Food for Growing Population, Exports to Help Pay Debt : Brazil Is Carving Out a Huge New Farming Area From Wilderness

Times Staff Writer

The rolling landscape of twisted trees and stunted shrubs that characterizes vast areas of central Brazil is being transformed by agricultural research into green islands of productive farmland.

By modifying the acid soils of the cerrado , as these areas are called, Brazil could double its production of grains and oilseeds, now at an annual level of 50 million tons, to feed its burgeoning population and raise its export earnings.

"The cerrado is Brazil's new agricultural frontier," said Paulo Romano, president of a joint Brazil-Japan development company that since 1980 has invested more than $100 million in family farm settlements in Minas Gerais state.

"This program is succeeding because the cerrado soils, where crops once lacked necessary nutrients, can be sweetened by chemical inputs. Everything else--water, sunshine, and topography suitable for farm machinery--is here."

Development of the cerrado has top priority for the newly installed civilian government. Nutrition studies show that 85% of Brazil's 130 million people have a diet below the minimum standard. And the population is expected to grow to 190 million by the end of the century.

Nation's Strongest Weapon

In agricultural exports, which already help Brazil pay the annual interest of $11 billion on its foreign debt, the cerrado is the nation's strongest weapon. The Japanese-financing development program--which will be extended to four more states under a $150-million Japanese Overseas Development Agency loan signed in early March--will make Brazil a strong competitor with U.S. farmers for the Japanese soybean market.

The railroad network in the cerrado region, installed mainly to move iron ore for export, is being adapted to carry grain and oilseed to a deep-water port at Vitoria, in the state of Espirito Santo.

Brazil, long the world's No. 1 coffee exporter, has diversified its agriculture over the past decade and become an aggressive competitor in world markets. It is second to the United States in soybean exports; it has overtaken Argentina and Australia as a leading beef exporter; expanded corn production underlies Brazil's substantial poultry and pork exports.

All this has been achieved by employing only about 120 million acres, a sixth of Brazil's potential cropland. The under-utilized cerrado covers 300,000 square miles, an area larger than Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri put together.

Brasilia, the modernistic capital on Brazil's central plateau, 400 miles inland from the Atlantic, lies at the heart of the cerrado region. Along the newly paved highways that radiate from it to the farmlands of the states of Goiaz and Minas Gerais, flourishing green fields of soybeans cover the reddish soil.

Farmers Flock to Region

Farmers who have the know-how to apply modern technology are coming into the region from southern Brazil, where mechanized farming is well established in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Parana and Sao Paulo. There, they have run out of new land, and the cerrado is a good buy at current prices of about $125 an acre.

Erico Lohmann, 56, whose parents immigrated to Rio Grande do Sul from Germany, is one of 26 farmers who have settled in Minas Gerais state under the Brazil-Japan program. He operates a family farm of 1,160 acres at Irai, and his soybean crop contributed to a grain output of 30,000 tons just marketed through the Irai cooperative.

"Before I came here four years ago, this was a region where the only thing was bush cattle," Lohmann said. "Since we started, the soybean yields have gone up each year as the soil is improved. The first year we harvested 14 sacks per hectare (770 pounds per acre), and this year we took off 40 sacks (2,200 pounds per acre)."

Romano, the development company president, said production under the Brazil-Japan project will exceed 200,000 tons this year, and this does not include many other private farmers who have begun applying the new methods that turn the cerrado green.

This modest but successful start on bringing Brazil's new breadbasket into production is based on the application of agricultural research developed by EMBRAPA, the state research agency, which has a $100-million budget. At the cerrado research center near here, the agency developed a technology package based on mechanization and soil correction through the application of tons of lime and chemical fertilizers. Where irrigation is possible, two crops can be harvested annually.

Can Do the Job

Olacyr de Moraes, who is known as Brazil's soybean king, said: "We now know how to make the cerrado produce. All it takes now is enterprising farmers, adequate credit to cover fixed investments and realistic farm prices."

De Moraes now owns the Itamaraty Bank in Sao Paulo and several huge farms, including a 90,000-acre spread in the southern part of Mato Grosso state that produced 80,000 tons of soybeans last year. He is now opening a new cerrado farm at Diamantina, in northern Mato Grosso, that covers 220,000 acres.

Corporate farming has played a big role in opening new land in Mato Grosso and Para, states that have a tropical Amazon climate and are suitable for large cattle operations or colonization projects. However, the future of the cerrado is expected to depend on family-size farms.

Romano said this means that special agricultural credit programs will have to be established to carry farmers through the first years of heavy investment in soil correction and machinery purchases before crop yields begin to increase.

"The development of the cerrado will be slow unless credit is made available," he said, "and this will take a major political decision by the government."

Many agricultural economists say that Brazil--needing to double grain and oilseed production to feed its growing population and pay its $100-billion debt--has no choice but to carry out an agricultural occupation of the cerrado before the end of this century.

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