More power for Pontal
ETH Bioenergy is working to harmonize agribusiness, family farming and the environment
in one of the neediest areas of São Paulo State
Written by: Ricardo Arnt
Photos by: Eduardo Barcellos
Rosiane Gonçalves and Paulo Ferreira with their sons Railton (in his mother’s arms), Daniel and Lucas: Pontal’s newly energized economy is starting to improve their quality of life
Pontal do Paranapanema is a point of land in the extreme southeast of São Paulo State that lies between the Paraná and Paranapanema rivers. A remote and rustic spot, Pontal was densely forested until 1950, but in the last 50 years it has been targeted by squatters and other unauthorized occupants, and the area has suffered the impact of the shrinking boundaries of the former Pontal do Paranapanema Forest Preserve, which created a large area of unused arable land. Teodoro Sampaio and Mirante do Paranapanema counties were the neediest areas of the state.
In this context, which presents numerous social, economic and environmental challenges, Odebrecht in 2007 began working in the Sugar, Ethanol and Bioenergy sectors through ETH Bioenergy, which acquired its first unit in that part of Brazil: the Alcídia Distillery, in Teodoro Sampaio. In addition to modernizing and expanding Alcídia, the company intends to build three more units in the state: the Conquista do Pontal Unit, which is under construction in Mirante do Paranapanema, and two that are still on the drawing board – a unit in the city of Euclides da Cunha and another in Presidente Epitácio.
The powerful combination of agribusiness, mechanized sugar harvesting, modern farming methods and environmental preservation is beginning to energize the local economy, creating work and income opportunities and driving municipal educational, health and sanitation services. As a result, it is also giving a boost to the agrarian reform settlements that have been established in those parts in the last two decades. After 50 years of squatting and trespassing, the agrarian unrest in Pontal is subsiding.
“It is perfectly possible to harmonize agribusiness, family farming and the environment,” says ETH Planning and Environment Director Luiz Pereira de Araújo Filho. The ETH production hub is attracting units owned by other companies to Pontal do Paranapanema and encouraging small farmers to supply sugarcane to those units . “Odebrecht is investing in Pontal as a long-term project,” observes Luiz Pereira. In 2007, 137 family farms in the agrarian reform settlements supplied Alcídia with 16,000 tonnes (metric tons) of sugarcane.
In addition to Pontal, in São Paulo State, ETH is establishing two more regional hubs in the states of Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás. In Mato Grosso do Sul, the company in March 2008 acquired the Eldorado Unit in Rio Brilhante county and will build two more units in Nova Alvorada do Sul. There will be three units in Goiás, two in Caçu county and a third in Itarumã. All told, ETH will invest BRL 5 billion in 10 units to produce sugar and ethanol and convert sugarcane bagasse into electricity through cogeneration, using cutting-edge technology and sustainable farming methods.
Inducing Sustainable Development
Odebrecht’s investment has already transformed the Pontal do Paranapanema area. According to the Mayor of Mirante do Paranapanema, Eduardo Piazzalunga, his town is on the verge of sustainable development. “Mirante has 33 agrarian reform settlements that occupy 44% of its territory, with 1,526 families settled there. Our county has the largest number of agrarian reform settlements in Brazil,” says Piazzalunga. “Since ETH arrived in these parts, we have shifted the focus from the number of settlements to the quality of their production. We will firmly establish these settlers as rural producers,” he explains.
José Ademir Infante Gutierrez, the Mayor of Teodoro Sampaio, shares this outlook. “Alcídia and Conquista do Pontal have energized the economy and created a demand for trained professionals, which is driving development in this town,” says Ademir Infante. Teodoro Sampaio already has a Delfos Educational Center that offers a professional education course for Sugar/Ethanol operators, which is extremely advantageous for ETH. “We started the training course in September – it is the first course for industrial operators in this area, with 60 places for students from Teodoro Sampaio and 20 for students from Mirante,” says Mayor Infante. Expectations are that the program will have produced 1,500 skilled workers by 2011.
ETH invited Diagonal Urbana Consultoria, a consulting firm, to carry out a social/environmental diagnostic study of the two counties and chart their weak points and potential. The next stage involved the development of a Social Action Plan including social and environmental programs with the indicators and goals required to gauge the results. “This pioneering experience in Pontal will serve as a model for the regional hubs in Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás, where it will be replicated,” observes ETH Director Luiz Pereira de Araújo Filho. “The idea is to induce sustainable development,” he explains.
“They keep our supermarkets in business”
The first results of the study showed that in Teodoro Sampaio (population: 20,000) and Mirante do Paranapanema (population: 16,000), just half the high-school-age population is enrolled. About 43% of Mirante residents and 39% of Teodoro Sampaio’s population have a per capita income of less than half the monthly minimum wage (currently BRL 415). In Mirante, 3,111 families receive benefits from the Brazilian Family Grant program, and that figure is even worse in Teodoro Sampaio – 1,646. “The settlement residents keep our two supermarkets in business,” says Teodoro Sampaio Mayor Admir Infante.
“If it wasn’t for the people living in the settlements, the town would be broke,” says sociologist Dirce Koga, the Manager of Diagonal Urbana, who was born in those parts. “They look at the map and, even geographically, they see themselves coming in last,” she adds.
There is a serious bottleneck in rural transportation that prevents farm production from getting to market and makes it hard for school buses to get through. “On average, there are 589 km of roads in São Paulo State counties. Mirante has 1,790 km of roadways. The maintenance costs are more than we can afford,” says Mayor Piazzalunga.
Given all the county’s urgent necessities, investments in environmental preservation projects once took second place. The first such projects only began in 2007. Mirante does not have a Municipal Department of the Environment. Teodoro Sampaio lacks a fire department, although, from May to November, there are numerous forest and brush fires in Morro do Diabo State Park – which extends along 88 km of its perimeter – mostly originating in neighboring farms and roadside areas.
The imposing heights of Morro do Diabo, a 600-m hill covered with wind-blown forest, in the heart of Morro do Diabo State Park, rise above the flat plain in Pontal do Paranapanema. The 340-sq.km park contains the largest remaining swathe of the massive Atlantic Forest trees of the interior, which are typical of the Paraná Valley, the home of the last bands of black lion tamarins – the rarest primates in the tropics. At least 300 types of birds make their home on the hill.
In the last 20 years, the cause of death for at least 182 wild animals, including a jaguar, was roadkill on Arlindo Bettio Highway, route SP-613, which runs through a 14-km section of the park, alongside Morro do Diabo. But now that the economic winds are shifting, this situation is beginning to change.
To preserve Morro do Diabo, the Alcídia Unit has teamed up with the São Paulo State Environmental Department’s Forestry Institute to build earthworks around the park to prevent the wind from spreading fires originating on farms and along route SP-613. ETH has asked the Aeronautics Ministry for permission to set up a farm aviation project to fight fires in Teodoro Sampaio.
Alcídia has also donated 260 ha of land to the Brazilian Federal Government. Divided into three areas, it is being used to establish “forest corridors.” They will be replanted with native trees to consolidate Morro do Diabo State Park with patches of Atlantic Forest in the Black Lion Tamarin Environmental Station, created by the Federal Government in 2002 with the support of the Environmental Research Institute (IPÊ).
In 10 years’ time, these three reforested corridors will once again be covered with trees and brush to make it easier for wildlife to move about their habitat. “We will reestablish the genetic flow of tree species among forest fragments, thereby protecting animals that now have to cross through open areas where they are exposed to predators,” explains Paulo Sérgio de Carvalho, who is in charge of ETH’s Social/Environmental Programs.
In addition to these projects, ETH is also restoring permanent preservation areas, such as riverside forests, and areas of private property containing legally required preserves. At the Laudenor de Souza settlement, a partnership between Alcídia, the São Paulo State Land Institute (Itesp) and the Town of Teodoro Sampaio is carrying out an environmental project that is restoring the forest growth on a degraded area covering 111 hectares. Alcídia is preparing the soil for planting, the mayoralty is supplying pesticides and Itesp is contributing native seedlings that will be planted by farmers from the Beira Rio Association, formed by settlement residents. Benedito Bezerra Pereira, 50, is the project’s manager. He spent six months in a Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) camp in Teodoro Sampaio after leaving his hometown, Santa Isabel, in northern Paraná State, to farm a plot of land in Pontal in 1997. “Today, through the agroforestry system, we are planting native trees and shrubs such as ingá, ipê, aroeira, peanuts, jequitibá, peroba and pau-d’alho, along with rubber trees, urucum and castor oil plants to produce biofuel,” he says. The 21-hectare property where he lives with his wife and two children produces cassava and “milk from a few little cows.” The farmer also plants eucalyptus trees. He is especially proud that his daughter wants to go to college and study Biology. “Things are changing in Pontal.”
Prioritizing the settlements’ success
A forested area until 1950, Pontal in 1946 and 1966 felt the impact of two reductions of the boundaries of the former Pontal do Paranapanema Forest Preserve decreed by Adhemar de Barros during his two terms in office as Governor of São Paulo State. These two measures created a large area of unused land in that region, which led to squatting and privatizations that sparked half a century of conflict. However, the forest preserve had allies such as former-governor Jânio Quadros, a political adversary of Adhemar de Barros, and two major newspapers, Folha da Manhã and O Estado de S. Paulo, which mobilized public opinion in the state capital. As a result, Morro do Diabo has become one of the state’s foremost environmental landmarks.
In the last 20 years, Itesp’s agrarian reform programs have distributed thousands of hectares of land to landless farmers, particularly in northern Paraná. Most settlers received 20-hectare plots where they have established dairy farms and plant cassava, corn and beans for their own use. The biggest challenge is energizing the settlers’ supply chains.
“The priority right now is to ensure that these settlements succeed by including them in strong supply chains,” says Manager Paulo Sérgio Carvalho. “The idea is to bring technical assistance and rural extension courses to farmers to teach them skills and diversify the production structure while expanding the reforestation effort, restoring the soil and introducing the idea of sustainability,” he concludes.
Restoring ecosystems in Mato Grosso do Sul
ETH’s acquisition of the Eldorado Unit in Rio Brilhante, Mato Grosso do Sul, has given a boost to the program to reforest permanent preserves in that part of Brazil. Created through an alliance with SOS Atlantic Forest, a Brazilian NGO, the program includes planting 420,000 trees on a 257-ha area (100,000 trees per year) within a 30-km radius of the Eldorado Unit. The aim is to reforest riverside areas and contain soil erosion and silting, restore ecosystems to maintain their genetic biodiversity, and preserve rivers, lakes, water sources, wildlife and vegetation.
“We have planted 120,000 trees in the last two years,” says Eldorado Unit Farm Manager Alécio Cantalogo. “The riverside forests are just as important for the protection of water sources, rivers and lakes as our eyelashes are for our eyes,” he explains. The Eldorado Unit is located in an area of degraded pastureland. “In the past, even the riverbanks were deforested, and not a single tree was left standing,” says Cantalogo. Pounding from cattle hoofs has intensified the erosion process.
ETH is bringing in native plants to Rio Brilhante from the Floresce Brasil nursery in Araçatuba, São Paulo, such as Brazilian pepper, jequitibá, ipê, guava, farinha-seca, faveiro and urucurana trees. The Eldorado plant nursery was inaugurated in September, initially housing 15,000 seedlings.
To create denser riverside forests, environmental preservation methods recommend maintaining 30-m to 300-m areas of trees and shrubs on riversides, and planting a 50-m belt of vegetation around water sources to prevent soil erosion from silting up riverbeds and springs. The Eldorado Unit stands between two major rivers – the Brilhante and the Vacaria.
ETH is also carrying out environmental programs for local schoolchildren. “We are experiencing a full transition from extensive ranching to sustainable agribusiness activities,” says Cantalogo. The Eldorado Unit obtains sugarcane from 19 leased farms and 23 suppliers, and is introducing soil conservation, reforestation and erosion prevention methods in that part of the country. “We will create work and income opportunities by restoring the environment,” guarantees the ETH Farm Manager.