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Sugarcane expansion may threaten Amazon

September 13, 2013

Brazil plans to vote on a bill in the coming weeks to reopen large areas of the Amazon to sugarcane mills, rekindling fears that ethanol production could accelerate deforestation and create a major marketing challenge for the country’s biofuels industry, Reuters reported in June.

Brazil plans to vote on a bill in the coming weeks to reopen large areas of the Amazon to sugarcane mills, rekindling fears that ethanol production could accelerate deforestation and create a major marketing challenge for the country’s biofuels industry, Reuters reported in June.

The bill proposes to limit sugarcane to areas that could add up to roughly the size of South Africa – 1.25M km2 (775,000 square miles) – in the broader Amazon. The areas were cleared of trees and brush decades ago and are more savannah-like and thus more suitable for sugarcane than rainforest.
Environmentalists are concerned Congress’ vote could overturn the ban on sugarcane expansion in the region that went into place in 2009 and increase pressure on land use in areas that amount to nearly a third of the broader Amazon region in Brazil.

Meanwhile, expansion into environmentally sensitive areas could hurt ethanol producers’ plans to open new export markets, economists have said.
Investors say the high cost of transporting fuels into Brazil’s isolated north makes local production of ethanol a compelling economic investment, while senators from the region supporting the bill believe more sugarcane mills would actually help curb illegal deforestation and create jobs.
“You can’t hide cane. All of it has to be within 30-40km (20-25 miles) of the mill, so it’s easy to police,” said Eduardo de Lima Giuliani, director of Brazil’s VBP venture capital fund. “It would create jobs, generate taxes and reduce greenhouse gases.”

If the bill, which cleared the Senate Environmental Committee in May, passes the full Senate and lower house in the coming weeks, it will overturn the ban at a delicate moment, according to the Reuters report.
Brazil’s main sugarcane ethanol lobby is trying to convince the European Commission (EC) to recognise its ethanol as sustainable, which would earn it special access to an important new market.
Renewed sugarcane planting in the Amazon, which spans 58% of Brazil’s territory, may make it harder to win that recognition in the coveted European market.
Although six sugarcane mills currently operate in Brazil’s Amazon region, new projects have been unable to get licensing from environmental agency IBAMA, or access to farm credit at subsidised rates from the country’s main state banks. The areas that could support sugarcane in the Amazon could be six to 10 times the size of Brazil’s main sugarcane belt in the centre-south region, where there are eight million ha (20M acres) of sugarcane under cultivation.
However, a massive increase in sugarcane planting seems unlikely, states Reuters, since ethanol produced there would be mainly for the local market and would struggle to compete with cheaper, more efficient biofuels from the centre-south.


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