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Brazil: The Chilling Beauty of the Green Desert

This post and Other Forest Stories are part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon and Global Development 2011.

The term “green desert” was coined in Brazil at the end of the 60s, and refers to the vast monoculture tree plantations which were designed for producing cellulose. At this time, the term already alluded to the future consequences these plantations would have on the environment, including desertification, erosion, the elimination of biodiversity and human displacement.

The 60s saw the emergence of the first eucalyptus plantations in the north of the Minas Gerais state and in the south of the Bahia state. According to estimates from Brazil's forest farming association (Associação Brasileira de Produtores de Florestas Plantadas) in Brazil, 720 new hectares of eucalyptus monoculture plantations currently appear each day, which is equivalent to 960 football pitches. The most heavily planted areas are the Minas, São Paulo and Bahia regions, but the green desert is also spreading to other states in the north-east and the south of Brazil.

All the links in this post lead to Portuguese language pages, except when otherwise noted.

Fazenda de eucalipto em agudos

A densely planted Eucalyptus plantation. Photo: Cássio Abreu (CC BY 2.0)

When travelling through the Minas Gerais state last April, the blogger known as the Viajante Sustentável (The Sustainable Traveller) spoke to inhabitants of the Jequitinhonha valley [en], and discovered how the region's visual and social landscape has changed over the last twenty  years:

A catastrófica monocultura de eucalipto pelas empresas privadas nas cabeceiras dos rios e riachos, além de envenenar o solo, expulsou a fauna e flora do local, secou as nascentes e o lençol freático. O deserto verde do eucalipto tornou-se uma calamidade socioambiental. A região já foi auto-suficiente em alimentos essenciais, cultivados pela agricultura familiar, integrados com a natureza. A situação mudou radicalmente, exibindo riachos completamente secos, sem olhos d’água, rios cada vez mais baixos e assoreados, praticamente toda a alimentação proveniente de distribuidores em Belo Horizonte, pastos abandonados. Enquanto isso, as transnacionais de eucalipto e celulose engordavam os lucros.

The disastrous concept behind growing company-owned eucalyptus monocultures in river and stream sources not only poisoned the soil, but also destroyed local flora and fauna and dried up streams and the water table. Consequently, the eucalyptus green desert became a social and environmental calamity. The region already produced essential foods in a sustainable manner, as food was grown using integrated farming, but the situation changed radically. The streams completely dried up, there were no freshwater springs, water levels gradually decreased, silt levels increased, farms were abandoned and practically all food came from distributors in Belo Horizante. Meanwhile, the eucalyptus and cellulose transnational corporations were making huge profits.

In Montes Claros [en], the situation is no different:

Nada plantado, com a exceção lamentável de cerca de trinta quilômetros do triste deserto verde. As pragas do eucalipto e pinus se alternavam, envenenando, esgotando as nascentes e o lençol freático. Utilizando pouquíssima mão de obra, a monocultura de exportação em nada contribuía para a diminuição da miséria local, ao contrário, concentrava os lucros na mão de uma ou outra grande empresa transnacional.

Tragically, nothing grows except for the thirty kilometres of Green Desert. The curses of the eucalyptus and pine trees alternate between poisoning and drying up the springs and the water table. The process of exporting monoculture uses very little manual labour, and instead of contributing to the reduction of local misery, concentrates on generating profit for the transnational company in question.

Poet Anna Paim got a horrible shock when visiting her family home, the state of Espírito Santo, for the first time in 19 years:

Triste porque encontrei os mais belos locais de paisagem nativa totalmente destruidos e ocupados pelos eucaliptos. Deixo registrado aqui o meu protesto, a minha raiva, a minha pena, sei lá…

It was awful. I saw that the most beautiful spots in the region's landscape had been completely destroyed overtaken by eucalyptus trees. I want my indignation, fury, pain, and… confusion to go on record.

Beco da Velha (Old Woman's Alley) remembers natural eucalyptus as being very present in southern Brazil. He says, the damage began and worsened when GM plants were grown because they consume much more water, which causes them to grow at an accelerated rate:

O que há hoje de diferente no plantio do eucalipto, além de sua atual transgenia, é a intensidade com que isso se faz, a falta de qualquer critério ou bom senso na implantação das lavouras de eucalipto em qualquer lugar, em extensões assombrosas, e, principalmente, as intenções estratégicas que estão por trás dessa súbita paixão pelo “reflorestamento” – termo muito impróprio para o que hoje se faz, porque reflorestamento presume que se vai repor a floresta que existia no local, reconstituindo-se o ecossistema devastado. E é justamente o contrário que se passa.

What is now different about farming eucalyptus, besides the GM factor, is the fact they are farmed so intensively. There is a lack of any kind of criteria or common sense and scores of eucalyptus trees are planted any and everywhere. The main difference is in the strategic intentions behind this increased passion for ‘reforestation’, which is actually a very inaccurate term for what is currently being done, because it suggests that the local forest is going to be replenished, and that the devastated ecosystem will be repaired. This is exactly the opposite of what is happening.

Upwards and onwards

Source: Centro de Estudos Ambientais

Image source: Centro de Estudos Ambientais

After spreading throughout the Atlantic jungle in the southeast, the green desert arrived in the arid zones in the north and northeastern areas of the country. In Piauí, the construction of a paper and cellulose factory comes with a promise of development for the state. This is contested by blogger Leo Maia, who argues that according to facts from IBGE (The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), 41% of the state's population is malnourished, while local farmers do not have the incentive to grow food.

Despite this, 160 thousand hectares of Piauí land (equivalent to 1 600 km² or 1.57% of Piauí land) was transformed into eucalyptus “forests” in order to produce paper and cellulose for export. In his blog, Leo republishes an article which appeared in a local newspaper and denounces the contrast between commercial interest and the needs of the population:

(…) árvores de crescimento acelerado, como o eucalipto, dependem de grande quantidade de água para se desenvolver e por isso provocam o secamento do solo, diminuem os mananciais e aumentam a possibilidade de desertificação dessas regiões. Sendo assim, a instalação da Suzano mais uma vez contradiz as reais necessidades da população do Piauí, já que o estado sofre, praticamente todos os anos, com os efeitos da estiagem. Só no início deste ano, mais de 155 municípios declararam estado de emergência por causa da seca, alguns deles tiveram a safra comprometida em 90% por falta de água.

(…) The development of trees which grow at an accelerated rate, such as the eucalyptus, depends on large volumes of water. This causes the soil to dry out, thus increasing the risk of desertification in the regions in question. For this reason, the founding of the paper and cellulose company, Suzano, once again contradicts the true needs of the Piauí population because the state has already been suffering the effects of drought for many years. At the beginning of this year alone, more than 155 local authorities had already declared a state of emergency because of drought, as some of their harvests had been blighted by 90% due to the lack of water.

Environmentalists and social campaigners still denounce the risk that the dangerous combination of eucalyptus, monoculture and pesticides has on people's health. Besides occupying land which could be used for agricultural purposes, growing eucalyptus even hinders those who farm food in nearby regions, because their land ends up being invaded by wild animals in search of food. Mariana Brizotto highlights the fact that plantations are not forests and asks:

O que faremos quando não houver mais água? Vamos comer papel?

What will we do when there is no water left? Will we eat paper?

Despite farmers losing land to the eucalyptus monoculture, Bahian Sumário Santana‘s poetry draws inspiration from the sadness and beauty of the green desert:

Onde existia uma comunidade tradicional, de nome Marília, hoje é a fábrica de Celulose. Ali em Mundo Novo, onde trabalhavam contentes as famílias com as suas pequenas olarias, hoje existe apenas uma grande olaria. Foram embora as famílias, secou o rio, sumiu a argila e agora, a fábrica ameaça fechar. Ali onde antes era uma colônia agrícola, com centenas de pequenos proprietários, hoje são latifúndios cercados, guardados por seguranças de motos.
Ali onde era imensa, diversificada e úmida a floresta, hoje é um deserto verde.
O supostamente feio, caótico e emaranhando de plantas, cipós, nascentes, bichos, ninchos, centopéias, gosmas, barro, limos e fotossíntese, deu lugar
Ao supostamente belo, um único mosaico, bem desenhado, mapeado, registrado, uma única espécie, repetida em série, na solidão do deserto.

There is now a Cellulose factory where the traditional community of Marília once existed. There, in the New World, families happily worked in their small brickyards. Now, there barely one large brickyard left. The families left, the river dried up, the silver disappeared and now the factory is threatened with closure. Instead of the farming colony with hundreds of small-scale owners which was there before, there are now large estates nearby which are guarded by motorbikes.

Instead of an awesome, diverse and humid forest, there is now a green desert.

The supposed ugliness of chaotic, tangled plants, lianas, springs, insects, bugs, centipedes, slime, mud, silt and photosynthesis gave way

To the supposed beauty, of singular, well-designed, mapped out, patented mosaics: One single species, repeated in sequence, in the desert's loneliness.

Good bye, my pampa [bioma]. In the background, an eucalipto plantation.

Charge de Santiago, published with permission.

This post and Other Forest Stories are part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon and Global Development 2011.

3 comments

  • Thank you for addressing this important topic. Yes, indeed, plantations are biological deserts.

    The latest potential threat to the Amazon is arriving in the form of Palm oil plantations for bio fuel. See more at:

    http://news.mongabay.com/2011/0614-amazon_palm_oil.html

    While there are some interesting possibilities for working it into a pro-conservation package, there is also a great potential threat.

    Historically, illegal deforestation, logging, cattle ranching, land-grabbing and speculation have been an interwoven constellation of destruction in Amazônia. These forces are not going to just fold up because the more lucrative approach of palm oil plantations is being introduced. Indeed, it will increase the likelihood of land-grabbing moving into more remote and more pristine areas in a now-familiar process called “leakage.”

    As more valuable agricultural uses enter a biome, land in general gains value and and so does the incentive to acquire it legally or illegally. The boundary or limit is set by law and enforcement has been very weak in Brazil. Amazônia being the size of Western Europe or the Continental US west of the Mississippi, is not easy to police, nor is it easy to get local officials to embrace high-minded ideals.

    Thus, we are thrust back to the two core issues facing Brazil — revision of its national Forest Code and local enforcement of laws promulgated in Brasilia. And these challenges remain as intense as ever.

    Achieving the dream of agricultural expansion and reducing deforestation will be like trying to get a bull to balance on a ball.”

    http://lougold.blogspot.com/2011/06/cows-and-climate-finding-balance.html

    Further, I’m persuaded along with Tom Friedman, Paul Gilding and others, that nothing fundamental is likely to change until “crisis shock” changes EVERYTHING. And, by then and if there’s time for a response, the dreams of tweaking the market to give incentive to conservation will be an obsolete relic of late 20th Century neo-Liberal optimism about “best-case” globalization.

    http://lougold.blogspot.com/2011/06/is-earth-full-paul-gilding-saysyes.html

    Hoping for the best from Acre, Brazil,

    lou

  • […] Brazil: The Chilling Beauty of the Green Desert […]

  • […] states of the US. Major concerns are that these fast growing, non-native trees create a kind of Green Desert where nothing else can grow, and therefore threaten native […]

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