Ahead of highly anticipated elections, report highlights how global markets help sustain the enormous political power of the agribusiness lobby in Brazil’s congress

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

A damning report by Amazon Watch has shed light on the commercial links between European and US companies and agribusinesses in Brazil connected to illegalities and the powerful rural lobby in the country’s congress. According to the report, the bancada ruralista – a cross-party political caucus of federal deputies and senators who promote the interests of agribusinesses in congress – has actively worked to benefit the agroindustrial sector in Brazil while undermining environmental protections and indigenous rights, and offering amnesties to land grabbers and illegal deforesters. This post is based extensively on the report, Complicity in Destruction: How Northern Consumers and Financiers Sustain the Assault on the Brazilian Amazon and its Peoples. Further details and references about the congressmen mentioned below and others can be found on the report.

For years, a large number of legislators in Brazil’s lower chamber of deputies and Senate have had close connections to agribusiness interests in the country. The ruralistas, many of whom are large landowners or businessmen, currently represent around 40 percent of deputies and senators. Many of them are up for re-election in Brazil’s upcoming presidential and legislative elections on 7 October.

The bancada ruralista has been notorious for its efforts to undermine environmental protections and indigenous and labour rights in Brazil. It has pushed for approval of the PEC 215, a constitutional amendment that would strip the executive branch of its powers to demarcate indigenous territories and place them exclusively with congress, a move that would enhance the ruralistas’ ability to shape indigenous policy. FUNAI, Brazil’s federal agency for the protection of indigenous peoples, has vocally opposed PEC 215.

In addition, the ruralistas were a major force behind President Michel Temer’s decree in 2017 granting amnesty to illegal deforesters and the 2016 decree reducing the size of the Jamanxim National Forest, which also let land grabbers and deforesters off the hook. In March 2018, the ruralistas celebrated a further amnesty, this time granted by a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the 2012 New Forest Code, which essentially pardoned acts of illegal deforestation committed before 2008. The agribusiness lobby has also been successful in its push for drastic cuts to Brazil’s environmental budget, with resources destined to FUNAI, IBAMA – the country’s environmental law enforcement agency – and the Environment Ministry cut by over 40 percent over the past two years.

Analysts have linked recent increases in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to the legislative and policy victories secured by the agribusiness lobby. According to the Brazilian NGO Imazon, which publishes monthly rates of deforestation in the region, forest clearance in the Amazon saw a 73 percent increase in May 2018 compared to the same month in 2017 and a 108 percent increase in June.

From Amazon Watch’s report, it is possible to get a glimpse of the political agenda and business connections of some of the bancada ruralista’s leading members. Federal Deputy Adilton Sachetti, a member of the Parliamentary Farming Front (FPA) and currently running for a Senate seat, is a soy, cotton and corn producer from the state of Mato Grosso. He is one of the main promoters of the PEC 215. Some of Sachetti’s main campaign donors have been directly linked to illegal deforestation and land grabbing. Sachetti himself has been charged with corruption over the disappearance of public funds and illegal seizing of public lands to benefit his companies during his time as mayor of Rondonópolis.

Nelson Marquezelli, one of Brazil’s largest orange producers and a Federal Deputy since 1990, is up for re-election in October. Marquezelli has served as vice-president of a congressional inquiry aimed at undermining FUNAI while backing PEC 215. He has also backed legislative proposals to roll back environmental protections on Amazonian forests and legalise land grabbing. Marquezelli is a major supplier of Sucocitrico Cutrale, one of Brazil’s largest orange juice producers and a company directly linked to land grabbing in São Paulo and to labour practices analogous to slavery.

Another member of the ruralista bloc is Alfredo Kaefer, a Federal Deputy since 2007 who is also running for re-election in the coming weeks. Kaefer owns chicken-raising businesses and is a vocal supporter of the agribusiness lobby in congress. He has helped efforts to undermine indigenous land demarcation processes and strip protections from Brazilian protected areas. Kaefer has been accused of conspiracy to commit crimes to benefit his company Diplomata while another of his chicken businesses, Dip Frango, has been held responsible for the deaths of three workers.

These three congressmen, like many of their colleagues on the bancada ruralista, have several commercial and financial links to global markets. According to Amazon Watch, Sachetti’s farms export soy to Bunge (US) and PHW-Gruppe (Germany) through Amaggi, which belongs to the family of Blairo Maggi, Brazil’s current Agriculture Minister and one of the country’s largest soy traders. Sachetti also exports cotton to Otto Stadtlander (Germany), Noble Americas Corporation (US) and Cottagon Italia (Italy) through the Grupo Bom Futuro, another business belonging to the Maggi family.

Marquezelli’s customer Sucocitrico Cutrale supplies orange juice, orange pulp cells and orange aroma water to International Flavours & Fragrances (US), Global Essence (US), Givaudan Flavours & Fragrances (Switzerland) and Symrise (Germany). Cutrale Citrus Juice USA, a Sucocitrico Cutrale’s subsidiary, is one of the largest suppliers to Coca-Cola’s brands Minute Maid and Simply Orange. Kaefer’s businesses export chicken products to the Dutch companies Van Aerde Food Group, Ferdinand Zandbergen, Kühne & Heitz, and Jan Zandbergen, and to Germany’s MPO Global.

According to Amazon Watch, these examples illustrate how global markets help sustain the economic and political power of agribusinesses accused of illegalities and their political patrons in Brazil’s congress, many of whom act in clear-cut conflicts of interest as they stand to profit from their own legislative agenda.

The current political climate in Brazil has unsurprisingly led to increased pressure on protected areas in the country. In fact, protected areas have become the main target of illegal deforestation over the past year, replacing agrarian reform settlements on top of the list.

Brazilian civil society has made efforts to highlight the dangers behind the agribusiness lobby’s undue influence on the country’s politics. However, many fear that the upcoming elections will further strengthen the ruralistas’ power in congress and government, potentially leading to catastrophic results for Brazil’s forests and indigenous peoples.