Ethanol Production Could Be Eco-Disaster, Brazil's Critics Say

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
February 8, 2007
In Brazil ethanol has become economically competitive with gasoline, and
the country's biofuels program could serve as a world model for
producing sustainable energy, officials say.

South America's largest country is the world's reigning ethanol king, producing 4.4 billion gallons (16.5 billion liters) of the biofuel from sugarcane each year, on average.

Biofuel is widely considered a way to reduce greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use and thereby reduce human-caused global warming.

(Related news: "Global Warming "Very Likely" Caused by Humans, World Climate Experts Say" [February 2, 2007].)

Brazil's sugarcane-based ethanol program is "appropriate for replication in many countries," writes José Goldemberg, secretary of the environment for the Brazilian state of São Paulo, in a perspective article in this week's issue of the journal Science.

But an unregulated biofuels boom in Brazil could mean bust for the Amazon rain forest and a vast savanna ecosystem known as the Cerrado, environmentalists warn.

Expanding large-scale agriculture to grow sugarcane, critics say, will worsen the loss of species diversity, water-quality problems, and habitat fragmentation in some of the world's most biologically diverse regions.

"The primary concern is that the biofuels push will directly or indirectly increase the loss to Brazil's remaining natural high biodiversity areas, such as the Cerrado," said John Buchanan, a senior director for the U.S.-based nonprofit Conservation International.

Sugar Farming Not So Sweet?

The 740,100-square-mile (1.9-million-square-kilometer) Cerrado region is South America's largest savanna—one of the richest in the world, in terms of bird, reptile, fish, and insect species.

According to a study published last year in the journal Conservation Biology, more than 50 percent of the Cerrado has already been transformed into pastureland, causing soil erosion, biodiversity loss, fragmentation, and the spread of nonnative grasses.

"Most of the expansion required will affect the Cerrado ecosystem and the Amazon, which are already being destroyed because of cattle ranching and soybean farming," said Leonardo Lacerda of the Brazilian chapter of the international conservation group WWF.

Of Brazil's 2 million acres (850 million hectares) of land, about 1,400 acres (550 hectares) contain native forests, two-thirds of which are in the Amazon.

Sugarcane is not well suited for rain forest climates, Lacerda said, and the government is deliberately avoiding the expansion of sugarcane farms in the region.

But, he said, there is concern that higher-priced crops like sugarcane will displace soy and cattle farming in the Cerrado—driving those operations into the forests, which would have to be flattened to make way for the farms.

(Related photos: human encroachment in the Amazon.)

"This displacement effect is not hypothetical," Lacerda added. "São Paulo used to be one of the most important cattle regions in Brazil. Now sugarcane has replaced it and pushed cattle to other places in the Cerrado and Amazon."

A more direct worry for the Amazon is palm trees grown for their nuts' oil—another source of biological energy, Lacerda said.

"The potential to convert Amazon habitat in order to produce palm oil is huge," he said, noting that palm plantations have been among the biggest causes of the devastation of the rain forest in the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

(Related news: "Orangutan Habitat May Be Gone in 15 Years, UN Report Says" [February 7, 2007].)

"We want the government to have a plan for the displacement effect that sugarcane plantations will cause and for the arrival of palm cultivation in these areas."

Simple Calculations

Sugarcane industry officials, however, say deforestation concerns are overblown.

Carvalho Macedo of Brazil's National Sugarcane Agro-Industry Union says wildlands will not have to be plowed under, because Brazil has 200 million acres (809,000 hectares) of pasturelands available to absorb sugarcane growth.

"You don't need more than 5 percent of that land to reach production levels imagined for ten years from now," Macedo said.

Macedo said Brazil's current sugarcane production takes place on roughly 14.8 million acres (6 million hectares)—less than one percent of the country's total land dedicated to farming.

São Paulo state environment secretary Goldemberg writes in Science that "worldwide, some 49 million acres (20 million hectares) are used for growing sugarcane, mostly for sugar production.

"A simple calculation shows that expanding the Brazilian ethanol program by a factor of ten [in Brazil and other countries] … would supply enough ethanol to replace 10 percent of the gasoline used in the world.

"This land area is a small fraction of the more than 1 billion hectares [2.5 billion acres] of primary crops already harvested on the planet."

In addition to deforestation issues, green groups have cited problems with localized air pollution around sugarcane fields, since farmers have traditionally burned the fields after canes are harvested.

Another concern is that wastewater from sugar mills pollute water supplies.

Antonio Luiz Lima de Queiroz, a specialist with São Paulo state's environmental agency, says the organization is addressing the problem.

"Our laws say that mills can never put water in the river that is worse than what the river has," he said.

Buchanan of Conservation International agrees that "there have been significant improvements in some sugar operations in São Paulo state.

"But there is room for broader adoption of these applications."

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