World Rainforest Movement

Brazil: Veracel plantations, certified land seizure

In 1991, the Veracel Celulose company, then known as Verazcruz Florestal, first arrived in the extreme south region of the state of Bahia.

Originally, this hot, humid region was covered with various types of Atlantic Forest, which has since been destroyed and replaced with crops, pastureland and monoculture eucalyptus tree plantations.

The implementation of a “model of development” based on deforestation, violence and the expulsion of local communities paved the way for the large-scale installation of eucalyptus plantations and pulp mills in the region.

In mid-1991, Veracruz Florestal purchased 47,140 hectares of land from a company called Vale do Rio Doce. In November 1992, civil society organizations began receiving reports that Veracruz Florestal had hundreds of trucks removing native wood species from the land in order to plant eucalyptus trees.

On June 17, 2008, after 15 years of legal action, the Federal Court of Eunápolis finally declared Veracel Celulose guilty of the environmental destruction committed during its first years of operations in the area, up until 1993. It sentenced the corporation to a fine of BRL 20 million (close to USD 8.7 million), in addition to revoking the environmental permits issued for the establishment of the eucalyptus plantation. This decision meant that Veracel will have to cut down the eucalyptus trees planted under these permits and reforest the land with native Atlantic Forest tree species.

In 1997, the Swedish corporation Stora became of one of the principal owners of Veracel. Subsequently, in 2000, Aracruz Celulose formed a joint venture with Stora Enso (formed through a merger between Stora and Finnish company Enso), under which each controlled 50% of shares. Through the expansion of their eucalyptus plantations, both Veracel and Aracruz have been gradually coming closer to the region’s national parks, traditionally inhabited by the Pataxó indigenous people.

Within the lands identified by the national indigenous agency FUNAI as Pataxó territory, there are 1,645 hectares of Veracel Celulose eucalyptus plantations. For its part, the Pataxó Resistance Front states that there are roughly 30,000 hectares of Veracel Celulose plantations on the 120,000 hectares of land that rightfully belong to the Pataxó people.

The Pataxó say that the land in question had been illegally seized by large landholders through false ownership deeds, and then sold to Veracel, which cut down the native vegetation and poisoned the area’s water sources with the toxic agrochemicals it uses, killing off animals and plants. 

“We call this a green desert because the eucalyptus plantation has brought us a lot of pollution, it has brought us a lot of problems for us and for our children. This green desert doesn’t bring us health, it doesn’t bring us education, it doesn’t bring us food. Not even the birds are free to live on the plantation. The only thing it brings is wealth for people from the outside, but it brings us nothing. And it angers me to be in a green desert inside indigenous territory.”

(Interview with Chief Jurandir, village of Jataí, 09/04/2008) 

Throughout the years, the Pataxó have fought for the legal demarcation of their territory and protested the establishment of eucalyptus plantations.

There is, however, a major obstacle when it comes to the inspection of the operations of a company like Veracel by the government authorities: a total lack of the necessary structure and staff, at both the national and state government levels.

At a seminar held in Porto Seguro in November 2007, the director of the Environmental Resources Centre at the Bahia Environmental Institute admitted that the agency has only 20 technicians to assess all of the projects undertaken in the state of Bahia, which is made up of 418 municipalities. In the extreme south region of the state, there is just one agency inspector to cover an area in which the companies occupy no less than 400,000 hectares of land.

In the face of this situation, a number of organizations in the extreme south of Bahia have called for a moratorium on the planting of eucalyptus in the region until an economic-environmental zoning process has been completed and the state has the necessary technical and human resource requirements to authorize and monitor company operations, in addition to establishing zones reserved for other activities, such as family agriculture.

Nevertheless, although it still lacks the power to properly fulfil its functions, the CRA continues to grant authorization for the conversion of more land to tree plantations. This can only lead to the conclusion that Bahia’s environmental policy favours the economic interests of Veracel and other companies over the common good.

Veracel eucalyptus plantations currently cover 15.1% of the total land area and 40% of the arable land in the municipality of Eunápolis.

When it comes to employment, it is well known that eucalyptus plantations and pulp production contribute very little to job creation. This is a highly mechanized sector that requires only a small number of workers to monitor and manage the production process in order to ensure high productivity.

While the building of the pulp mill created a relatively large number of jobs (around 9,000), once the mill was fully operating the number of workers employed by the company on its plantations and in the mill combined dropped to 741, most of them highly skilled labourers. Relative to the amount of land covered by eucalyptus by Veracel, this works out to one direct job per 103 hectares of plantations.

The fact that the company did not create thousands and thousands of jobs as expected provoked a major backlash from the region’s population.

Yet in spite of all this, Veracel continues to be backed by the FSC’s “green” label, meaning that the FSC has served as an important tool for the expansion of big pulp corporations that can operate with an environmentally sound and socially just image, a factor that also helps to boost sales.

According to the inhabitants of local rural communities and members of peasant movements, the company has done nothing but to promote the concentration of land ownership, the establishment of monoculture plantations and the expulsion of the rural population, who are left with only two choices: to leave the countryside, or to fight back.

Extracted and adapted from “Violações socioambientais promovidas pela Veracel Celulose, propriedade da Stora Enso e Aracruz Celulose: Uma história de ilegalidades, descaso e ganância”. CEPEDES (Study and Research Centre for the Development of the Extreme South of Bahia), Eunápolis, Bahia, 2008. The full study in Portuguese is available at:http://www.wrm.org.uy/paises/Brasil/CEPEDES_2008.pdf

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