ALIANCA, Brazil — A landholder and power broker in the country’s capital, Katia Abreu has heard all the warnings about ranches and soybean farms carving up Brazilian forests.
But as she rides a chestnut mare across fields of sorghum and corn — her 12,355-acre spread here in the soft hills of north-central Brazil — Abreu insists Brazilian farmers should be commended, not demonized. Big Agro has transformed this country into a breadbasket to the world, she said, one that’s poised to feed billions.
“We are not ashamed of anything,” Abreu said. “What’s important is that Brazil increase production.”
This is not an idle boast but rather a declaration that carries weight, as environmentalists — whom Abreu sees as adversaries — well know.
That’s not just because Brazil has the world’s biggest commercial herd of beef and is the No. 1 exporter of soybeans, orange juice, coffee and chicken. It’s also because Abreu, who is a senator and president of the country’s most important association of growers and ranchers, operates in the highest echelon of power in Brazil.
And her message is clear: We will not back down.
Agribusiness already accounts for nearly 40 percent of the country’s exports and provides 37 percent of jobs in Brazil.
Abreu wants to see those numbers expand. But she believes it can be done on the same amount of land now dedicated to farming in Brazil, 28 percent of the country’s territory. That will happen through the application of agro-technology to improve yields.
“What’s important is that Brazil can increase production by growing vertically, not horizontally,” said Abreu, who also stresses that satellite monitoring of the Amazon has shown a steady decline in deforestation since 2004.
Many in Brazil, though, are not convinced that Abreu’s modern-sounding projections for farm production line up with what Big Agro really wants. Environmentalists and experts on land use in Brazil say there is a latent threat, noting that deforestation rose fast this year in some regions, including Abreu’s home state.
“They’re putting on the best face, but it’s basically a farce,” said Christian Poirier, Brazil campaigner for Amazon Watch, a California-based environmental group. “It doesn’t jibe with what this landowning bloc represents, which is the expansion of the frontier.”
The bitter fight over land was particularly pitched this year as environmentalists and Big Agro tussled over what is known as the Forest Code, a forest-protection law that was enacted in October. Farmers and ranchers fought hard to scrap requirements that obligated farmers to maintain a large forest cover on farms in the Amazon.
That effort failed, said Sergio Sauer, a University of Brasilia expert on rural development. But he said there were alterations made to the old Forest Code that could lead to a reduction in the amount of woodlands that farmers need to preserve.
Critics of the law also worry that environmental enforcement could be weaker than before — giving farmers, ranchers and loggers an opening to carve up the forest.
“There’s less protection for the environment,” Sauer said. “Our problem is not so much the law than the lack of a mechanism to ensure the law is obeyed.”
In playing multiple roles, Abreu, 50, wields considerable clout.
Her trade group, the National Agriculture Confederation, represents 5 million growers and ranchers. On visits to Washington, China and Europe, she spars with university students, lobbies for acceptance of Brazil’s genetically modified crops and appeals to investors. She has also built a close working relationship with one of the world’s most influential women, Brazil’s popular left-of-center president, Dilma Rousseff.
A senator since 2006, Abreu draws much of her political muscle from the bloc she leads in the National Congress that’s known as the Ruralists. An alliance of landowners and their supporters, it includes nearly half of the 513 lawmakers in the lower house, said Sylvio Costa, who directs Congress in Focus, a watchdog that publishes a Web site and magazine tracking lawmakers.
“They became one of the most powerful groups in the Congress, even more so than the industrialists,” Costa said. “They have the power to approve anything they want.”
In a book about landowning politicians, “The Land Party,” journalist Alceu Castilho outlines how lawmakers at all levels, from small-town mayors to senators, control huge swaths of the country’s best farmland. Castilho also said that the influence landholders enjoy permits them to evade justice for crimes ranging from land thefts to the use of slave labor.
To Castilho, landholding politicians remain as retrograde in the way they look after their interest as the pioneers who snatched up giant parcels in Brazil’s 1970s-era land rush. He said little has changed under the leadership of Abreu, who has headed the agriculture confederation for four years.
“There is a new facade that has been put on old ideas,” Castilho said. “It’s cosmetic.”
Castilho is not the only one who sees landholders with suspicion.
Surveys carried out for the agricultural confederation showed that Brazilians saw landowners as “truculent, very powerful, dangerous, producing just for export and violent,” Abreu explained.
Abreu said her job has been to blunt that view, both in Brazil and abroad.
“We are interested in our image,” Abreu said. “We are Brazilians like everyone else, happy, sometimes sad, sometimes we get angry. We’re normal people.”
In 1987, Abreu herself had a normal, quiet life. She was raising two children and a third was on the way when her husband was killed flying the small plane he used to get to his landholdings.
Relatives advised Abreu to sell the family farm. She rejected the advice, though she knew nothing about agriculture.
“I decided not to have a manager for the farm,” Abreu recalled, “so I could learn everything about farming and how to do it.”
Abreu now wants outsiders to visit this spread in Tocantins state and two other large farms that give her control of 30,000 acres.
Here, she grows soybeans and eucalyptus trees. Crops are rotated for efficient use of soil, and cattle will soon be mixed in. Genetically modified seeds are the norm.
“We’re modern producers,” said Abreu, explaining that countless farms like hers motor Brazil’s economy.
As for her critics, Abreu dismisses them as “ideologically committed” foes dedicated to seeing Brazilian agriculture founder. “I want to talk to people who are well intentioned, but perhaps poorly informed,” she said.