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AGRICULTURE-BRAZIL: Green Revolution on the Savannah

Mario Osava

RÍO VERDE, Brazil, Sep 20 2007 (IPS) - Joao Venancio Soares is a living example of the prosperity of this town in west-central Brazil and the process that turned this country into an agricultural powerhouse over the last three decades.

Perdigao agribusiness complex. Credit: Rio Verde city government.

Perdigao agribusiness complex. Credit: Rio Verde city government.

Río Verde, a farming town in the state of Goiás, is one of the areas that has been the most successful in developing high-productivity agriculture in the surrounding Cerrado region, a vast tropical savannah or grassland that covers approximately 23 percent of Brazil’s surface area in the central part of the country.

The low-fertility soil of the Cerrado, which was previously disregarded, is now the scene of Brazil’s greatest agribusiness expansion, which has had an environmental impact that has drawn little attention.

When Soares, an agronomist trained at a university in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, arrived in Río Verde in 1974, rice was the main local crop, with harvests of 740 kg per hectare. Today, yields reach 2,500 kg per hectare. The productivity of corn has also risen more than threefold in the area’s richest soils.

But it was soy, introduced according to Soares by a group of Mennonite immigrants from the United States, that played the greatest role in transforming the economy of the Cerrado region, eventually becoming the main farm product of Río Verde as well as the country’s leading agricultural export product since the 1990s.

A number of Mennonites, a Protestant religious group descended from the 16th century Anabaptists, came to Río Verde in 1969, drawn by low land prices. Today they form a community of around 50 families in the area.


The immigrants initially rejected Soares’ recommendation to rotate soy bean and corn crops to boost productivity, the agronomist recalled.

They argued that "corn only grows on fertile land," he said. But one farmer finally decided to take his advice, obtaining record harvests in the region, and others quickly followed suit.

"Soybeans modify the chemistry and fertility of the soil," adding nitrogen from the air and organic matter, explained Soares, as he described his first triumph in promoting local agricultural development. With modern technology, many problems are remedied with the use of fertilisers and pesticides, he said.

The 61-year-old dark-skinned agronomist, who is just over 1.50 metres tall, dismissed environmentalists’ criticism of the so-called "green revolution", and rejected the concept of "agrotoxics."

When used correctly, he argued, fertilisers and pesticides protect agriculture and provide benefits, not damages. "It&#39s like medicines: they are necessary, but if used in excess, they become poisons, and nobody calls them ‘toxic’," he said.

Moreover, the municipality of Río Verde did not yield to the monoculture model, but instead diversified production, growing soy beans, corn, sorghum, cotton, rice, beans and fresh produce.

The municipality has also tried to curb the invasion of sugar cane, which is already making headway in neighbouring districts, by means of a statute that limits cultivation of the crop to no more than 10 percent of the local farmland, in order to prevent the environmental and social damages that it can entail, said Soares, who is today a technical adviser to the Secretariat of Agriculture and the Environment, which he headed in 2000.

(Brazil’s fuel alcohol programme depends heavily on sugar cane, and more than 30 percent of the country’s automobile fuels currently come from sugar cane-based ethanol).

Soy first began to be planted in southern Brazil, where summer temperatures are milder. Its expansion northwards and increased productivity were made possible by the development of varieties of soy beans adapted to the tropical heat and low humidity of the Cerrado region.

Essential to that process was the research carried out by the Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA), the government agricultural research institute, and the work of agronomists who, like Soares, brought innovations and agricultural know-how directly to the farmers.

Thus Brazil, historically a major exporter of only coffee and sugar, diversified production and became a world leader in sales of soy, beef and orange juice as well.

Grain output doubled in just one decade, as the agricultural frontier expanded, and today the farm industry accounts for around 90 percent of the country’s trade surplus of more than 40 billion dollars a year.

The Cerrado region was traditionally relegated to extensive livestock breeding. But in the last few decades it was discovered that by using the latest technology and large amounts of fertiliser, it was suitable for crops, especially soy beans, as well as sugar cane, coffee and grains.

Soares did acknowledge the problem of large-scale deforestation and said the Cerrado ecosystem’s enormous biodiversity had been largely sacrificed. For example, farmers have had to use lime to "correct" the acidity of the soil, which is essential for many native fruits, that have subsequently disappeared from vast areas, he admitted.

One "sin" that he confessed to committing, "following a misguided government policy," was draining swamps to turn them into farmland. In consequence, the streams that depended on these wetlands dried up, he lamented. Now environmental authorities are demanding that landowners restore wetlands on their property.

The prosperity of Río Verde was not only built on modern agricultural techniques. Another point of pride for Soares is that he helped contribute to the creation of the Cooperative of Rural Producers of Southwest Goiás (COMIGO), which was founded in 1975 by 50 members and today has more than 3,800.

The cooperative’s enormous agribusiness complex, which includes plants that produce soy bean oil, fertilisers, milk, soap and seeds, as well as stores and other businesses that operate in several municipalities in the region, employs some 1,300 people.

COMIGO is one of the engines of the economy of southwest Goiás, along with a foreign soy bean oil company and a chicken and pork processor that opened in Río Verde in 1997 and employs 7,600 people, besides purchasing the production of hundreds of local poultry and pork farms.

But the huge increase in pork and poultry production has also generated environmental problems, caused by animal and chemical waste. Since the area’s sandy clay soil is capable of holding little waste, the runoff ends up polluting water sources.

One solution, Soares said, would be to use the waste to produce biogas and biodiesel.

The agribusiness companies also ensure local demand for diversified production and support a large number of small industries and services.

And technical assistance for farmers is no longer a problem, because today the municipality has 400 agronomists, compared to the four that Soares initially trained after moving to Río Verde 33 years ago.

 
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