It is my turn to weigh in on the debate surrounding the Amazon fires in Brazil. It is not my intent to minimize the importance of the Amazon, but much of the media coverage is overkill. Yes, there are fires in the Amazon. No, that is not a good thing. There are fires every year, most of which begin naturally. They are so far roughly 7% more than last year. This is the dry season in Brazil. The soil dries up so much, it becomes almost like concrete. The trees turn so dry, forests turn into a giant tinderbox. My spray plane pilot on the farm used to work in the offseason dumping water on forest fires in national parks. I have no doubt that some of those fires were started with illegal intentions aimed at some sort of financial gain. But the vast majority were not done by farmers looking to plant more soybeans.
Brazil’s soybean area is expected to grow by nearly 3% for next season and the natural assumption is made that it must be because farmers are burning the land to do so. Much of the increased acreage comes from the Cerrado Biome, which has nothing to do with the Amazon Biome. Much of that area will also come from pasture. There are an estimated 230 million head of cattle on pasture in Brazil. Area for pasture has been trending downward as it is converted to row crop farmland while beef production continues to increase as it shifts to more of a confinement type system. All of this means that Brazil can increase their soybean area by 3% without touching the Amazon. We should be concerned for the Amazon. But this mass hysteria is trying to connect dots that aren’t there.
The President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has not handled the criticism well. He has accused the NGO’s of starting the fires so they can increase their donations. He has pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement which had the goal of zero deforestation by 2030. He has so far refused help from outside countries who claim to want to help preserve the Amazon. (But they don’t tell us what they want in return.) Up until recently, Bolsonaro has displayed a level of indifference for the preservation of the Amazon which of course drives environmentalists crazy. He recently backtracked by announcing that the military would help to control the fires. In his mind, he does not answer to the rest of the world. He is doing what he thinks best for Brazil. Like it or not, President Bolsonaro is representing the attitude of most Brazilians. Which is, “The Amazon belongs to Brazil, and they take it very seriously”. They see much of the scorn surrounding the Amazon as nothing more than jealous, outside invaders who already destroyed much of their own ecosystems. To be fair, he is not entirely wrong.
Where do we think much of the US farmland came from? In the 19th century, there was a thriving timber logging market in Minnesota. Most of this is now farmland. The dustbowl of the 1930’s was one of the greatest environmental disasters of our time. The dust storms were so great, that it took top soil from Kansas and dropped it on ships 200 miles off the east coast. By the way, all the tillage that was done to facilitate the dustbowl was at the direction of the US department of Agriculture, who at that time advocated for all the deep tillage.
Brazil does not have a perfect environmental record. But it does realize it has a responsibility greater than most other countries and because of that, has arguably done much more to preserve the environment. Over 61% of the entire country of Brazil, has protected forest area designated for preservation. Hardly any other country comes close. The United States protected area is closer to 28%. The agriculture area in Brazil makes up only 8%, compared to 21% in the United States. Now think for a minute if you were Brazilian, how you would feel or respond to countries criticizing you, despite them having protected only a fraction of the land that you have in your own country? Perhaps you would feel annoyed by this too. This is why the President of Brazil views complaints about the Amazon as hypocritical.
Ironically, the largest owners of preservation areas are farmers despite being vilified in the media. The “Forest Code” was created back in 1965 and amended again in 2012. It defines how much land can be brought into production. The closer you are to the Amazon, the higher the percentage is. Where we farmed in Bahia, there was a 20% reserve. We bought and paid for approximately 6000 acres that we knew we could never farm. In parts of the Mato Grosso, the reserve is 80%. Meaning if you owned 1000 acres, we could only farm 200 acres. 800 acres had to be left in its natural state. This is taken very seriously and is enforced by both lenders and environmental agencies. So if farmers are the ones enforcing the forest code, are they not the ones actually helping to preserve it?
One of my neighbors in Bahia farmed 250,000 acres. This meant that he owned approximately 62,500 acres in reserve, which he would have paid millions of dollars for over the years. That is 62,500 acres that he protects. That is 62,500 acres that he acts as the caretaker for, making sure no harm comes from it. It was land that was purchased and paid for, and yet no income is derived from this property. Nothing is planted on it. It cannot be used for hunting. In other words, Brazilian farmers are the largest owners of natural preserve and they get nothing for it. I look at all the money being donated to NGO’s claiming to protect the Amazon, and their impact doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when compared to what the farmers are doing.