I spent two months this summer in Brazil’s agricultural powerhouse at the frontier of the Amazon forest, in Northern and Western Mato Grosso state. My objective during this trip was to do a pre-dissertation feasibility study about an elite group of large-scale soybean farmers and corporate groups owning multiple farms ranging from 5,000 to 400,000 hectares, with a view to understanding what factors influence the environmental management of their property.
[Photo 1. Legend: “An example of large-scale corn field”]
Although my fieldwork involved spending some time in Brasília (the capital) and São Paulo to make contacts in government and agribusiness, I mainly met with farmers in four municipalities along the BR-163 highway (a long road stretching from Cuiabá, Mato Grosso’s capital, and Santarém, deep down in the Amazon forest) and three municipalities in the ‘Chapada dos Parecis’ region, an area dominated by gigantic farms. This area has historically been colonized in the 70’s and 80’s by small-scale farmers from Southern Brazil looking up for an opportunity to cultivate bigger areas, with the financial support of the military government that considered the occupation of the Amazon as strategic for economic and geopolitical reasons.
In less than forty years, this area, mostly pristine and originally inhabited by indigenous peoples and cattle-ranchers, was turned into the leading soybean producer region of Brazil, with 26 million tons produced a year representing 30% of Brazil’s production and 9% of the world. It is particularly striking to witness the exponential development of the municipalities of Sorriso or Lucas do Rio Verde (two of the municipalities I visited along the BR-163) that were inexistent forty years back and that now have hospitals and luxury houses due to the very high rent generated by agricultural activities there.
However, such spectacular development came at a cost and soybean cultivation has been heavily criticized in the early 2000s for causing extensive deforestation. Since 2004, farmers have come under heightened scrutiny of anti-deforestation policies and self-regulation initiatives of the agribusiness industry. Depending on their location, farmers in Mato Grosso are required by law to preserve 35% (in savannah areas called “Cerrado”) up to 80% (in forested areas) of their property under native vegetation, making them key players in environmental preservation and climate change mitigation. I am particularly interested in how policy changes and policy implementation have impacted the vision of the environment farmers have
[Photo 2: A cotton field with an area of preserved native vegetation in the background. The areas can look like real mini-forests on the property]
[Photo 3: Preservation seen from above – farmers preserve in priority areas along the rivers, as illustrated here. In the background, large patches of green areas denote “legal reserves”]
At the time of my visit, in late June, farmers usually harvest the safrinha (literally “small harvest”) of corn or cotton. Due its exceptional and unique geographic and climatic conditions (plane areas suitable for mechanized agriculture and abundant rain) and the adoption of direct seeding techniques, farmers in this region are able to intensify their production by making not one but two harvests a year, some even risking a third one. They almost always start by planting soybean in September-October, harvest it in February and plant corn or cotton right after. As a result of this agricultural paradigm shift, they even became Brazil’s leading cotton producers and are responsible for 25% of the country’s corn production too.
Having met extensively with large-scale producers and their organizations (rural syndicates, soybean producer associations, etc.), I had the chance to be invited quite a few times to farm visits. This allowed me to witness corn harvest operations in farms ranging from 1,000 to 13,000 hectares. To give an idea of the scale, the 13,000 hectares farm I visited was delineated by 54 kilometers of roads around it, and had a network of 180 kilometers of roads within it. Such farm visits helped me to get a better understanding of the production systems, the advanced technology used and complex administrative organization of these farmers. For instance, using technology similar to U.S. agriculture, I sat in a harvest machine on auto-pilot, conducting all harvest operations alone using a very accurate GPS system. Some can even be piloted from an office on farm. I also visited the area of the farms that need to be kept under forest cover and how farmers preserve vegetation along the rivers and water bodies present on their property. It is not rare to see boars or tatus crossing farm roads, and even jaguars in some cases. Some farmers nonetheless start perceiving some limits to their fragile agricultural model: the record high drought this year and new pests have destroyed 30% of soybean and 50% of corn harvests.
[Photo 4: Large-scale fields mean large-scale harvest machines]
I would like to thank CLACS, the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Global and International Studies, the School of Education, and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs for their support through this field research grant. This allowed me to get a better understanding of farmer’s changing perception of agricultural production and the environment, and a unique chance to learn about the very peculiar history of these pioneer farmers. The interviews and observations made during this trip will help me to strengthen my Ph.D. Dissertation project.
Martin Delaroche is a Ph.D. student in Public Affairs at the School of Environmental and Public Affairs, affiliated graduate student at the Ostrom Workshop, and a Ph.D. student in Geography at the University Paris 3 Sorbonne-Nouvelle.