Tough Days Ahead

In his inaugural address, newly elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro declared he would free the country from “socialism and political correctness” in order to bring rapid marketization to Brazil. So far, Bolsonaro has stood by this vision for Brazil: In fact, he began his term with an executive order that transferred control of indigenous lands from the Indigenous Affairs Agency (FUNAI) to the Agriculture Ministry, a major concession to Brazil’s massively powerful agriculture lobby. Now, the Agriculture Ministry will handle the “identification, delimitation, demarcation, and registration of lands traditionally occupied by indigenous people.” This order functionally reclassifies the land from a space of immense cultural history and value to a simple economic resource—a move which not only further marginalizes Brazil’s indigenous populations, but also threatens the long term economic sustainability of these lands.

The order is a product of a long history of tradeoffs between the social well-being of Brazilians and economic profit. As Brazil has sought to bolster development, its policies have consistently emphasized economic growth at the expense of other issues. While this strategy has contributed to rapid industrialization, it is ultimately unsustainable, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding corporate control of indigenous land. Indigenous people, who compose less than one percent of Brazil’s population, have traditionally had rights to and lived on 12.5 percent of its land. The cultural and spiritual ties between these communities and the land they live on represent a profoundly different relationship from those involving corporations or the government. Although these cultural connections may seem unimportant to politicians and economic strategists, they lead to far more sustainable structures and practices for land development and future growth. 

Throughout the Americas, indigenous people have long bolstered agricultural success using knowledge cultivated through generations of engagement with the land. North American Natives have been practicing complex companion planting for over 3,000 years, a practice which combines several native crops into a polyculture that maintains soil nutrients, prevents erosion, and controls pests. Another example is the Triqui people of southern Mexico, who have helped restore productivity to damaged land with ancient farming techniques such as seed saving. Meanwhile, agricultural giants in the corporate world are experimenting with new machinery, pesticides, and GMOs to accomplish the same tasks. In southern Mexico, development-driven bodies, such as government and corporate forces, have attempted to solve sustainability and productivity issues by promoting GMOs and building dams. Yet, by taking over indigenous land and disregarding the ways in which these indigenous communities have tilled it, governments are putting sustainable and effective land policies on the backburner. Such an attitude incurs high economic costs in the long run.

Particularly, the preference for policies that prioritize corporate goals is hurting Brazil’s biodiversity. One such example is the modern “Green Desert” in Sapo de Norte, which stretches across acres of what was once a fertile and agriculturally diverse region. Now owned by the paper company Fibria Celulose, the land is blanketed in an ever-spreading forest of fast-growing Eucalyptus trees. This monoculture began during the hyper-capitalist military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. In the absence of official ownership, land was taken from Quilombolas, communities of people descended from slaves. Promoting such a monoculture not only immorally pushes indigenous populations out of their homes, but also threatens the environmental and economic longevity of the region.

"Rather than welcoming abuse and exploitation by monopolies, it is time for Brazil to invest in the people who have been investing in Brazilian land for decades."

First, the environmental concerns: Eucalyptus trees consume exorbitant amounts of water, and as of 2017, they had already dried up 130 streams. Moreover, these trees have altered forest dynamics. Species that constitute intricate food chains and sustained biodiversity have significantly decreased in population. Additionally, eucalyptus trees prevent sunlight from reaching the forest floor, but grasses need light to survive. Without grasses to hold the soil down, rain, floods, and wind can sweep away massive amounts of soil. Eventually, the lack of water and fertile soil in the region will make it significantly more difficult for plants and crops to grow. Thus, it’s reasonable to predict that these changes will stunt the economic growth derived from the region’s agricultural industry.

But perhaps more salient to policymakers are the economic threats posed by such unsustainable practices to development. Research shows that land degradation policies have stunted economic growth by 10 percent, a problem that could be remedied by switching back to more sustainable farming methods. One particular example is the 2015 mega-drought that caused hydro-power systems to fail—the drought was exacerbated by tactics used by Fibria Cellulose, and the system failure was certainly a costly incident. Fibria Cellulose’s unchecked expansion of eucalyptus habitat has also damaged corn and cotton yields, killed livestock, and even destroyed 30 percent of sugar cane crops.

This loss of biodiversity can be devastating to agricultural economies: A study by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that worldwide biodiversity ecosystems contribute a value of about $24 trillion per year. Loss of biodiversity means a direct loss of economic value. For example, biodiversity loss poses a serious threat to the pharmaceutical industry. As monoculture trumps diversity, we begin to lose species with medicinal properties—some studies estimate that the planet is losing one important drug every two years. In addition to being the source of new resources, biodiversity also regulates the climate and controls pollution, which are both integral to plant survival. 

Brazil is eager to become a major economic power, and it’s trying to do so by churning its natural resources into profit. Yet it’s ignoring an incredibly valuable economic resource within its borders: the expertise of populations who have built cultures and sustained livelihoods off of the land. The government, instead, defers to massive companies with generalized knowledge and little investment in the well-being of Brazil’s land and people. Bolsonaro’s vision of a powerful, capitalist Brazil that refuses to consider cultural histories is a Brazil fueled by unsustainable growth and short-term prominence on the world stage. Rather than welcoming abuse and exploitation by monopolies, it’s time for Brazil to invest in the people who have been investing in Brazilian land for generations.

Photo: “Brazil forest