Threats to the Amazon rainforest and its peoples - the time of the sugar cane?

Threats to the Amazon rainforest and its peoples - the time of the sugar cane?

9th Apr 2018

Thiago Cardoso And Marilena Altenfelder

The planet's largest rainforest faces another terrible threat! A bill is discussed in the Brazilian national congress, proposing to liberate the expansion of sugarcane cultivation in the Amazon, project PLS 626/2011.

It is well known that the Amazon rainforest provides ecological services of great importance not only to indigenous peoples and local communities, but also to the rest of the world, contributing to the balance of the planet's environmental stability, which is subject to drastic climate change by industrial and agro-industrial processes. Therefore, as we expand deforestation in Amazonian ecosystems, we will have adverse impacts on the climate, rainfall, loss of biodiversity and socio-diversity, and damage the agricultural systems in the medium and long term. Amazingly, agribusiness entrepreneurs who insist on expanding monoculture - now with sugar cane - into the Amazon are not convinced that forest loss would threaten their own agricultural and biofuel productions in vast regions in southern and southeastern Brazil, which depend on the water vapor of the Amazon region.

Sugarcane is among the crops with the highest production increases in the last decade, and Brazil is the world's largest producer of sugarcane, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)[1]. The plantations are spread over 10 million hectares – an area  larger than the territory of Portugal - but there are another 65 million hectares that can be expanded within the current limits. And only 11 million more hectares would be needed to double the production that are already projected to increase due to the demand for biofuels.

The attempt to expand the cultivation of sugarcane monoculture in areas in the Legal Amazon has been proposed by the ruralists, as the group of Brazilian agribusiness entrepreneurs is called in the name of private interests and has recently been approved by the Commission of Environment in the Senate. Proponents of the bill say that bringing sugarcane to the Amazon would stimulate economic activity, international trade, and contribute to the nation's supply of biofuels.

However, the cultivation of sugar cane is done in an extensive way and requires a large area to maintain an industrial chain around them (sugar and ethanol mills). Scientist have already shown that sugarcane plantations threaten biodiversity, with its effects extending beyond cultivated areas to adjacent forests. According to a recent note in an important scientific journal Ferrante and Fearnside[2] pointed out that

  "studies carried out in other Biomes show that the damage caused by sugarcane cultivation is not only in the local area, but extends to adjacent forests. It is a well-known phenomenon in Ecology, called the edge effect, which can penetrate up to one kilometer inside forest areas, depleting the structure of these forests causing impacts on the fauna. The introduction of the sugarcane crop into degraded areas would therefore threaten the adjacent forests. In addition to this we should emphasize the importance of the forest as a whole, for biodiversity and the ecosystem services that regulate the climate of Brazil and all of South America".

 The threat of extensive monoculture of sugarcane in the Amazon is in addition to other efforts to occupy the forest and territories of indigenous and traditional peoples and communities, making the human and non-human life that inhabits the biome invisible. Among many threats, there are currently projects in the legislature that reduce the areas of National Parks and Extractive Reserves, and others that in practice make it impossible to create or expand protected areas and indigenous territories not only in Brazil but in all Amazonian basin countries seeking to invest in mining, agribusiness and large infrastructure leases such as dams, transmission lines, waterways and roads. With the predominance of the ruralists and conservatives, in the case of Brazil, if this law is approved, vast regions and territories of the local peoples and communities could be made uninhabitable.

Thus, allowing sugarcane cultivation in the Amazon region, even in degraded lands, is considered an error because it means adding another motor to the already growing deforestation. Even if planted in altered areas, the cultivation of sugarcane will result in devastation of the forest, violence against local populations and social injustice because to give space to farming, livestock raising will be pushed to new areas. In addition, using "altered areas" for cane cultivation would mean that deforested regions that could still have the vegetation recovered would be released for production. At the same time, it would provide a value increase of the land by bringing new infrastructure for the processing of sugarcane to the region. This will harm small farmers and help perpetuate chaos around social issues and land rights in the north of the country which would make it impossible to meet the goals of reducing deforestation signed by Brazil at the Paris Conference in defense of the Earth's Climate.

Soybean cultivation, along with livestock raising, mining and logging are already the main causes of deforestation of the Amazon Forest at alarming levels. It is evident, in the eyes of those who are not directly interested in the profit of sugarcane, that the sum of this activity is not a viable option neither socially nor environmentally. The idea that bringing development to a region means ending socio-biodiversity is outdated. The Amazon region is full of initiatives and ways of inhabiting its environments that can yield economic gains coupled with the maintenance of environmental conditions. The coalition of social movements, environmentalists and companies also says that a low-carbon economy - with activities that articulate multifunctionality and pluriactivity, aimed at sustainable forest management, extractivism, agricultural systems and wildlife management, could keep expanding the various forms to obtain income for family consumption and for the market in the region of the Legal Amazon without the need to expand monoculture.

Despite the obscurantist and reactionary tide, the environmental resistance and the social movement have been imposing important defeats to these types of projects that attack life. You have to be alert and strong, you have to be united and you have to fight[3].


[2] Amazon sugar cane: A threat to the forest. Science, v. 359, n. 6383, p. 1476-1476, 2018 (

[3] Brasileiro contra o cultivo de cana na Amazônia!