Two years ago I predicted this would be the Brazilian Decade, and so far Brazil’s stunning success has proven me correct. It is not just about the large international events like the World Cup and Olympics that are on the calendar in 2014 and 2016. Brazil has become a creditor nation; once a net food importer, it now feeds much of the world; and recently it surpassed the United Kingdom to become the world’s sixth largest economy.
For decades much of the growth was centered around São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, then stretched south towards the border with Uruguay. Industries such as aircraft, petrochemicals and automobiles anchored Latin America’s largest economy. But now Brazil’s economic might has extended to regions of the country that had long underperformed compared to the wealthy south. One such state is Bahia in northeastern Brazil.
As African as southern Brazil is European, Bahia was once a relative backwater. Brazil’s fifth largest state has already been culturally rich and boasts a music scene with stars like Daniela Mercury. Now there is far more to Bahia. Offshore oil, farming and manufacturing are on the upswing. And therein lie some long term challenges for this vibrant corner of Brazil. While eyes will be on Rio for its hosting of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development this June, attention really should be paid to the corner of the country that is just over 1000 miles away.
Agriculture in Brazil has boomed in part because of the transformation of the cerrado, savannah-like plains that had long been left untouched. But the vast expanses of low lying trees and shrubs have been turned into farmland, and now soy, cotton, corn and other valuable crops now reign. Sugar, from which ethanol is processed, is also a valuable product grown in the cerrado and has been one key in Brazil’s energy independence: most automobiles in Brazil have flex fuel engines that can easily switch from gasoline to ethanol. Once inaccessible, new roads have made it possible to transport crops from this region to large cities like Salvador, Bahia’s capital, for distribution abroad. And no longer hostile to crops, the cerrado’s terrain has been pumped with nitrates that allow agricultural commodities to grow around the year.
The result is a threat to the cerrado’s future. While Brazil has improved its management of the Amazon, the cerrado has been plundered in comparison. Wiser management is important because the cerrado covers one-fifth of the country–and boasts five percent of all life on earth. Many of the cerrado’s plants have medicinal properties that can combat illnesses from bacterial infections to malaria. To that end, organizations including WWF have worked on educating consumers about food products that come from this region. The task will be difficult as half of the cerrado has already been changed into industrial farms.
The challenge of Brazil is to improve its land management not only for the environment, but its people. While the country has done an impressive job the past decade lifting millions out of poverty with programs like Bolsa Familia, not everyone benefits from the boom. In fact, many emigrants still will not return, or go back to their adopted countries after giving the homeland a second change.
WIth Brazil’s global clout comes increased focus on its role as the world’s breadbasket and whether the increasing strain on its land is too high a price to pay. Questions about sustainable development this June should include what is going on now within the host country.
Photo courtesy Leon Kaye.