As Food Prices Surge, So Could Amazon Destruction
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BRAZIL: April 30, 2008
RIO DE JANEIRO - Vast areas of idle land in Brazil could be part of
the solution to the world food crisis but there is a danger that
surging prices will lead to more burning of the Amazon rain forest.
Experts say deforestation in the Amazon closely tracks moves on global
food markets as farmers along Brazil's vast agricultural frontier
react to the prospect of greater profits by cutting trees and burning
the land to make way for pasture or crops.
"At the very edge of the agricultural frontier, it's very dynamic and
that's why you get statistics for deforestation that swing wildly from
one year to the next," said Roberto Cavalcanti of Conservation
"A small shift in food prices can have a big impact on whether it's
economical or not to move into the forest."
The governor of Mato Grosso, one of Brazil's biggest farming states,
last week advocated more deforestation as a solution to the sharp
rises in staples such as rice that are threatening to push millions of
people into hunger.
"There is no way to produce more food without occupying more land and
taking down more trees," Blairo Maggi, also Brazil's largest soybean
producer and widely known as the "King of Soy", told the Folha news
Brazil has become one of the world's breadbaskets, a leading exporter
of foods such as soybean and beef, fuelled by strong demand from
Europe and developing giant China.
The demand has helped feed the destruction of the world's largest rain
forest for cattle ranching and crop production.
With up to 50 million hectares (193,000 sq. miles) in degraded farm
land that could be reused -- an area bigger than California -- experts
say Brazil could raise its farm production without making further
inroads into the forest.
"We are trying to get farmers and producers to have access to new
technologies so that they don't have to advance into new areas,"
Environment Minister Marina Silva said last week when asked about
But weak public policy and enforcement mean economics still work
against the forest, which has shrunk by about a fifth -- an area the
size of France -- since the 1970s.
"No-one (in the government) says how to recover that area, because in
the Amazon basin it's more easy and cheaper to cut down trees than
recover the degraded land," said Paulo Moutinho of IPAM, an Amazon
research institute in Brasilia.
Cavalcanti said the fact that fuel prices were also rising meant the
food crisis was an opportunity for governments in Brazil and elsewhere
to encourage farming in areas away from forests, where productivity is
often low and costs high.
"By providing incentives for the use of these degraded areas, you
could redirect the pressure," he said.
Deforestation hit a record high in 2004 when commodity prices were
high and Brazil's currency was weak.
About 7,000 square km (2,700 square miles) of the forest was lost
between August and December last year, coinciding with a rise in
global food prices and marking a sharp annualised increase after three
years of declines.
In response, the government launched the "Arc of Fire", its biggest
operation yet against illegal logging, which resulted in dramatic
riots by loggers in Para state in February.
Hundreds of police and federal agents in the giant frontier states of
Para, Mato Grosso and Rondonia have been deployed, imposing fines,
making arrests and confiscating wood. But the vastness of the area
alone makes slowing deforestation difficult.
Roberto Smeraldi, Amazon director of Friends of the Earth, said a
preliminary study showed that less than 1 percent of the fines imposed
during the operation had been collected.
A further 1,500 square km (580 square miles) of forest was cut down in
the first three months of this year, according to preliminary figures
from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, a high figure
considering it was the wet season.
"If there is no law enforcement ... the correlation between commodity
prices and deforestation is high. If there is law enforcement you
would see a correlation with increased productivity," said Carlos
Nobre, a scientist with the institute and a leading Amazon expert.
(Editing by Kieran Murray)
Story by Stuart Grudgings
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE