Deforestation and the Brazilian agriculture

desmatamento amazônia deforestation amazon brasil brazil

Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical forest in the world and it works like a water pump for South American agriculture

The deforested area between August 2020 and June 2021 reached 8,381 km², the number shows a 51% increase compared to the period from August 2019 to June 2020, according to Imazon. The forest offers many environmental services and its suppression may represent an enormous loss to Brazilian agricultural productivity.

andre guimaraes

André Guimarães, Executive Director of IPAM

To talk more about the topic, AgriBrasilis invited André Guimarães, Executive Director of Amazon Environmental Research Institute (Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia – IPAM) for an interview about the consequences of deforestation for Brazilian agriculture. Agronomist graduated at University of Brasília (UnB), former development vice president of Conservação Internacional (CI) in the Americas, where he supervised the operation in 10 countries of Latin America. André also started and directed the “Brasil Florestas” company, which focused on the implantation of forest products as an environmental service.


AgriBrasilis – What is the relation among deforestation and increasement of the cultivated area?

We have a historical model that assumes that the expansion of production happened in the territories. I believe that Brazil is very proud of being a huge agricultural producer, exporting to the whole world, according to the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture the country feeds about 1.2 billion people everyday. This process has been happening along the last 40 or 50 years, so we went from an importer country to a self-sufficient and one of the largest exporters of agricultural commodities on Earth.

This was a result of several factors, so you have agricultural research, with Embrapa as the leader in this process, a lot of investment in research and adjustment of agricultural varieties for Brazil. Plenty of public investment in infrastructure and agricultural financing. 

But there is a dark side, over these 50 years we have cut down 50% of the Cerrado and 20% of the Amazon, so this process cannot continue in this way for several reasons. Obviously because of a reputational issue, in the world today, buyers of Brazilian agricultural products are intolerant to deforestation, this is a global issue that has to do with the climate agenda. A greater awareness of society and a reason for us to change this paradigm of expansionism for an intensification paradigm. 

But also for internal reasons, more than 90% of our large agriculture is not irrigated, it depends on rain cycles and maintained forests are a fundamental element in the maintenance of water cycles. Whether for reputational reasons or for physical and ecological reasons, which concern productivity, this process of replacing native vegetation for agricultural border expansion needs to end.

Then this paradigm of expansionism needs to be replaced by a new paradigm, the intensification. We will have to change practices. What brought us here will not be what will take us into the future.

AgriBrasilis – How does the rain formation process in South America work and what is the role of the Amazon rainforest? Is there data about the relation between the decrease in rainfall in Brazil and deforestation?

Decrease isn’t exactly the term, what you get is a regime change. So, for example, one of the greatest comparatives perks of Brazil is that you are able to plant two crops in the same cycle, the main harvest and the off-season one. So the farmer plants soybeans, harvest the soybeans, plant the corn, harvest the corn in sequence. To this end we need to have a rain distribution over at least 6/7 months, so we need to have rain at the right time, in the right volume and in the right distribution over a period of time.

Forests are essential to maintain this water cycle that allows us to be competitive in agriculture. We have already started to see in the states of Mato Grosso and Matopiba (Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí e Bahia) a reduction of a week in this rain cycle, if we reduce it by another week or two we lose this possibility of having the off-season harvest. This is already being observed by science, we researchers at IPAM are already observing this in some areas in the field. So there is already an influence of climate change that is aggravated by deforestation in this process of rain distribution, consequently placing an additional risk on our agriculture in the future. So this is a process that needs to be stopped, not just for a reputational issue but for a very practical issue. We may be losing competitiveness in agriculture if deforestation continues.

AgriBrasilis – You have pointed out that one of the problems is that our agriculture is not irrigated. If more irrigation were installed, what would it be like, would we still need rain or could they occur more sparingly?

Irrigation requires a brutal investment, which means it is an expensive system and does not work everywhere. Part of the solution may be through irrigation, but it has to be very well planned, because it demands water anyway and it can create another problem. The supply of water to cities and other human uses. Then you will create competition for water that can ultimately pose risks to that investment.

Imagine a producer region that invests millions of dollars to install irrigation systems, and the worsening of the climate crisis changes the rainfall regime, and consequently the flow of these rivers. Then you have a city downriver that will need this water and will oblige these producers to turn off their irrigation system. You shift the problem, you don’t solve it.

So the irrigation solution is partial and has associated risks, such as competition for water. The best thing to do is to avoid the problem, as that usual phrase it is better to be safe than sorry, for agriculture it is the same thing, to be careful in the case of agriculture is to avoid deforestation to maintain harmonious water cycles, to produce evenly in the future.

AgriBrasilis –  What is the influence of the Amazon rainforest in the formation of rainfall in South America?

The Amazon is a water pump. It receives moisture from the Atlantic Ocean, recycles that water and pumps the water into the atmosphere to form clouds that help irrigating the agriculture in the Cerrado and ultimately even influence agriculture in the Southeast, Argentina and Paraguay, the entire Plata basin and Bolivia. The whole Conesul region of South America is influenced by the humidity of the Amazon rainforest.

There is a combination of moisture that enters from the sea and moisture that is pumped from the forest, then the Andes forms a barrier creating so-called flying rivers. So the entire water dynamics of South America is influenced by the forest.

In other words, it is a large water pump that works every day for free, irrigating our agriculture, making water available for us to live in Brazilian cities. This asset we have in Brazil needs to be maintained for a pragmatic and objective reason, which is to maintain the quality of life and productive capacity in our country.

AgriBrasilis – How does the introduction of pastures into areas of native vegetation affect soil fertility and nutrient cycling? Is the damage caused irreversible?

Any replacement of native vegetation, whether for pasture or agriculture, will promote a change in this ecosystem, especially in the soil. Imagine a mature Amazon forest or even smaller fields and forests in the cerrado, you have a permanent cycling of nutrients, the forest grows, then the trees die and nourish the soil. That nourished soil allows the forest to grow in a balanced system, a content of organic matter in the soil that is a fundamental element for soil fertility, which is maintained by the natural cycling that the forest promotes.

If you remove this ability to recycle carbon and put a crop or pasture, you reduce this soil’s ability to hold and cycle organic matter that is a key element of soil fertility. Then the result is that we have to put artificial fertilizers, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus in the soil, because agricultural soil does not have the same capacity as natural soil and forest soil to carry out the natural cycling of nutrients.

This can be done in a good way or an unbalanced way. If you do good soil management, whether for livestock or farming, you have a need for the entry of artificial fertilizers, but within certain limits you can remain competitive. If you degrade this soil, the need for nutrient input is much greater, consequently increasing costs and losing competitiveness.

Therefore, good soil management and the balance in the landscape of soils that are agriculture, livestock and conserved are essential for you to maintain the nutrient cycling capacity and the competitiveness of agriculture as well.

AgriBrasilis – How does the global climate get affected by the deforestation of South America?  

Once again, the Amazon is a bomb and, therefore, it can also be considered a major air conditioner on the planet, when its evapotranspiration throws moisture into the atmosphere and consequently lowers the temperature. If you look at the carbon map above the surface of the planet Earth, the volume of green mass you have in the region, almost 50% of the tropical forests that you have on the planet.

Scientific data here from the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, we made a research in the early 2000s in Mato Grosso where we saw that there is a temperature difference of 6°C, inside the forest and in the field. This temperature difference means that this forest is helping to cool that region and consequently the planet.

AgriBrasilis – What steps need to be taken by the Brazilian society now to guarantee food production in the next years? 

The first measure is to end deforestation to maintain our productive capacity, whether for water or soil fertility. Thus, maintaining Brazil’s competitiveness as a global player in food production. 1/4 of our GDP is linked to agriculture directly or indirectly, as I mentioned, we help feed 1.2 billion people worldwide.

So, ending deforestation means having a functioning Brazilian economy and maintaining food security on the planet.

In other words, if you put this on a scale, keeping the Amazon, keeping the Cerrado and other Brazilian biomes and forests alive is fundamental for our economy, which in turn is fundamental for the planet’s food security. It’s all connected.

Another fundamental agenda is the conservation of tropical forests to maintain the planet’s climate. If the planet’s climate is not maintained, it has a negative impact on Brazilian production. Again, whether to maintain our productivity today or for the future, we need to stop deforestation now. So, this is an interactive action of Brazilian society today.

AgriBrasilis –  You commented on the intensification in areas that are already open. Do you believe there should be a change in the way it is being done today?

I believe that all forms of agriculture must be done compatible with the maintenance of environmental integrity. So large agriculture has its space, as well as family agriculture, which produces the food that goes to our table. Today you have technologies such as the Crop-Livestock-Forestry Integration (ILPF), where you have beans and soy crops in the same area, as well as cattle, and in the lines you have eucalyptus and other trees that generate flow of cash for the property and also comfort for the animals to be more productive. This is already being applied. Today, according to EMBRAPA, we have more than 20 million hectares of ILPF systems implemented in Brazil. I think this is a trend because you increase the income and the resilience of that environment due to greater recycling of soil nutrients, therefore you reduce the risks and effects of climate change.

So on the larger scale you have the ILPF, but on the smaller scale you have agroforestry systems, this happens a lot in the Amazon, in the Cerrado and even in the Atlantic Forest. In a small property you have 1 or 2 hectares combining forest species mixing fruit and wood, which will be harvested in 15 or 20 years. So you have a dynamic in which each month you produce a species such as açaí, bacuri, cupuaçu and others. 

There are agricultural production systems that are more harmonious with the challenges of sustainability, income generation and maintenance of the integrity of environmental services for future generations. But I’m also not a purist to say that everything should now be Agroforestry and ILPF, no, I think there is room for more extensive conventional activities, but they need to somehow make room for those activities that protect more the soils and ecosystems therefore reduces the risk to agriculture in the future.

AgriBrasilis – When we talk about ending deforestation, does it mean zero deforestation from now on?

There is an important issue that more than 90% of deforestation in the Amazon is illegal, carried out by land grabbers, land thieves and illegal loggers. This one needs to end tomorrow.

 But there are also farmers’ rights that need to be respected. The Brazilian Forest Code says that you have to maintain 30% of legal reserve in the Cerrado, there are farmers who still have 50%, 60% of their property with native vegetation. This deforestation must also be encouraged to end, but then the logic is different. 

In the illegal, it is the police, IBAMA and the environmental secretariats, it is the force of law. In the second, as it is a producer’s right, it needs to be worked with incentives, there is the payment for environmental services, a carbon market that can remunerate that standing forest. 

The challenge in the future is zero deforestation, but the illegal must be attacked immediately through the law and the one that is legalized must be worked through these incentives, tax, credit, PES, other ways for you to convince that farmer who has the right to deforest, and no one here is discussing taking rights from anyone. But society needs to create the means to encourage those who have the right to deforest to convince themselves not to. This convincing in my opinion should be done through incentives and often economic incentives.