Environmental Questions Dog Brazil's Farming Boom

A Brazilian official cites new protections and denies new wave of Amazon deforestation.

A huge raft is loaded with confiscated wood in the Moju river, in Tailandia, Para, in northern Brazil, to be taken to Belen, the state capital. The Brazilian government launched a large-scale operation--code-named Arch of Fire-- in Para State, to control the deforestation.

The Brazilian government launched a large-scale operation in Para State, northern Brazil, to control deforestation.

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He has been dubbed the "King of Soy" because of his company's leading role in agricultural production in Brazil. He has also been a principal target of some environmental groups—particularly in the past—for his assertive promotion of farming in the frontier lands bordering the Amazon rain forest.

But when Blairo Maggi, the controversial governor of Mato Grosso state in west-central Brazil, spoke to U.S. News recently, he struck a decidedly moderate tone, talking up ideas to create "sustainability" in an increasingly important agricultural area where commercial and ecological interests have knocked heads for decades.

Maggi conceded that his handling of environmental issues had changed "a lot" in recent years. He argued that his administration—often at the center of controversies over the future of the Amazon—is taking a broad approach to agriculture's impact on the environment. "When we're talking about environmental issues, we cannot look only at deforestation," he said in an interview during a visit to Washington this month.

He cited Mato Grosso initiatives to protect rivers and watersheds, conserve water through better drainage systems along roadways, and recycle packaging that held toxic farm chemicals. "This is something that started in Mato Grosso," he said.

Maggi has been perhaps the chief critic of a Brazilian federal government crackdown on unauthorized logging in the Amazon, which runs through his state. He has argued that government satellite pictures have been misinterpreted, setting the stage for ranchers to receive fines for deforestation that, in many cases, took place well before it was legally banned.

Maggi says that Mato Grosso officials visited 663 farm sites where deforestation allegedly took place recently. He says that problems were found at no more than 10 percent of the sites. "We have people who are following the law, and they are having problems," he said.

Nonetheless, concern is growing that deforestation might be accelerating after a three-year decline, and the governor himself is an advocate of shifting future expected growth in Brazilian cropland to existing, already cleared pastures. "We know that we cannot open new areas because of the environmental restrictions," he said.

Maggi advocates rotating land between cattle pastures and crops. He also backs carbon-credit trading that would assist Amazon preservation by giving standing forest greater monetary value.

Maggi has met with some nongovernmental groups that are seeking ways to create economic incentives to save rain forest. One such group is the Land Alliance, founded by John Carter, a cattle rancher from Texas who moved to Brazil in 1996. Carter calls Maggi "very straightforward. He doesn't B.S. you."

Maggi seems to be looking for some middle ground, too. He acknowledges that some NGOs are "interested in helping and working together." Adds Maggi, "They are pragmatic and realistic."