In Brazil: biofuels, family farms adn familiar pressures

A complex nexus of issues that we’ve heard about every day here in Brazil is the connection between cattle ranching, soy production, deforestation, family farmers and indigenous populations. Especially here in Mato Grosso, but also across most of Brazil, there are some simple connections between these:Image removed.

  • Cattle ranching and to a lesser extent soy production are the primary uses for land after it has been deforested
  • Family farmers (defined down here as roughly less than 1000 acres and owned and operated by a family that lives on the land) own a small amount of the land and produce even less of the farm income but employ many more people per acre
  • Family farmers cultivate more diverse crops and indigenous populations especially do a better job of protecting the biodiversity of the lands where those lands have been identified and marked for those populations

Beyond these simple points things get complicated. For instance, Brazil has very consciously decided to subsidize the establishment of a biodiesel industry. I have only just started learning about this program, but as I understand it now, there is a biodiesel mandate and also access to subsidies such as low cost loans and tax credits. But to access the subsidies and maybe even to access the mandate, there are requirements to use a minimum amount of feedstock from family farms, stay off recently cleared land, and (I’m less sure about this) not displace food crops.  I don’t know how the enforcement is done on these requirements, but as far as I can tell, the industry has in particular not come close to meeting the minimum levels of family farm input, but still there are some major unexpected consequences in the type of production coming from the family farms.Image removed.

Part of the theory of the family farmer requirement was that the biodiesel industry would draw on a range of different types of oils, but the reality is that the industry has consolidated almost entirely around soy oil (~80%) and animal fats (~20%). This means that the biodiesel policy has largely resulted in more family farmers being incented, induced, pressured, forced—pick your word—into producing soy. And producing a commodity such as soy means competing with the large industrial soy plantations. This squeezes the family farms and forces them to either adopt industrial practices or fail. In Mato Grosso, this process has impacted the indigenous populations and thus come at an extra high price in terms of biodiversity.

Of course, this only increases a broader trend in Brazil as the country has shifted agriculture towards a higher levels of production of a fewer set of commodity agricultural products. As the markets and infrastructure are established around these commodities, family farms have been forced to shift into these markets and adopt industrial practices.

This comes with obvious cost to biodiversity and rural cultures. But it has also vastly increased the yield per acre and allowed a level of economic development in Brazil where exports have gone up and food prices have gone down. Millions have come out of poverty, but the rich have become dramatically richer and the division and balance between rich and poor hasn’t improved in Brazil. Image removed.

Today here in Lucas do Rio Verde we met some small family farmers who are part of a group of 30 families each cultivating about two and half hectares. They work the land by hand and are trying to lift themselves out of poverty by selling local and organic produce. It was impossible not to admire them but foolish to romanticize their life. Image removed.

Their organic efforts are threatened by pesticides and herbicides applied by the industrial agriculture next door, but their children are going to schools made possible by an economy driven by that same agriculture. They don’t produce soy but they’re hoping to form a coop with other small farmers and be able to get access to machines and professional agricultural advisers. They want to make more money, which means increasing yields and production.

Sounds very familiar to all of us on the trip, especially the farmers.