The new trend of biomass plantations in Brazil: tree monocultures


The expansion of industrial tree plantations in Brazil

Since the 1960s, industrial tree monocultures, mainly of eucalyptus but also pine trees, have expanded rapidly in Brazil, especially in the coastal regions in the Southeast. Researchers found that eucalyptus could grow faster in Brazil than in any other country and even ten times faster if compared with the growth rate in the North, such as Sweden and Finland. Additional advantages to growing in Brazil are the availability of cheap labour and land.

The first expansion boom in Brazil happened during the military dictatorship (1964-1984), which guaranteed the fiscal incentives[1] the plantation companies wanted, and facilitated the appropriation of the lands of traditional and peasant populations. The BNDES (Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Social e Econômico – the National Social and Economical Development Bank) invested heavily in the sector and became the shareholder of some of the main companies, such as Fibria (ex-Aracruz Celulose[2]). The companies focused on wood production to supply their pulp mills. More than 90% was destined for export, mainly to Europe and North America, taking advantage of increasing paper consumption in the North.

A second expansion boom happened during the past 5-10 years, with support from the government of President Lula da Silva, once again through the BNDES. Nowadays, Brazil has as much as 6.7 million hectares of tree monoculture plantations[3], a territory the size of Holland and Belgium combined, still exporting mostly to the North and increasingly to Asia (mostly China).

A story of conflicts

Although from a corporate perspective this situation can be considered a ‘success story’, it becomes a story of negative impacts and human rights violations from the perspective of the local populations who have been directly affected. The implementation and expansion of the plantations have directly or indirectly displaced, tens of thousands of people to the huge peripheries of the Brazilian towns in the Southeast, where more than 80% of Brazilians currently live. The company Fibria now controls no less than 1 million hectares of land in a country where no real agrarian land reform has yet taken place. Several social movements struggle for land reform, including Latin-America’s biggest social movement, the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – Movement of Landless Rural Workers).

Communities that resisted the land grabs for plantations, and were subsequently forced to live next to the plantations, are now forbidden to enter the plantation area and are often criminalised when they try to benefit from a product inside these areas, such as wood. Communities also systematically suffer from a lack of water, because of the relatively high water consumption of the fast-growing eucalyptus trees. Where water sources have survived, many people refuse to use them, fearing contamination from the systematic application of pesticides, especially herbicides, inherent to the monoculture model of agriculture. Jobs are scarce in this increasingly mechanised sector[4] and workers’ rights have become more fragile and dangerous with many posts being outsourced and others entailing severe health risks such as applying pesticides or operating harvesting tractors (which involves driving the machines while simultanously felling trees).

The corporate control of land is reinforced by the political control exercised by corporations, especially through the systematic financing of all of Brazil’s political candidates during election time, ranging from candidates for town councils stretching to candidates for the Presidency of the Republic.

But the resistance of Brazilian people has impeded an even further expansion. In the north of Espirito Santo, the indigenous Tupinikim and Guarani peoples forced, after more than 30 years of struggle, the federal government to respect their constitutional right to land. In 2007, the government demarcated a total area of 18 thousand hectares as indigenous lands. These lands had been illegally occupied, by the former Aracruz Celulose company (Fibria), with eucalyptus plantations[5].

Further to the North, more than 30 traditional afro-Brazilian quilombola communities have been struggling for years to get their lands back, which they are entitled to as a constitutional right, yet these lands have been invaded by the plantations of Fibria and also the Suzano Papel e Celulose[6] company since the 1970s. Over the past ten years, MST has occupied several eucalyptus plantations. They argue that these large-scale plantations[7] producing cellulose to export are in disagreement with the constitutional principle that land has to fulfil a social function. In addition, the continuing plantation expansion makes land reform more difficult and only worsens the already extremely unequal land distribution in the country.

Companies have always denied the existence of oppositionover these plantations, until the Ministry of Environment in Brazil requested a study of conflicts regarding tree plantations throughout the country in 2003. The report, published in 2004[8], confirmed the existence of widespread a huge range of conflicts all over the country between, on the one hand, plantation companies, and on the other hand, communities and social movements, such as the MST. Soon after its publication, the Lula government took the report out of circulation and, at the same time, it continued working on its financial support of the plantation sector.

The companies have made efforts, since the 1990s, to greenwash the sector, investing in so-called ‘sustainable management’ of their industrial plantations, through the CERFOR-label[9] and especially the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label. They conduct public relations campaigns, always stressing that they are planting ‘forests’, despite the fact that local people refer to the plantations as ‘green deserts’, because they are like ‘dead forests’ to them, without the benefits of fruit, water, animals or biodiversity, and with the restrictions of movement that the companies impose on them.

A new expansion cycle: carbon and biomass plantations

Within the context of Brazil’s efforts to be a global economic power, a report was brought out by the new government’s Secretary of Strategic Affairs, under president Dilma Rousseff, which the Brazilian media accessed in March 2011. It announced that the new governmental policy is to more than double the tree plantation area in Brazil to 15 million hectares, increasing Brazil’s market share from US$ 7 billion to US$ 25 billion[10]. While the first expansion cycle was aimed especially at pulp and paper production, this time the government aims to expand plantations for different purposes. The pressing issue is the billions of subsidies that are needed to achieve this aim, more than the government itself is willing to contribute.

In this sense, the international focus on the climate crisis formed a very welcome alternative angle for the corporations and the government to use to open the door to new subsidies, especially for ‘renewable’ carbon plantations, despite their dubious climate benefits. For example, the Plantar company in the state of Minas Gerais has been a pioneer[11] in offering carbon credits through a CDM (Clean Development Mechanism)[12] project based on renewable eucalyptus tree plantations, ironically destined to be burnt again, emitting back into the atmosphere all the CO2 that was stored. The resulting charcoal is the energy source for Plantar’s pig iron industry.

Another example is the efforts of companies like Fibria and Suzano Papel e Celulose to sell carbon credits from the carbon stored in its plantations on the voluntary carbon market through the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX)[13], a stock exchange to trade carbon credits, founded in 2003. Once again, this mechanism is about a temporary carbon storage, not a permanent one, which is what is needed to combat the climate crisis. Another way that the Brazilian government has attempted to secure the subsidies it needs is with a new instrument improved at UNFCCC[14] level called ‘forests in exhaustion’. This instrument would guarantee that the older tree plantations receive money from the carbon market to guarantee the replanting of these plantations.

One of the latest developments is the plan to implement large-scale eucalyptus tree monoculture plantations for biomass wood production in the Northeast of Brazil by the company Suzano Papel e Celulose. Suzano is a private company that has been operating for 85 years. It is the second largest eucalyptus wood pulp producer in the world, with five pulp mills in Brazil, located in the states of São Paulo and Bahia, which produced 2.7 million tons of pulp and paper in 2008. Nowadays it controls 722 thousand hectares of land with 324 thousand hectares of eucalyptus plantations, in the states of Bahia, São Paulo, Espirito Santo, Minas Gerais, Tocantins and Maranhão[15]. Suzano has ambitious plans to increase its pulp and paper production to 7.2 million tons with three new industrial complexes: one in each of the Northeastern states of Maranhão and Piauí, and a third one that still has not been decided on[16].

Suzano’s biomass plantations

Suzano also has even more ambitious plans: to invest in a new type of plantation – biomass plantations. In order to achieve this plan, in mid-2010 the Suzano Group created a new company called Suzano Energia Renvovável (Suzano Renewable Energy). The proposed investment amounts to US$ 1.3 billion, and includes five wood pellet production units, with a total production capacity of 5 million tons of biomass fuel. The first phase includes land acquisitions and the construction of three wood pellet production units, producing 1 million tons each, which would start operating in 2013. Suzano expects a liquid income of US$ 500 million in 2014, and already has guaranteed sales contracts for 2.7 million tons[17]. A non-binding ‘memorandum of understanding'[18] was signed between Suzano and the UK company MGT Power Ltd. in August 2010[19].

No public information is available about where exactly the biomass plantations will be located in the Northeast of Brazil and how many hectares will be necessary; however, field trials with eucalyptus and acacia were carried out in Piauí and Maranhão in 2009[20]. The company’s director, André Dorf, declared in 2010: “the lands have already been prospected and the acquisition process must take place still this year”, stressing also that the Northeast “(…) has our preference because of the proximity of important ports which facilitates the flow of the production, once our aim is supplying the European continent”.

Biomass plantations are very different from wood pulp plantations. The rotation cycle is two to three years instead of the more usual seven , and the trees will be planted more densely And while wood and paper production aims for a maximum of cellulose (to be transformed into pulp) and a minimum of lignin (the ‘glue’ of the tree), the plantations for ‘energetic’ purposes aim for a maximum of lignin[21]. According to the director André Dorf, around 30 thousand hectares are necessary for producing 1 million tons of wood pellets. Considering the aim of Suzano to produce 5 million tons of wood pellets, a total of 150 thousand hectares of land is therefore needed[22].

There are already problems in the Northeast of Brazil with Suzano’s land acquisitions for eucalyptus plantations for pulp production. This is a region where, for example, traditional quilombola communities still struggle to get the rights over their traditional territories recognised. Inaldo Serejo, coordinator from the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) in Maranhão, affirms in an interview that “there is an expansion going on in Maranhão, for example, of companies like Suzano Papel e Celulose that have been buying immense land areas, occupied by traditional communities, to plant eucalyptus”[23]. Therefore, an increase in problems can be expected with the further expansion of new biomass plantations.

Resistance to biomass monoculture in Brazil

The Movement of Small Peasants (MPA), one of the major rural peasants’ movements in the Northeast of Brazil, and members of Via Campesina Brazil have been struggling for years against tree monoculture expansion in Brazil, through demonstrations and other protest actions. Raul Krauser from the national coordination of the MPA explains the reasons of their resistance struggle: “We already have bitterly accumulated a list of impacts on the lives of peasants from eucalyptus monoculture expansion: acquisition of big unproductive farms that should be destined to agrarian land reform; rise in land prices in the whole region; the companies are fencing [in] the peasant communities and put pressure on them to sell their lands; families get scared of staying isolated in a plantation area and because of the persecution of the companies, together with local elites, they sell their lands; local economies go worse, increase in hunger, violence and social degradation; organisations that oppose to this expansion are criminalised by the companies and by the ‘Brazilian state’ that gives subsidies, fiscal incentives, economical, military, juridical and also moral support, creating an image that who is against these mega-projects is against development. Considering the fragility of the caatinga biome, the previews of climate change in the region, (..), the impacts in the Northeast will be undoubtedly much worse and the proportions of the disaster much bigger than we have seen in other regions of the country. There is a tendency that peasant communities will be destroyed, what will immediately mean a decrease in food production, threatening the local food supply, therefore the society as a whole will be affected.”

Krauser continues affirming that: “We are strongly against this expansion, once if the burning of wood is considered less polluting, the production of the wood is highly dangerous and bad for the life of peasants and other communities, bad for the development of the country. We have enough cases that prove sufficiently that where tree monocultures enter, also hunger, misery, social inequalities increase. So-called sustainable development does not go together with tree monocultures in tropical countries. What the companies tell is not more than an illusion.”

According to the latest information from the Suzano website, it is stated in the report of the first trimester of 2011 that “The company is evaluating alternatives for structuring of capital for Suzano Energia Renóvavel”[24], a sign that the company has still not found enough financial support to fully implement the project.

Final remarks on the implications of biomass monoculture

As the Brazilian experience with industrial tree monocultures shows, there is a huge potential for conflicts wherever this model is expanded. In the case of the Northeast, major concerns include are the direct and indirect displacement of local peasant populations by the forced creation of up to 150 thousand hectares of plantations and, the loss of water resources through the fast-growing plantations. In fact, these would probably be the first commercial plantations with such a short rotation cycle in Brazil and worldwide. And all this in a region, the Northeast of Brazil, traditionally affected by heavy drought periods.

This example shows, once again, that the only way to start solving the global climate crisis is by drastically cutting carbon emissions in the North. Implementing large-scale monoculture tree plantations within a conventional, large-scale agricultural model, and transporting wood pellets over the ocean for power stations in the UK, will exacerbate rather than help alleviate climate change whilst simultaneously creating severe problems for local communities in the Northeast of Brazil.


[1] Law 5,106 from 1966
[2] The UK company British American Tobacco, owner of Souza Cruz, was also one of Aracruz’ first shareholders.
[4] If compared with small-scale agriculture, tree plantation companies create 10-15 times less jobs.
[6] WRM bulletin, December 2010,
[9] The CERFOR label stands for ‘Program for certification of forest management’, a corporate-driven certification initiative set up in coordination with the Brazilian government in 2002. (
[11] Through the Prototype Carbon Fund (PCF) of the World Bank
[12] Clean Development Mechanism – a mechanism created by the Kyoto Protocol that consists of the idea that polluting countries can reach their emission reductions by projects with this aim in countries in the Global South, which then result in carbon credits that can be bought by the polluting country.
[14] UNFCCC – United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
[15] This included own lands, rented lands and outsourced plantations (to farmers).
[18] A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is a document describing a bilateral or multilateral agreement between parties. It expresses a convergence of will between the parties, indicating an intended common line of action. It is often used in cases where parties either do not imply a legal commitment or in situations where the parties cannot create a legally enforceable agreement. It is a more formal alternative to a gentlemen’s agreement. (
[20] In 2005/2006, the Ministry of Mines and Energy supported a project of the National Network of Biomass for Energy to generate and spread technical and scientific information about energy production from biomass. In this sense, several field experiments have been carried out by different companies in different states over the past five years, mainly with eucalyptus.
[21] An interesting point to note is that Suzano is one of the Brazilian companies that has most invested in genetically modified eucalyptus, aiming to increase cellulose production. Once the aim in this case is increasing the tree’s capacity to produce lignine, it might not be any surprise that Suzano might be interested in producing genetically modified eucalyptus. It is therefore no surprise that besides creating Suzano Energy Renovavel in 2010, in the same year Suzano decided to give priority to take over the UK company FuturaGene, a company specialised in biotechnology, including GM technology.
[23] IHU-Online, “A luta dos quilombolas do Maranhão. Entrevista especial com Inaldo Serejo”, 11/06/2011