Powerful Farm Advocate Pushes For More In Brazil

Brazil now rivals the United States in food production. Environmentalists in Brazil complain that this surge in production has come at the expense of forests, including the Amazon. But they're facing one tough farming advocate: a senator, landowner and head of the country's most powerful Big Agro association. (This piece initially aired Jan. 7, 2013 on Morning Edition.)

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Brazil now rivals the United States in food production. Everything from beef and chicken to soybeans and corn. Environmentalists in Brazil worry that this agricultural boom has come at the expense of the country's forest, including the Amazon. But they're up against a tough farming advocate - a senator, landowner and head of the country's most powerful agricultural association. And as NPR's Juan Forero reports, she argues that Brazilian farmers can - and should - produce more, much more.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: In some ways, Katia Abreu is still an old-fashioned farmer.


FORERO: One who rides her chestnut mare, Billie Jean, to tour her farm in Tocantins state in north central Brazil. She glides the horse along a gravel road, which soon turns to dirt and along fields of sorghum and corn. She has plans for more.

KATIA ABREU: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Soon, we're going to produce fish, she says, and lamb. There will be soybeans and fields of tall grass for cattle, Abreu says, lots of cattle. This farm, one of three Abreu owns, has 12,000 acres. Sizeable, even by Brazilians' standards. And so is Katia Abreu's influence. She's president of Brazil's National Agriculture Confederation, which represents five million farmers and ranchers. And she heads the influential ruralist bloc of landowning senators and representatives in Congress. She's also built a relationship with one of the world's most powerful women.

ABREU: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: I work with Dilma, Abreu says, meaning Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. She and I work to improve conditions and strengthen agribusiness in Brazil. That's worrisome to environmentalists who acknowledge that in Abreu they face a determined and sophisticated voice for big agro. Environmentalists say farmers and ranchers want to loosen restrictions on land use and expand into the forest, including the world's biggest, the Amazon. Christian Poirier is an activist with the group Amazon Watch.

CHRISTIAN POIRIER: It's clear that the intention of the ruralist bloc and Katia Abreu's group is to expand the agricultural frontier to the detriment of forests by felling forests in an unprecedented way in the Amazon for the profits of large agricultural interest.

FORERO: Abreu recently led the ruralists in a bruising battle in congress, pushing hard for fewer restrictions on the use of land to vastly jack up production.

ABREU: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ABREU: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: That led to passage of a land use law that environmentalists say softened restrictions on farmers and ranchers. Silvio Costa heads the watchdog group Congress in Focus, and he says the land use law passed because of the overwhelming power big agro has in congress, where 40 percent of all lawmakers are big landowners or their allies.

SILVIO COSTA: Subjects related to agriculture, to land ownership are not discussed in Brazil or in the Brazilian congress in a democratic way, because there's a group with power to approve anything they want. They just approve.

FORERO: Katia Abreu says she knows what people think about landowners. Her group commissioned surveys showing that Brazilians see landholders as truculent, dangerous, powerful and violent. That's why her confederation recently hired Pele - yes, Pele, the biggest soccer star Brazil ever had, a national hero.


PELE: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He touts Brazilian agriculture in this new TV ad and says Brazil is, like him, a champion. A champion in food production, food needed to help feed a hungry world. That, in fact, is Abreu's message, that as big as Brazil's food production already is, it can and should be bigger.

ABREU: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She says that productivity can improve on the same amount of land with more efficient land use and technologies, like genetically modified crops. Environmentalists have doubts, but as she walks across her farm, Abreu stresses how ecologically minded she is.


FORERO: She stops at a clump of trees and pulls at low-hanging cashew nuts.

ABREU: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: And she says that she loves to plant, and that every year she plants trees like these. Juan Forero, NPR News.


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