Brazil's Rainforests Is Cheap Meat a Bigger Threat to Amazon than Biofuels?

Brazil plans to massively expand the production of biofuels but environmental campaigners worry about the effect this will have on the rainforest. Germany's environment minister, who recently visited the country, thinks demand for cheap meat presents an even great danger.
Von Christian Schwägerl

When Germany's Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel visited the Amazon research center in Belém, Brazil, cries suddenly drowned out the discussion over the dangers the rainforest faces. "Lower the food prices!" an angry crowd of people yelled, as they marched past the Goeldi natural history museum, waving red flags. At that moment Gabriel saw with his own eyes why his visit to Brazil is so politically explosive.

Global food shortages and the destruction of the rainforest have both recently been blamed on biofuels -- which happened to be the focus of Gabriel's negotiations with the Brazilian government during his one-week visit.

As a green giant, Brazil wants to climb the world league table of energy powers, using bioethanol grown from sugar cane. Around 70,000 square kilometers have already been planted with the fast-growing plant. In four years time the area is meant to grow to 120,000 square kilometers and by 2025 to 210,000 square kilometers -- around the size of Great Britain.

Bioethanol is supposed to make Brazil independent of oil imports and enable it to supply 5 percent of the world's fuel needs. For an emerging country that is a rosy outlook -- a chance to acquire a seat at the table of the big and the mighty. Unfortunately these dreams are now under threat as the initial euphoria over biofuels has given way to skeptism, and in some cases even pure rejection.

Development politicians fear that the demand on land to grow biofuels is diminishing agricultural production and, as a result, continuing to drive food prices ever higher. Environmental groups, such as Greenpeace Germany, say that although the expansion of sugar cane cultivation is taking place far away from the rainforest, it could still drive soya production and animal farming into ecologically sensitive areas. On top of that, scientists have calculated bioethanol produces more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than normal gas.

Defending Biofuels

In the capital, Brasilia, Environment Minister Marina Silva is mounting a defense of biofuels. She is considered a politician with a lot of credibility, someone who knows the needs of the poor. After all she herself was born into the poorest circumstances, only learning to read and write as a teenager.

The protection of the rainforest lies close to her heart. As a daughter of a rubber tapper, she grew up in the forest. The leader of her forest protection organization, Chico Mendes, was killed as a result of his activities.

Silva presented Gabriel with data that makes bioethanol appear green and she assured him that the government is not cheating on the figures. The expansion of sugar cane cultivation is being strictly regulated, she said, so that savannas are not sacrificed and the planting will mainly be in depleted pasture land.

According to Silva, at the moment only 1 percent of the country is planted with sugar cane -- so it cannot possibly be competing with food production. She added that a ban on using soya to make biofuels was in the pipeline. And to protect the Amazon rainforests, she said, the government had passed tough rules, which allow bank loans to illegal livestock farmers to be blocked.

Gabriel seemed confident: "From what I've heard, we can stick to imports," the minister said. One has to give the Brazilians the "chance to prove that it's possible." The obligation to demonstrate an environmentally friendly agriculture strategy will be part of a German-Brazilian energy pact Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to sign in Brasilia soon.

On a tour of the Amazon, a Greenpeace spokeswoman expressed support for the government's plans. "Right now sugar cane isn't a problem. Rather, it can be part of the solution," she said. Still, research by the environment ministry shows just how thin the line is for ethanol imports: It is only when the sugar cane is grown on depleted land that it creates a positive CO2 balance. But the costs to fertilize this type of soil can run to between $400 and $500 per hectare.

Gabriel is also concerned over Brazil's plans to expand its biodiesel production. President Lula da Silva doesn't want to use soya for fuel, because it is an important food source. However the government is less strict when it comes to oil palms, even though they are eating away at the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia like an infectious disease.

However, the German environment minister sees doesn't see biofuels as posing the greatest danger to the rainforest. He'd much rather that Germans came to an uncomfortable realization: the big problem concerns the soya that Europe imports as animal feed, and the subsidies that support European farmers. "German farmers are profiting from the logging of the rainforest much more than Brazilians," Gabriel said. He argues that German society must take a hard look at its meat consumption.

From his ministry in Berlin, Gabriel is working to put a sustainability rating on animal feed and other products. That could have serious consequences for companies and consumers that get cheap meat thanks to the deforestation in the rainforest.

But after his talks in Brasilia Gabriel is proceeding carefully with his plans to put certificates on all products. "When one goes too quickly, the opportunity to negotiate is lost," he said. But wait too long and the rainforest in the Amazon and Asia could be lost too.

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