World Rainforest Movement

Brazil: Threat of monoculture eucalyptus plantation expansion in the Northeast

The Araripe Plateau, as an elevated region, plays a key role in maintaining the local microclimate and in the region’s water cycle. It could also be considered the source of biodiversity in the region known as Sertão do Araripe Pernambucano. It is in this very region that a public-private partnership is promoting monoculture eucalyptus plantations as a source of energy for gypsum production. The public agencies involved are the Agronomic Institute of Pernambuco (IPA) and the Rural Federal University of Pernambuco, with the support of the state and federal governments. Among the private companies involved are Brazilian pulp and paper giant Suzano, which is supplying the eucalyptus seedlings, and the region’s gypsum plaster manufacturers, who say they account for 95% of production in Brazil.

The members of the public-private partnership claim that large-scale eucalyptus plantations, on an area of up to 300,000 hectares, would be a “sustainable” solution for the energy demands of the region’s gypsum production hub, as the eucalyptus would replace the current use of wood from the Caatinga vegetation, currently the most prevalent energy source, and of oil. In the presentations conducted in the region to promote the initiative, the researchers also claim that the eucalyptus trees would protect the soil, consuming relatively little water, and that the eucalyptus “forests” would have additional value due to their contribution to mitigating climate change. The Official Journal of Pernambuco reported in September 2011 that the government would allocate 6.4 million reais (close to three million US dollars) for “reforestation” on “degraded lands”.

In the first place, it is difficult to imagine a “sustainable” solution for the maintenance of an activity that is, in fact, totally unsustainable. There are 40 gypsum mines and 140 plants for the production of gypsum plaster and other related products in the region, concentrated in the municipalities of Araripina and Trindade. The industrial operations lead to the formation of a white powder – created by the release of gypsum and plaster into the atmosphere – which causes severe respiratory ailments among the workers and harms the vegetation in the surrounding area. There is little environmental control, nor recuperation of mining areas. In addition, if the idea is to plant 300,000 hectares of eucalyptus trees in these municipalities, there would not be enough land even if the entire area were covered with plantations, since these two municipalities combined cover a much smaller area, of only 163,000 hectares: 140,000 in Araripina and 23,000 in Trindade.

Secondly, eucalyptus plantations would affect the small farmers in the region who make up the majority of the rural population and are already suffering the impacts of mining activity. The likely displacement of farmers would also negatively affect food production in the region – as food production is replaced by eucalyptus, thus reducing food produced regionally. Moreover, it is well known that monoculture eucalyptus plantations are one of the economic activities that generate the least employment in rural areas, which means that this is not an alternative source of income for the majority of peasant farmer families. Local experiences in other places also demonstrate that eucalyptus plantations have serious negative impacts on the soil and water, as has been widely exposed in numerous WRM publications.

What about the claim that planting eucalyptus trees would provide greater protection for the Caatinga biome? First, it is not true that eucalyptus is planted on “degraded lands”. This has been the discourse used around the world to promote these plantations, but in practice, companies seek out level and fertile land to plant on – in other words, the land where peasant farming communities normally live and work. The experience with eucalyptus plantations in Minas Gerais also demonstrates that when eucalyptus is planted to replace the use of native wood as a source of energy for industrial purposes, it is the eucalyptus itself that causes the gradual destruction of the native biome – in the case of Minas Gerais, the Cerrado or tropical savannah. The only real solution would be to halt or strictly limit the expansion of agribusiness and its large-scale plantations of sugarcane, soybeans, corn, eucalyptus, etc., as well as other large-scale projects like mining and the Transnordestina railway in the Araripina region, while promoting activities that genuinely benefit the rural population, such as support for peasant farming.

Meanwhile, the claim that eucalyptus plantations have additional value for the climate is a bad joke. While the trees temporarily absorb and store carbon (CO2) while they are growing, it is released back into the atmosphere when the wood is burned. The so-called carbon market, through which carbon credits calculated on the basis of the growing trees provide polluting industries with the right to continue polluting, is not a solution to the climate crisis. On the contrary, it simply serves to further postpone the adoption of the structural measures needed to genuinely confront the climate crisis, such as changes to the model of excessive energy consumption and to the current dependence on fossil fuels. It should also be remembered that, like petroleum, biomass (in this case, eucalyptus wood) as an energy source is an archaic technology, based on a destructive process of large-scale combustion, which intrinsically results in emissions of CO2 and other pollutants. Moreover, there is no reliable scientific evidence that biomass energy generates fewer carbon emissions than petroleum when the entire production cycle is taken into account.

Another threat related to the expansion of eucalyptus plantations is the introduction of genetically modified eucalyptus trees in the region. Suzano, which is interested in planting eucalyptus in Pernambuco, is the Brazilian company most heavily involved in transgenic eucalyptus research. It recently acquired one of the most recognized biotech companies working in this area, UK-based FuturaGene, has obtained authorization for trial planting in Brazil, and is now heavily lobbying for authorization of commercial planting. There are numerous risks associated with this technology, including increased use of toxic agrochemicals and genetic contamination of native vegetation. But the very fact of the unreliability of genetic modification should be reason enough for the authorities to ban the use of this technology, even on a “trial” basis.

Lastly, in the region of Araripina, as in other areas affected by the expansion of monoculture eucalyptus plantations, there has been the usual lack of consultation with local communities as to whether or not they want these plantations. The issue is being addressed only by a small group of research institutes, companies and politicians. But it is the communities who have lived in the region for generations who should be the first to make decisions on the future of their region. It is simply not acceptable for a handful of researchers to decide which areas are “available” for planting eucalyptus. What does “available” mean to them? Would the people who live in the region agree that their territories are “available” for this purpose?

This is why the local residents and organizations of the region, such as the Small Farmers Movement (MPA), have opposed this process and carried out numerous actions, such as organizing seminars and signing a manifesto in which they reject that public funds, which should be used to strengthen peasant agriculture, are instead being allocated to research that solely benefits private companies. They have also declared that even the trial plantations already established should be prohibited, since they are located within the Environmental Protection Area (APA) of the Araripe Plateau, and that plantations should not be allowed on any land used for peasant farming.

Winnie Overbeek (This article is based on information gathered during a field visit to the region in May 2013.)

– Diário Oficial do Estado de Pernambuco – 18/09/2011, p. 2 – “Convênio libera R$ 120 milhões para o Sertão de Araripe” – Apresentação “O eucalipto como fonte energético no Pólo Gesseiro de Araripe-PE”,