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In the Amazon, soy and corn already account for more than a third of Brazilian production

In 10 years, the region grew 111.5% in the cultivation of soy and 310% in the amount of corn, two of the main grains in the sector. Amazon can be a solution for food and grain

Elisa Vaz and Daleth Oliveira / O Liberal - Translated by Bruce Moraes / CCAA Belém

The use of large areas already open has allowed public policies designed for the Brazilian Amazon to consider a new vocation: to become a new agricultural frontier, with the possibility of establishing itself as a power in grain production. Producers and scholars argue that, carried out in accordance with technical criteria and studies that make up the ecological-economic zoning of the region, the activity can even prevent advances into the forest, rationally using already deforested areas.

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According to data from the National Supply Company (Conab), the numbers prove the expansion in grain production in the region, which can already be seen in the Brazilian countryside landscapes. The nine states that are part of the Amazon region - Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Maranhão, Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima and Tocantins - had significant growth in the last ten years: in relation to corn, the production of grain in the Amazon grew 310%, going from 9.9 million tons in the 2009/2010 harvest to 39.2 million tons. The participation in national production also increased, from 17.7% to 45.3%.

 

As regards to soybeans, production has more than doubled in ten years, at 110%: the amount of 21.7 million tons, in the 2009/2010 harvest, increased to 45.9 million in the 2019/2020 harvest. The growth was also above the national average, which went from 68 million tons to 124 million, and the participation in the national production expanded from 31% to 36%.

One of the states where production has been growing is Pará, which uses areas that are already open and occupying more space in the country's export basket. Within the state, there are three large soy production poles, according to the Federation of Agriculture and Livestock of Pará (Faepa): northeast of Pará, led by the municipality of Paragominas; southern Pará, with Santana do Araguaia as its main producing municipality; and west, captained by Santarém.

(Tarso Sarraff / O Liberal)

In the last harvest, 2019/2020, soy production was 1.8 million tons in Pará, which resulted in a 3.92% share in Amazon data, ranking fourth among the nine states. In front are Mato Grosso (35.8 million), Tocantins (3.5 mi) and Maranhão (3.1 mi). About corn, Pará loses in production to Mato Grosso (34.9 million), Maranhão (2.1 million), Tocantins (1.4 million) and Rondônia (1 million). Production was 834.8 thousand tons, with a share of 2.05% in the region.

However, when compared to the last decade, the expansion of soy activity in the state, which has the largest open areas in the Amazon, is proven. The result of Pará in the 2019/2020 harvest indicates that the soy production in the State grew 674.19% in the last 10 years, considering that, in the 2009/2010, the volume reached 232.5 thousand tons. Corn had a variation of 54.42%, against the 540.6 thousand tons produced a decade ago. Conab estimates that Pará will end the 2020/2021 harvest with 2.2 million tons of soybeans and another 974 thousand tons of corn, the two most cultivated grains in western Pará. Among the nine states in the Amazon, if this result is confirmed at the end of the harvest, in September, Pará will be the fourth largest producer of soybeans and the fifth largest producer of corn.

West of Pará: new agricultural frontier

The western region of Pará plays an important role in the context of grains in Brazil: either as a new productive frontier or as a way to transport national production, especially from the Midwest. According to the president of the Santarém Rural Union (Sirsan), which also includes the cities of Belterra and Mojuí dos Campos, Sérgio Schwade, local production is still based on livestock, with cattle, pigs and others; grains, such as soybeans, corn, sesame, beans and rice; horticultural plantations, which include watermelon and pineapple; and horticulture, the vegetables.

Sérgio Schwade is president of the Santarém Rural Union (Sirsan) (Tarso Sarraff / O Liberal)

“The highlights are the commodities, which are soy and corn. They have sales of almost R$ 1 billion today, in the year. The harvest is from September last year to September this year, so we haven't closed the data yet, but it works like this: there is a planting season. You need to enter the soybean crop in December, and then you plant in April. In the same month, we use the area to plant corn, which must be cultivated in the planting window, until, at the latest, May 10, because it needs rain and in July it cuts. The corn crop ends now, in August”, he explains.

Until this month, in the 2020/2021 harvest, soybean production was 300 thousand tons in the region, and corn, 320 thousand. Due to investments in technology and machinery made by producers, there was an increase in soy production, according to the president of Sirsan. “Last year, the corn cultivated area was also smaller. But we had a very complete rainfall cycle, and the country also has many degraded areas for cattle raising and agriculture takes up space because the grains reinforce the pasture. In total, agriculture adds up to around R$ 1.5 billion locally. We hope that in the 2021/2022 harvest the result will remain positive”, says Sérgio.

Railroad points out a solution, but the project needs to be bigger

Although the production of soybeans and corn is large in the west of Pará, little is left in the region - only 30% of corn and 15% of soybeans. The rest is exported. Sirsan's president says that, in the case of exportation, there is an exchange for fertilizers, which are already shipped on the ship that will take the cargo. Santarém is a point of convergence between several municipalities and states in the Amazon, being also a possible connection point with the Port of Miritituba, in Itaituba, also in Pará. And, from Santarém, cargoes go to Belém and the rest of the world. Today, however, only 15 to 20% of the service is industrialized in the west. What is needed to increase this number, according to Sérgio, are areas for the construction of ports and more infrastructure.

(Tarso Sarraff / O Liberal)

For this, a project has not yet come off the ground: the Ferrogrão railroad. The billion-dollar project for Railroad 170 (EF-170) is part of the federal government's Investment Partnership Program (PPI) and seeks to consolidate Brazil's new railroad export corridor through Arco Norte. The railroad, which has been under discussion for years, will have a length of 933 kilometers, connecting Mato Grosso to Pará, leading to the Port of Miritituba, in order to facilitate the flow of national agricultural production.

When completed, Ferrogrão will have high transport capacity and competitiveness in the flow of production through Arco Norte - a role that is currently played by the BR-163 highway, recently paved by the federal government. The corridor through the EF-170 and the highway consolidates a new route for the export of soybeans and corn in Brazil, according to the PPI. However, since July of last year, the project has been under analysis by the Federal Court of Accounts (TCU), an essential step for the auction notice to be published. Although the procedures related to the project were suspended in March by the Federal Supreme Court (STF), the Ministry of Infrastructure (Minfra) is betting that the auction for the concession of the railway should take place in the second half of the year.

With the new logistics, the intention is to reduce costs of those who pay to export products such as soybeans and corn, in view of the estimated drop in freight prices. “It hasn't come out of the paper yet and they are contesting. Today, we would be able to reduce the cost of transport with the railroad, it would be much lower. Also, for trucks, the road infrastructure is terrible. Ferrogrão would reduce many of these problems. The point is that it is linked to Miritituba and we would like it to be with Santarém, but we are dependent on the release of the Port Area II project, for the installation of new ports”, argues the president of Sirsan.

(Tarso Sarraff / O Liberal)

Another negative point of connecting the railway only to Miritituba, according to Sérgio, is that only ferries will dock there, which would limit transport, since there is the draft of the Tapajós river. At a certain time of the year, when the waters are low, he says that it is difficult to make the runoff. “When the rains decrease in the headwaters of the Midwest, which supplies the Tapajós River, the water level drops eight meters. It ends up having difficulty in navigating grain there. Here we already have the Amazon River”, he says.

Rural producer has good production, but complains about prices

A farmer from Belterra, 58-year-old Valter Radetski was born in Rio Grande do Sul, but came to try life in Pará, in 2000, alongside his wife. Over these years, the couple had three daughters, who are from Pará. Today Valter has one of the largest productions of soybeans and corn in the region, in addition to raising cattle.

Valter Radetski is a farmer (Tarso Sarraff / O Liberal)

Initially, upon arriving in Pará, Valter started cultivating rice. After some time, he started to plant soybeans. In the same year, came the cultivation of corn, after the soybean harvest, in the so-called “safrinhas”. “Today, I'm planting two thousand hectares. Within that, I made an average of 67 bags of soybeans per hectare, and corn, since we had good weather and there was no lack of rain, yielded an average of 145 bags per hectare. The two bags weigh 60 kilos. And I have around 500 cattle, including calves and oxen”, he says.

Export is the one who “commands” the price of corn sales, says Valter. For those who sell abroad, the cost of a bag of corn is, on average, R$68. Internally, in the local market, it costs between R$75 and R$80. As producers need to harvest corn in 30 days and there’s no space to store, they are forced to export. After approximately 90 days, corn is missing on the domestic market, and the price rises to around R$90. There are even some people who wait for the value to increase to earn more money, but the producer says it is an "adventure", as the price may even drop, depending on supply and demand.

Now banned, sugarcane in the Amazon would be a new alternative for biofuel

The production of sugarcane is one of the activities that move the economy in Brazil the most, leading the country to become the largest sugarcane producer in the world. Whether for export or production of alcohol and sugar, the plant is essential for national agribusiness. According to the Sugarcane Technology Institute (ITC), the sector alone represents 2% of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

“We don't want to cut down a single tree to plant sugarcane, that would be unreasonable, but we can't stop planting it"- Senator Flexa Ribeiro (PSDB-PA).

However, the region can’t have sugarcane cultivation as a new focus of productive development in already open areas, as is already with soy and corn. With the justification of preserving the region, in 2009, then president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva published a decree of the Agro-ecological Zoning of Sugarcane, excluding, among other areas, Pará, as it is in the Amazon Biome. In 2011, the decree was questioned through a bill in the Congress, authored by then-senator Flexa Ribeiro (PSDB-PA), which authorized the sustainable cultivation of sugarcane in altered areas of the Legal Amazon. “We don't want to cut down a single tree to plant sugarcane, that would be unreasonable, but we can't stop planting it,” said the congressman at the time. However, the bill did not advance in the Brazilian legislature.

Senator Flexa Ribeiro (PSDB-PA) (Tarso Sarraff / O Liberal)

In 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro revoked the 2009 decree, reauthorizing the planting of the species in the Amazon biome. However, the repeal of the ban was challenged in court and remains undefined. According to the general coordinator of Sugarcane and Agroenergy at the Ministry of Agriculture, of the federal government, an injunction issued by the Regional Court of the 1st Region of Amazonas suspended the repeal of this regulation, preventing the financing of sugarcane expansion projects of sugarcane in the region. "In this way, it makes any attempt, even if private, to implement a unit in these locations unfeasible, even if the area to be used is already deforested or even with a crop other than the original coverage", explained Cid Caldas, from the Ministry of Agriculture .

Despite having signed the decree in 2009, the former president Lula said he is open to dialogue on the subject in a recent interview with O Liberal. “We have an agroecological zoning, and the preservation is the best way to generate economic development opportunities for the region. The only thing I think is important is to involve society and discuss what is the healthiest and most profitable way to develop, taking into account the need to preserve the Amazon forest. Brazil cannot want to deforest the Amazon, neither to raise cattle nor to produce sugarcane; we have several degraded areas in heaps”, he said.

Pará seeks science to release sugarcane planting

In addition to the legal and political impasses to regulate the planting of sugarcane in the Amazon, there is still the controversy of dealing with monoculture, which presupposes deforestation practices, which also result in impacts on the environment. However, a group of farmers, businessmen and government entities in Pará began to look for sustainable solutions to make sugarcane cultivation viable in the state.

Propará

Competitive Agribusiness, an initiative of the Federation of Agriculture and Livestock of Pará (Faepa) aligned with the State Development Council (CDE), aims to integrate and improve strategic actions for the resumption of post-pandemic economic growth, increasing production in several agribusiness sectors, including sugarcane.

“Sugarcane is another production chain that can leverage the State's economy (...) A great addition of value, with a production process that ranges from agricultural planting to the final product, tends to bring jobs and income to the poorest regions that are normally far from large centers and without many opportunities for complete production chains" - Fernão Zancaner, vice-president of Faepa.

For the group, Pará has everything to have a production equal to the states of São Paulo and Paraná (the largest producers in Brazil), which together have 43 million and 500 thousand hectares, to produce with respect to the forest, using areas that already were deforested, explains the vice-president of Faepa, Fernão Zancaner.

“Sugarcane is another production chain that can leverage the State's economy and, in this sense, Faepa understands that cultivation and industrialization would be a good opportunity to generate employment and income in Pará. A great addition of value, with a production process that ranges from agricultural planting to the final product, tends to bring jobs and income to the poorest regions that are normally far from large centers and without many opportunities for complete production chains," said Fernão.

(Tarso Sarraff / O Liberal)

Despite the areas available for use, that is, deforested, Fernão points out the need to regularize these lands to improve the plant's production. “Perhaps the biggest impasse is land regularization. The cultivation of sugarcane depends on a joint productive and industrial nucleus, as sugarcane has a transport radius to the industry that cannot be very large, as the freight cost can make the operation unfeasible. Hardly a group from the sector will come to set up a productive nucleus of this size without the land within the reach of the project being fully regularized, and unfortunately Pará still suffers from this obstacle”, he pointed out.

Propará justifies the desire to regulate sugarcane production in the state with the study on the technical and economic feasibility of sugarcane in Pará carried out by the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq), of the University of São Paulo (USP) , contracted by the Government of Pará in 2006. Aware of climatic and edaphic suitability (soil study) and number of suitable areas, the institution's researchers considered planting in Pará lands viable and profitable.

According to the work, Pará has a region of high ability to produce sugarcane above what is planted throughout Brazil. There are 9 million hectares of soil from Pará in the east of the state, while the entire country plants in 6.6 million. “Ethanol production in Pará has good conditions in terms of productivity, labor costs, land and logistics to become one of the most competitive export platforms in Brazil”, says the technical report.

Compared to other states in the North region, Pará is the one with the largest area planted with the crop, although it represents only one sugarcane industrial processing plant, located in Ulianópolis, in the southeast of Pará. If all areas with high edaphic aptitude and recommended irrigation are considered, the cultivated area in Pará (4.03 million hectares) would be greater than the cultivated area in São Paulo (2.7 million hectares), the largest producing state for the plant.

“The dimensions of the ethanol business could transform the state socially and economically, contributing R$ 84 billion in investments, R$ 36 billion in GDP and two million jobs. These resources will help improve the standard of living of Pará as well as reduce environmental pressures in areas with native forest cover, since this work only took into account areas suitable for sugarcane that have already been deforested”, says the study.

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