In this extract from his book The Landgrabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth, Fred Pearce witnesses the relentless plundering by intensive commercial farmers of Brazil’s rich savannah
It was hard to believe, as I sipped a glass of wine by the pool while a light plane landed behind me on the farm airstrip, but a quarter of a century ago, all the land around me had been Brazilian badlands. A wild west, where men on horses staged gun battles on empty grassland they could buy for the price of a packet of cigarettes.
Times change. I was joined for lunch at Campo Aberto by a dapper British financier in a blazer and panama. He used to be something big in Rolls-Royce, and he had just flown in with his wife to consider investing in the farm – part of a 42,000-hectare agricultural empire called Agrifirma, assembled by Lord Rothschild, the head of the banking family, and the once-notorious 1970s corporate raider Jim Slater. The incorrigible pair, both past their 75th birthdays, were betting their profits from a successful speculation in gold and uranium on Brazilian agriculture.
We were in the heart of the cerrado, the most biologically rich savannah grassland in the world, in what was once the outback of Brazil. But the lawless days are disappearing, and with them biodiversity. For this land is turning into one of the most unremitting commercialised monocultures on earth. It is the first place in the tropics to successfully recreate on a large scale the high-tech, high-input, high-investment farming system pioneered in the American prairies. In recent years, the place has out-invested the prairies, with its endless fields of GM maize, soya, cotton and coffee. This, the financiers say, is the future of farming.
The cerrado was an enormous patchwork of tall, waving grassland dotted with dry woods. It occupied an area approaching a quarter of Brazil – two million square kilometres of the high plains on the Atlantic side of the Amazon basin. It teemed with unusual mammals, including armadillos, anteaters, tapirs and maned wolves. There were thousands of endemic plants, uniquely adapted to drought and fire. These ecological riches were harvested, but rarely destroyed, by bands of Indians.
It took a long time for Europeans to penetrate Brazil’s empty heart. The soils of the cerrado were deep, well drained and underlain by abundant reserves of water. But they were too acid to grow most crops. So the land was either left alone or given over to extensive ranches, with the existing grasses nibbled at by cattle.