Posted: 23 May 2007 in


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Pulp industry and plantation proponents like to portray Brazil as a huge, half-empty terrain, where the pulp industry and associated plantations are providing jobs and developing the country. The industry advocates plantations as an alternative to using wood from the Amazon rainforests. But these plantations are not established on land that no one else wants, and the mills are thousands of kilometres from the Amazon. The plantations and pulp mills are concentrated in the coastal areas close to the ports from which the pulp is exported.

When the pulp industry arrived forty years ago in the Southeast of Brazil, large areas of Atlantic Rainforest were destroyed. With concessions granted by the then military government, plantation companies took over the lands of indigenous peoples, Quilombolas (descendants of escaped slaves) and peasant farmers. More recently, pulpwood plantations also replaced the species rich Cerrado savannah woodland. Ever since, the region has been impacted by pollution and sinking ground water levels and people have been protesting against plantations on their traditional land. But the expansions are still continuing at an alarming rate – driven by the international pulp industry and with the support of private banks and government subsidies.

Brazil has extremely inequitable land distribution, with three per cent of the population holding almost two-thirds of the country’s arable land. The large areas of land being taken over for industrial tree plantations exacerbate this situation.

Plantation expansion plans

The area of pulpwood plantations in Brazil is rapidly expanding as companies establish ever greater areas of eucalyptus monocultures. The pulp industry owns over 1.7 million hectares of plantations – about one-third of the total area of industrial tree plantations in Brazil (plantations are also used to provide charcoal for the steel industry and timber). While this figure may not sound much, especially in a country the size of Brazil, in some areas eucalyptus plantations completely dominate the landscape. In Conceição da Barra in the north of the state of Espírito Santo, for example, about 70 per cent of the land is covered with eucalyptus plantations.

The expansion of plantations in Brazil started under the military dictatorship in 1966 with a programme of subsidies for plantation establishment. The subsidies remained in place until 1987. An average of 180,000 hectares a year was established during this period [1]. Recently the annual average increase in plantation area has been about 100,000 hectares.

Forest consulting firm Pöyry describes Brazil as the “natural hub for the forest industry’s expansion in South America”, and expects that the area of plantations will double in the next 10 years. According to Pöyry, “This raw material base will sustain the forest industry’s expansion with new mills mainly aimed at exports of market pulp, increasingly replacing the production of high-cost mills in the mature markets of North America and Europe.” [2]

The pulp companies and their expansion plans

In 2005, according to the Brazilian Association of Pulp and Paper (BRACELPA), Brazil produced 10.1 million tonnes of pulp and 8.6 million tonnes of paper and employs 108,000 workers. The sector is dominated by a handful of major companies, of which, in terms of pulp production, Aracruz Cellulose is the largest.

Several companies are currently expanding their plantation and pulp operations in Brazil.

  • Aracruz is planning to expand its operations in Espírito Santo and announced in 2006 that it is looking at the possibility of building a new 1.3 million tonnes a year pulp mill in Rio Grande do Sul. Aracruz currently has a total capacity of 3 million tonnes of pulp (up from 1.3 million tonnes in 2000). Almost all of Aracruz’s pulp is exported. The company accounts for nearly half of total pulp exports from Brazil and is the world’s largest producer of bleached eucalyptus pulp.
  • Stora Enso is buying up land in the west of Rio Grande do Sul. The company aims to establish 100,000 hectares of plantations and is planning to build a new pulp mill in either Brazil or Uruguay, or perhaps both.
  • In Bahia Sul province, Suzano is expanding its pulp operations. The company’s new pulp line is planned to start up in October 2007, increasing production by one million tonnes a year.
  • Veracel has plans to double its current capacity of 900,000 tonnes a year in the state of Bahia.
  • Sateri International is planning to expand its dissolving pulp mill Bahia Pulp by 250,000 tonnes a year.
  • Votorantim Celulose e Papel (VCP) is building a new 1.1 million tonnes a year pulp mill at Tres Lagoas, 600 kilometres northwest of Sao Paulo. The pulp mill is planned to start operations in 2009.

At the costs of local people: Protests against the expansions

But this expansion of industrial tree plantations comes with serious social and environmental impacts. These plantations are occupying indigenous and traditional peoples’ territories, evicting people from rural areas and contributing to the creation of poverty.

In a country where land ownership is among the most skewed in the world, the vast areas of industrial tree plantations are further increasing land concentration. Brazil’s Movement of Landless Peasants (MST) is occupying lands planned for the pulpwood monocultures to illustrate the inequity of producing pulp for export from land that could be used to feed the people of Brazil.

Via Campesina, an international peasant farmers’ movement, has also protested against Brazil’s pulp industry. On 8 March 2007, World Women’s Day, more than 1,000 women from Via Campesina occupied plantations belonging to Aracruz, Stora Enso and Votorantim Celulose e Papel, in protest against the expansion of plantations in Rio Grande do Sul. The previous year, about 1,500 women farmers from Via Campesina occupied a tree nursery belonging to Aracruz near Porto Alegre. The farmers destroyed greenhouses and 5 million tree seedlings. Aracruz claimed they caused US$ 20 million worth of damage. Via Campesina describes the act as “a protest, an outcry so that society could comprehend something that it is not seeing, but which is destroying our rivers and our animals, the diversity of nature, and even our lives.” [3]

A decades-long land dispute between the Tupinikim and Guarani indigenous peoples and Aracruz is still not resolved. Aracruz built its first pulp mill on the site of a Tupinikim village and destroyed at least seven other Tupinikim villages to make way for its plantations in the state of Espírito Santo. “When the company came, the people left. They weren’t able to defy it. They were forced to leave and even threatened,” Eugenio Francisco, a Tupinikim of the village of Lancha told researchers from FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency in 1994. “The company took everything,” he said. [4]

The company denies that the Tupinikim and Guarani are indigenous peoples and launched a racist campaign against them through leaflets and billboard advertisements, one of which read, “Aracruz brought progress. FUNAI brought the Indians.”

Quilombola communities in the north of Espírito Santo are trying to reclaim 10,000 hectares from Aracruz. In July 2006, 500 Quilombola villagers reclaimed a cemetery where their ancestors are buried that had been covered in eucalyptus plantations. A Quilombola villager explained what they want from the company: “Aracruz can export its pulp, that’s OK. But people need jobs and to get back their own lives. Aracruz needs to resolve all these problems before it can export.” Another Quilombola villager put it more simply. “I want Aracruz to disappear from here,” he said. [5]

A recent open letter from 48 organisations and individuals protests Veracel’s operations in the south of Bahia: “Over the past years, Veracel has generated a track record of environmental degradation, concentration of land, eviction of thousands of workers from the rural areas to the outskirts of cities, causing significant social and environmental disruptions.”

Veracel has established plantations on the lands of the Pataxó indigenous people in the area of Monte Pascoal. “This company is damaging our environment, co-opting our leaders with distribution of vehicles and promises of benefits with the clear objective of dividing us and continuing with the invasion of our territory,” the letter quotes a Pataxó as saying.

The letter also points out that Veracel’s plantations have “resulted in the disappearance of several rivers and streams, as well as the disappearance of several communities.” [6]

In the region of Sateri International’s Bahia pulp mill the resistance against the company’s activities and expansion plans is growing. The fast growing tree plantations have led to the drying-up of the water sources in a region which already suffered water shortages. The social and environmental impacts are serious. Local communities can no longer grow crops using their traditional agricultural systems.

Workers at the mill point out the non-compliance with workers’ rights guaranteed internationally by ILO conventions which have been ratified by Brazil. On 16 March 2007, construction workers hired for the expansion of the pulp mill at Camaçari went on strike. Apart from demanding higher salaries and better working conditions, workers are also demanding payments for the danger and health risks associated with working on the pulp mill construction site. On the construction site, workers are exposed to the toxic gases produced from the existing pulp mill. “Many workers have almost fainted,” says one of the directors of the trade union. “The company has the obligation to pay, but does not pay.”

Other workers complain that they have colleagues who have skin problems because of the absorption of vapour and chemicals. Workers in the mill describe the unsafe working conditions and the many accidents. Three collective cases are currently going through the courts. The cases refer to the health hazards and dangers at the construction site and criticise the lack of commitment of the company concerning the safety of the workers.

In 1999, as a result of the controversies caused by the plantations and pulp industry in Brazil, citizens, fisher and farming communities, social movements, pastoral groups and churches formed the Alert against the Green Desert Network. In a 2003 letter to Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Green Desert Network summed up the problems caused by the pulp industry’s industrial tree plantations:

“Over the past four decades, this complex has destroyed the local communities’ way of life. The companies in this sector continue to invade their lands and have caused rural exodus with the consequent dispersion of many communities. In such regions, the rivers have been degraded by pollution caused by wide-spread use of pesticides and a process of desiccation, linked to large-scale plantations, compromising fishing and the quality and quantity of drinking water.” [7]


[1] This figure includes all industrial tree plantations – not just plantations for the pulp industry.

[2] Know-How Wire, Pöyry Magazine, Issue 1, 2007, page 34.

[3] “What was not made public in the Aracruz case”, Via Campesina, 8 March 2006.

[4] Carrere, Ricardo (1997) “The environmental and social effects of corporate environmentalism in the Brazilian market pulp industry”, presentation at “Business Responsibility for Environmental Protection in Developing Countries” organized by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the Universidad Nacional (UNA), in Costa Rica in September 1997.

[5] Lang, Chris (2006) “Brazil: Quilombolas protest against Aracruz Cellulose”, World Rainforest Movement Bulletin 103, February 2006.

[6] “Stora Enso’s operations in Brazil are socially and environmentally unsustainable”, 31 August 2006.

[7] “Brazil: The Alert Against the Green Desert Network demands a change in the forestry model”, World Rainforest Movement Bulletin 72, July 2003.

Further Reading

World Rainforest Movement
Transnational Institute
MST – Movement of Landless Peasants


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