil’s protected areas, downgrade environmental legislation, and withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. What many in congress don’t appreciate is how dissolving the environment ministry could also backfire on Brazilian farmers.

Since the 1980s, Brazil has seen rapid agricultural expansion, as vast areas of forests and savannas were cleared to make way for cattle ranching and crop production. While allowing millions of families to make a living from the land, this expansion, covering an area more than twice the size of Germany, has also left a legacy of inefficient farming and land use - two thirds of that land is low-productivity cattle pasture, where farmers make a marginal living. In recent years, however, Brazilian agriculture started a transition to a more productive model. In parallel, the environment ministry clamped down on forest clearance and helped halve the deforestation rate in the Amazon.

IBAMA’s actions were pivotal in this transition, boosting the productivity and competitiveness of agriculture, by making farmers think twice about clearing new land. Instead of expanding production by clearing forests as before, farmers started to intensify, increasing cattle stocking rates and adopting double-cropping systems where two crops (typically soy and maize) are planted on the same fields in the same season. The benefits for Brazil’s food production could be long-lasting. If Brazil enforces its own forest protection laws, it can expect a more than 50% increase in the productivity of cattle ranching over the coming decades. However, without a strong signal that forests are protected, we believe that marginal farming practices and illegal deforestation will persist.

Maintaining Brazil’s forests and savannas would not only boost the productivity of agriculture - it is also required to cement Brazil as an international leader in commodity production, and ensure market access for its agricultural goods. Brazil has recently overtaken the USA as the world’s largest soy exporter, and sits second among beef exporters. The norms of these markets are, however, shifting. There has been a proliferation of zero deforestation commitments by governments, brands and traders, with many major markets for Brazilian goods - including the Chinese meat industry - now publicly committed to eliminating deforestation. Disbanding the environment ministry would be seen as a step backwards and hurt consumer perceptions of Brazil’s agricultural industry, according to Eumar Novacki, the country’s deputy agriculture minister.

Scrutiny of commodity production will only get stronger. New tools, like Trase and Global Forest Watch, have recently emerged providing unprecedented insight into the deforestation driven by commodity production. These tools allow companies and governments to quantify the deforestation linked to agricultural commodities (almost one third of all global deforestation over the last 15 years), and assess the risk that deforestation is occurring in their supply chains. While in the past international supply chains were murky and deforestation and environmental infringements were hidden, markets will now be able to discern whether Brazil’s commodities help them meet their commitments or are linked to land degradation.

Back in Buritis, one suspect has been arrested, with a second attack on IBAMA’s team thwarted by local police. The political attack on IBAMA is, however, only picking up pace. If and when Jair Bolsonaro is elected to the presidency, disbanding the environment ministry would legitimise illegal deforestation and be cheered on by some parts of the rural lobby. Ultimately, however, the victim will not only be Brazil’s environment, but also food production and farmers.