Ecoscience: Ecological Problems With Agriculture in Brazil

Learn about the ecological progress and social horrors of Brazil, including information on potential problems with the population of Brazil and wealth disparity.


Although it is a beautiful city, there are certainly problems in Rio de Janiero.


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Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere — as well they should be. After all, it was Paul and Anne who gave special meaning to the words "population," "resources" and "environment" in the late 1960s. (They also coined the term "co-evolution" and did a lot to make "ecology" the household word it is today.) But, while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation, far too few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (of the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college textbooks). That's why it pleases us to be able to present — on a regular basis — the following semi-technical column by authors/ecologists/educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich.

Ecological Hope and Horror in Brazil


Among the highlights of our field trip to South America last year, were the three weeks we spent in Brazil, which is the largest country on that continent and the fifth largest in the world. Even though Brazil is a "less developed" land, its future doesn't seem hopeless like many other countries. In spite of its huge size (greater than the total of the U.S.'s "lower 48"), Brazil has only some 120 million people. It is also rich in geographical and biological diversity and natural resources. There's little question that this nation could solve its problems before population growth and social and environmental deterioration convert it into a permanent "basket case." However, whether or not it will do so remains to be seen.

Sad Juxtaposition in Brazil


Rio de Janeiro, which was our first stop, can be seen as a microcosmic model of Brazil's main problem: "two-tiered" development. Rio is in the most beautiful setting of any large city we know . . . exceeding in loveliness even our own San Francisco. The metropolis is built between the coastal mountains and the sea, and — since the mountains drop almost directly into the water — the city is very narrow, clinging to lower slopes, beaches and landfills.

The "cariocas," as the residents call themselves, are rightly proud of their gleaming white, world-famous beaches lined with equally white and gleaming apartment buildings and hotels. (Some of the beach-front condominiums are actually worth more than a million dollars!) But, back from the beach — sometimes only a few hundred yards away — the other Brazil can be found. On the hillsides, squatters have created large, crowded slums known as "favelas."

Because of the city's physical setting, this juxtaposition of great wealth and great poverty — characteristic of the world as a whole — may be more obvious in Rio than anywhere else. This shows clearly in the metropolitan crime statistics. More than a million muggings and armed robberies annually have created what our Brazilian friends described as "panic" among residents.

According to the Jornal do Comercio, more than 400,000 people in Rio — out of an area population of perhaps 7.5 million — have been robbed more than once. Many such crimes are committed by juveniles, who are both difficult to catch and nearly immune to punishment under Brazilian law, which is a situation similar to that found in such North American cities as New York.


Problems With Brazilian Agriculture


In contrast to Rio, which is a commercial center, São Paulo — the epitome of the Brazilian economy's upper tier — is an immense industrial city with about 14 million people in its metropolitan area. The state of São Paulo, is the major revenue producer for the entire nation and many Paulistas frankly view their city and state as a developed nation embedded in an underdeveloped one.

São Paulo has heavy smog, many world-class restaurants, first-rate newspapers and relatively few slums. Its sprawling development gives the impression of a Los Angelicized Detroit. The road between it and Rio, more than 200 miles to the northeast, is often a bumper-to-bumper jam of heavy trucks, because the nation has neglected its rail system and is now paying the price.

There's excellent agricultural land in Brazil, particularly in the South. In Paraná, we drove for hundreds of miles through rich farmland — much of it planted in soybeans, some in wheat — which reminded us of the North American prairies. Brazil is clearly in a position to feed itself, but it still imports food for economic/organizational reasons: Sugar cane (for alcohol-fuel production) and soybeans have been so extensively planted as cash crops that wheat and even black beans — the staple protein food of the Brazilian poor — must now be imported. (Lately, black beans have quadrupled in price and the nutritional state of the underprivileged has suffered because of it.)


Migration in Brazil


In fact, the poor are simply being left behind in the nation's rush toward "development." And their plight is probably worst in the drought-stricken Northeast: the bulging "hump" of Brazil centering on the city of Recife.
In that region a combination of overpopulation, ecological destruction and a feudal social system has produced a sickening level of poverty. This situation has resulted in large-scale migrations to the more prosperous South in general and to São Paulo in particular. Hundreds of thousands of individuals move to that city each year, but many leave again when they are unable to tolerate the relatively cold winters or — with their minimal skills — are unable to earn enough to feed themselves.

This migration within Brazil can be viewed as one more manifestation of the global trend of people moving from poor to rich countries, because the two tiers of Brazilian society are nearly as economically disparate as are, for instance, Mexico and the United States.

Adding to the problem is Brazil's seeming inability to control population growth, to improve the distribution of wealth or to protect the nation's fragile environment. Although the most recent census shows a small decline in the growth rate, Brazil's demographic situation remains grim, with the population projected to reach about 200 million by the turn of the century.

Health Minister Waldyr Arcoverde recently announced (over the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church) that 1981 would be "the year family planning comes to Brazil to stay." But, as of yet, there is no sign of a serious program of fertility control similar to that which was recently launched in Mexico. Indeed, economist Herman Daly, who has done much research in Brazil, recently wrote us that the population debate there "has hardly progressed at all in 12 years." As the country becomes more urbanized, a decline in the fertility rate can be expected (since that's been the case in most developing nations), but certainly not fast enough to prevent problems of overpopulation from worsening enormously.

It takes at least a decade for a good family planning program to become well established in a large country and even the most effective of such undertakings must contend with the inertia of population growth. Brazil will be fortunate if it can halt growth before its population reaches 250 million and it's clear that even concerted efforts to achieve a reasonable distribution of wealth — if they're initiated — will take a long time to have a substantial effect.

The problem of overpopulation is, of course, intertwined with problems of social justice and environmental protection. For example, if the Northeast had a more equitable social system and the region had not suffered great environmental degradation from deforestation, northeasterners might have shared the sort of prosperity that has come to São Paulo, and the area's birth rate would undoubtedly have been lower. In turn, migration pressures would also have eased, and ill-advised schemes of Amazonian "development" (in part, the result of attempts to resettle northeasterners) could have been avoided.

But the problems of the Northeast, like those of many other poverty-stricken parts of the world, are not only rooted in history, but perpetuated by an unwillingness of people in wealthy areas and countries to face up to changes and sacrifices that must be made if the poor are to achieve a reasonable standard of living.


Ecological Concerns in Brazil


Ecologists, of course, are especially concerned over the fate of the rain forest of Amazonia. This region is the world's single greatest reservoir of organic diversity and is crucially important to the present and future welfare of people. On the hopeful side, vast stretches of the Amazon Basin still remain essentially untouched by modern society. But, substantial areas are being deforested — very often for the most temporary of gains. For instance, we visited a region north of Manaus where a rain forest, growing on very poor soil, was being cleared. In a short time the bare soil will turn into pure sand and become essentially worthless for growing crops and will likely be unable even to support grazing animals. The project is one result of an unfortunate set of tax laws designed to encourage the "development" of the Manaus area. Large corporations, operating out of southern Brazil, are thus able to protect profits made elsewhere by carrying out unprofitable, and destructive, schemes in the rain forest.

Bad laws contribute to environmental destruction elsewhere in the country, as well. A regulation of INCRA (the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform) that was initially designed to help break up huge estates (latifúndios ) has had the effect of discouraging farmers from leaving any of their land in forest or woodlots. Furthermore, regulations that are supposed to protect both natural areas and indigenous peoples tend to be poorly enforced by weak agencies. Most of the subtropical forests of Paraná have been cut down to make way for soybeans and other crops. Included in the deforestation was a large part of the Iguassú Falls State Park, which somehow got converted to farmland.

Although Brazil has — on paper — an impressive system of national parks and reserves, there's a severe lack of money to protect them. And corruption, powerful local interests opposed to preservation and public apathy work against the system. As a result, intrusions and disruptions are common in some protected areas now and the future fate of many may be similar to that already suffered by a portion of the Iguassu park.

The government is also shortsightedly encouraging the chopping down of virgin forests to get wood for use as industrial fuel. A Brazilian journalist described his nation's development policy this way: "If you can't eat it. . . burn it down."

Native Massacres in Brazil 


FUNAI (the Brazilian National Indian Foundation) seems to have as little power to protect the land's native people as other government agencies have to protect its forests. While we were in the country, news broke of six Xavante Indians being killed and more than 50 made sick by the arsenic dumped into the Couto Magalhaes River by estate owners who wanted to exterminate the inhabitants of the Parabubure reservation.

This was not the first time that the Xavantes had been massacred in that area of the state of Mato Grosso. In 1952, almost all the women children, and elderly who remained in Xavante villages were killed by men from local estates (including the latifúndio responsible for the recent atrocity). By 1980, the Indians were completely driven from the area by continuing attacks, which included biological warfare waged by distributing flu-virus-contaminated objects! Apparently, the most recent killings occurred because estate owners couldn't reconcile themselves to the creation of the reservation — which, by presidential decree, absorbed some 325 square miles of estates and brought the Indians back.


Hope for Brazil


Brazil's "hope" now lies in its still-reasonable balance between resources and population, the presence of a strong industrial base and the diversity and vitality of its people. Although the country is relatively short of oil, producing less than 20 percent of its petroleum needs, Brazil has immense hydroelectric capacity. It has also, as most MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers know, pioneered in the use of both "gasohol" and ethanol to power its automobiles (which are manufactured locally).

The government has attempted to curtail gasoline consumption and reduce enormous oil import bills by prohibiting the sale of petroleum-based motor fuels on weekends. This has caused some resentment, because the method chosen is viewed as less than ideal, there seems to be more than enough petroleum available at the moment and there's suspicion that Petrobras, the government oil company, may be fraudulently enriching itself through price manipulations. In addition, using either gasohol or alcohol fuel (which can be bought on weekends) sometimes creates maintenance problems, including carburetor and manifold corrosion and engine oil contamination and dilution.

Brazil has some coal (unfortunately with a high sulfur content) and an abundance of non-fuel mineral resources, including the world's largest single deposit of iron ore. The country certainly has adequate human resources for development, ranging from skilled farmers (many of Japanese descent) to first-rate scientists. The latter may be a mixed blessing, however: one young physicist told us that the Brazilian military had approached him to join a laser research group whose aim was to develop devices for separating uranium 235 from U-238, the crucial step in the manufacture of atomic bombs.

We were also told repeatedly that Brazilian President Joao Batista Figueriredo is in favor of protecting the nation's biological resources. But — unfortunately — multinational corporations, Brazilian big-money interests and corruption continue to work against him.

It's unarguable, however, that Brazil's fate will be determined over the next decade or so, as its residual pronatalism and the current push for hog-wild development come in conflict with a growing environmental awareness. If the nation moves toward ecological sanity, it could easily become one of the great powers of the future. If it doesn't, it will follow the India/Bangladesh route. And if the flora and fauna of the Amazon are destroyed in the course of Brazil's deterioration, the impact on global ecosystems could be catastrophic.