Brazil Land Utilization

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the world needs to double food production by 2050 in order to feed the expected 9 billion inhabitants on the planet by the middle of this century. With available agricultural land, abundant water, a favorable climate, tropical agricultural technology, and an advanced agricultural sector, Brazil is poised to become the principal agricultural exporter in the world maybe as soon as 2020.

During the 2009-10 growing season, Brazil is expected to harvest a combined 138 million tons of grain, which represents about 6% of the world's total estimated grain production of 2.2 billion tons. Brazil's agricultural production is already quite diverse and there is still ample room to grow. Brazil is the world's second largest producer of soybeans, third in corn, first in coffee, first in sugar, first in orange juice, first in ethanol and first in a number of meats and fruits. The ex Minister of Agriculture, Roberto Rodrigues, feels Brazil could surpass 300 million tons of grain production within ten years. Whether it becomes the world's leading agricultural producer by the year 2020 or a decade later is not the point, the fact that it will reach that lofty point sometime in the future is inevitable.

The key to this potential expansion is abundant land resources. Depending on how the calculations are done, the amount of land available for agricultural expansion in Brazil could be range from 60 to 200 million hectares and this does not include Amazon Rain Forest or other protected areas. Brazil has about 175 million hectares of formed pastureland in addition to natural pasture and native Cerrado. Brazilian scientists have been working for over a decade on how best to convert some of what they call "degraded pastureland" into productive crop production. They feel this is the best way for Brazil to expand its agriculture because then they can "have their cake and eat it too." If done correctly, Brazil could greatly expand their agricultural production without every clearing another hectare of virgin rain forest. In fact, they feel that Brazil could double row crop production without clearing any additional land, but the government must make this a priority.

Considering all of Brazil, the amount of land used for cattle ranching declined 3% over the last ten years to 172 million hectares while the number of cattle in Brazil increased to 170 million in 2006, which is 11% more than the number of cattle reported in 1995. At the same time, the amount of land used for crop production increased 83.5% to 76.7 million hectares. The largest increase in crop acreage was for soybeans, but other crops such as corn, cotton, and sugarcane also registered increases.

While the overall amount of pastureland has decreased in Brazil over the past ten years, it has not been a uniform trend across Brazil. In southern and southeastern Brazil the amount of pastureland has diminished over the last ten years as row crop and sugarcane production has increased. But as you would expect, there has been a big increase in pastureland in the more northern locations of Brazil where new land is being cleared for cattle ranching. In fact, clearing land for pasture is the primary reason why rainforest land is being cleared across the southern and eastern edge of the Amazon Region.

The federal government is trying hard to curtail illegal land clearing regardless of what the land will be eventually used for. As far as row crops are concerned, the Brazilian agricultural research service has been heavily promoting the idea that new row crop production could come from the conversion of degraded pastureland. They are also promoting this conversion for the ever-increasing sugarcane acreage as well.

Government officials in Brazil were surprised by recent announcements from the Brazilian Space Agency that deforestation in the lowland Amazon region had unexpectedly increased significantly during the August-December 2007 period. The agency reported that 3,300 square kilometers had been cleared during that period or the equivalent of 320,000 soccer fields. It was especially surprising since the rate of deforestation had been dropping during the last two years. Between August 2006 and August 2007 the rate of deforestation was the second lowest since the government started keeping records.

The vast majority of deforestation in the Amazon (80%) is conducted by small landowners for subsistence agriculture or by larger landowners to expand their cattle ranching operations. One of the reasons why cattle operations are moving northward in Brazil is because pastureland in southern Brazil is being converted to annual row crops such as soybeans, corn, or edible beans as well as more permanent crops such as sugarcane, coffee, and citrus. Poultry and swine operations, which are centered in southern Brazil, are also expanding and the increased animal numbers require more feedstocks such as corn and soybean meal. Since transportation costs are so high in Brazil, it is advantageous to grow the crops as close as possible to where they are going to be consumed.

Its not just cattle numbers that are increasing in Brazil, all types of animal agriculture is on the upswing in Brazil. The swine numbers are increasing and Brazil's poultry flock has expanded 73% in the last ten years. These increasing animal numbers along with expanding exports are the driving factors behind the expanding corn acreage in Brazil. This expanding corn acreage will probably be a factor limiting soybean expansion, at least in the near term.

Even though Brazilian ranchers have become much more efficient at producing more cattle per hectare, they still need new pastureland as the older pastures in southern Brazil are converted to other crops. Additionally, the sale of lumber from cleared land (either legally or illegally) is a significant source of income for ranchers in the Amazon region. There are laws in Brazil prohibiting illegal deforestation, but enforcement is spotty at best, especially in such a large and remote area such as the Amazon.

All this brings up the question of Brazil's capacity to expand row crop and ethanol production while still maintaining some control on deforestation. The markets are expecting Brazil to greatly expand their soybean acreage to compensate for American farmers growing more and more corn for ethanol production. Brazil itself expects to become the mini-Saudi Arabia of ethanol production produced from sugarcane. Both of these endeavors will require million of additional hectares devoted to these two crops.

Indigenous Reservations Account For 12.5% Of Brazil's Territory

Another constraint on land use in Brazil could be the push to expand indigenous reservations. The indigenous peoples of Brazil have been very aggressive in recent years in attempting to expand the network of reservations in Brazil. The Brazilian Indian Agency (Funai) almost seems to operate as a quasi government of its own in their effort to expand indigenous reservations. Promoting Finai's efforts are a series of foreign NGO's allied with the National Conference of Bishops in Brazil especially the Indigenous Missionary Institute (Conselho Indigenista Missionario). They are the forces behind the invasion of private property, the destruction of public property, the blocking of federal highways, and the confrontations between indigenous people and farmers and authorities.

Then most recent incident occurred in Mato Grosso last October when 120 Indians from the Etina Enawene-nawe tribe destroyed a small hydroelectric power plant that was under construction. They burnt the offices, trucks, and equipment to press their demands for expanding their reservation. The tribe consists of less than 500 individuals and they hunt and fish on their reservation that encompasses 620,000 hectares (1,550,000 acres.).

Funai estimates that 460,000 indigenous people (0.25% of Brazil's population) reside in 488 reservations totaling 105,673,000 hectares (264,180,000 acres), which equates to 12.5% of Brazil's total land area. Funai is pressing to expand the network by 123 additional reservations, many of which would encompass agricultural lands.

The states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul seem to be the epicenter of Funai's recent efforts. The chart below breaks down the land use in Mato Grosso. Currently, there are an estimated 25,000 indigenous people in Mato Grosso (this number is in dispute) living on 19,550,000 hectares of reservations resulting in a population density of one person per 781,000 hectares or one person per 1,955,000 acres. Funai feels the network of reservations needs to be expanded and if they achieve their goal, the network of reservations within the state of Mato Grosso would be equivalent to the size of the entire state of Sao Paulo. Mato Grosso is about the size of Texas and Kansas combined and Sao Paulo is about the size of Michigan.

Needless to say, the farmers and ranchers of Brazil are adamantly against any expansion of the reservation network. They cite the poor living conditions and health care on the existing reservations and question the need for Funai's aggressive actions in expanding the existing network of reservations.

I mentioned earlier, Funai seems to operate outside the normal bounds of a traditional government agency. It appears that the Brazilian federal government cannot control Funai's actions, which raises the basic question of why. In my opinion, it is the result of six years of leadership (or lack thereof) under President Lula. Under his leadership, he has promoted the invasion of private property and the taking over of farms and ranchers by the landless poor (sem terras) to such an extent that it is now almost government policy to do so. He has done it though in a very backhanded way.

They do not come right out and say that the landless poor can invade private property without due cause. But, they also do not send in authorities to remove squatters once a farm or ranch has been occupied. These squatters receive monthly payments and food allowances from the government and I have seen some of these squatter encampments persist for years without any attempt to remove them.

These protest groups are also allowed to block federal highways for days without the authorities attempting to reopen the highway. How is it possible that a small group of protestors are allowed to impede tens of thousands of citizens and businesses from the right to travel and conduct commerce? This could only be accomplished with the implied approval of the federal government.

These protests are not unique to Brazil. Similar actions are being taken in Bolivia under the direction of President Morales, in Paraguay under President Lugo, and in Argentina under President Kirchner.

Mato Grosso Land Area (in hectares)

Total area 90,335,790
Area devoted to row crops 7,000,000 (7.7%)
Area devoted to pastures 22,400,000 (24.8%)
Indigenous areas 19,459,267 (21.5%)
Conservation areas 5,600,000 (6.2%)
Remaining areas 35,786,523 (39.6%)