Talking Agriculture in the Amazon
I just returned from the Amazon region of Brazil yesterday after a fascinating seven day trip. The purpose of the trip was to observe actions being implemented by the Brazilian government and the Nature Conservancy (TNC) to control deforestation and improve farming, ranching and forest practices aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Twelve people participated in the trip. Four were from TNC, four people were from the wood and paper products industry and four were representatives of agricultural organizations (President of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, President of the National Farmers Union, CEO of the American Soybean Association and myself). We toured the Para State in the northeastern portion of Brazil. We observed forest practices, various sizes and types of farming operations and visited with state and local officials.
The attitude of many we visited with about the evolution of Brazilian policy was really quite interesting. We met with local mayors who
were exhibiting terrific leadership in finding greener economic options for their territories and the farmers and ranchers we visited sounded amazingly similar to conversations I've had with American farmers. While they often questioned whether or not humans were impacting climate in a significant way, they were passionate about their desire to "do the right thing" to protect the environment, their farms and their family's future in agriculture.
One major issue currently facing Brazilian land policy is how to deal with land ownership issues. Much of the land that has been settled and converted has no legal instrument that proves ownership. We met with one rancher who is gravely concerned that her family may have to purchase their ranch for a second time. This has often been a significant source of violent conflict as competing claims have arisen. One of the ways to address this problem would be to institute a mapping and land titling system.
Another take away was the amazing potential for agricultural expansion in Brazil. The scale of what is and might take place is phenomenal. Even with the implementation of the Forest Code (that will keep forest lands from being converted to mining or
agriculture), it is estimated that 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of new land are considered suitable for cultivation. This is an area roughly equivalent to the current US production area of our four biggest crops. We were told of farms as big as 600,000 acres. We actually drove through a soybean field that was as big as the entire township my farm is in (36 square miles). The potential for significant new competition from Brazilian farmers is extremely sobering for many American farmers.
The big factor holding Brazilian farmers back is the lack of infrastructure; roads were mainly dirt and gravel and very few river terminals exist to facilitate the movement of any agricultural products. If and when Brazil enhances their infrastructure and addresses their outstanding ownership issues, it seems that low costs of production and their enormous land base will greatly expand their ability to produce feed, food fuel and fiber.
The final take away I'll offer arises from the opportunity I had to spend the week with TNC staff and agricultural organization leaders. What TNC is doing in Brazil is really filling a void left by the Brazilian government in offering some of the services that the US government offered to US farmers and ranchers in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The agricultural organizations that participated in the trip are very interested and concerned about environmental sustainability, but they are concerned first and foremost about the economic competitiveness of their members. I am proud to say that back home, American Farmland Trust is doing both: providing progressive leadership on agricultural sustainability issues while still recognizing the economic realities of those who ultimately are asked to change.
About the Author: Jon Scholl is President of American Farmland Trust. Prior to AFT, he served as Counselor to the Administrator for Agriculture Policy at the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Jon and his family operate a corn and soybean farm in McLean County, Illinois.