Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mato Grosso in Mozambique?

Brazil's agribusiness may have just won the lottery. The government of Mozambique has offered a 50 year concession for Brazilian farmers to plant soy, corn and cotton in the northern part of the impoverished African nation, according to Sunday's Folha de Sao Paulo.

The farming industry sees that area as a being a potential new Mato Grosso, the sprawling Brazilian state almost as large as Venezuela that is the country's biggest producer of cash crops. Driving through Mato Grosso is a bit like driving through Iowa -- a flat terrain with crops as far as the eye can see (I have to admit I found folks a bit more friendly in Iowa). The state has left the US Midwest in the dust because it can get two harvests per year compared to one in North America.

But a bit of history of the essence here. Mato Grosso literally means "thick plants," because the area was once heavily vegetated pasture and forest at the southern end of the Amazon. Brazil's military dictatorship during the 1970s, spurred by a paranoid fear of a foreign invasion, recruited farmers from the south of the country and offered them free land if they would promise to cut down what vegetation did exist. The place did not always look like Iowa. Times have changed of course, and now there are rules about how much area you have to have planted with native species, there are dizzying number of permits required for expansion.

But it's the home base of the country's powerful agricultural lobby. And, in the early months of 2011, it was home to the biggest spike in deforestation the country has witnessed in years. It's no wonder that in Mato Grosso there is a deep mistrust of anyone that might sound like an environmentalist.

Which is why I was so struck by the quote in this Folha story (republished here in Portuguese) from Carlos Ernesto Augustin, President of the Mato Grosso Cotton Producers' Association

"Mozambique is a Mato Grosso in the middle of Africa, with free land, without environmental impediments, and with much cheaper freight to China. Today, in addition to land being exceedingly expensive in Mato Grosso, it's impossible to get a license to deforest and clean and area."

I understand the predicament of countries like Mozambique. They've got to bring investment in somehow, they've got to find ways to improve people's lives, and they've got few competitive advantages. But a deal like this doesn't strike me as having a huge number of upsides. Industrial farming, like oil or mining or most natural resource extraction, makes money -- it does not make jobs. It doesn't sound to me like Augustin is terribly interested in jobs, or in feeding anyone on the African continent, and certainly not in making sure that Mozambique doesn't eventually end up looking like Mato Grosso. 

And I do get the sense that there is some nostalgia for the good old days when governments saw deforestation as a signal of progress. In the poorest reaches of the world, many probably still do.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for your post.
    I am involved on technical cooperation in Brazil and I can assure you that the article on the Brazilian media on the 50 years of land concession from the Mozambican government to Brazilian farmers didn’t exist. In fact, they never offered land of any size. What really happened was a seminar to promote agribusiness sector in Mozambique as an investment promotion event in São Paulo, last april. Mozambican Minister of Agriculture never offered a land to any Brazilian investor. Another misinformation: Embrapa isn’t running ProSavana. The programme is coordinated by Brazilian Cooperation Agency and executed by Embrapa. Thanks a lot! Frederico

  3. I am sorry - the article did existed but the offer of land never existed. What happened was an investment promotion act. Not an offering of any size. I am really impressed of how many journalists fowarded this wrong information without checking it with mozambican, brazilian and japanese sources.

  4. Hi Frederico -- Thanks for your comment, the story did appear in a number of media outlets including Folha de Sao Paulo. Those stories made reference to Mozambique opening an auction for land in the Nacala corridor. The stories cite officials from both Brazil and Mozambique. I apologize if I misunderstood -- could you forward me a statement by the Brazilian or Mozambican government correcting the information in these stories? Thanks!

  5. Yes, it did appear on the media but its not true. I am an official from the Brazilian government in charge of ProSavana. There were no statement from the governments dening this just words from the mozambican president, that you can find on these links:

    I am not going to every blog or web page that mentions this fact but as I am following your blog closely I felt that I had to correct this misunderstand. If you have any question on the ProSavana, let me know.

    Best regards,

  6. Hi Federico -- Thanks for your message. In the link that you sent me, the minister is denying that the land was put up for sale, which is not what Folha reported.

    “O ministro da Agricultura convidou os agricultores brasileiros a investir em Moçambique e não teria falado em venda de terra. O ministro não vendeu terras a brasileiros, foi feita uma prospecção e foi identificada uma área potencial para o investimento nacional e estrangeiro.”

    The distinction here is that people often say land was "offered" even if it was in fact put up in a bidding round or licitacao. The latter term does not involve the sale of the land, but rather gives the right to invest in a given area, which is what Minister Limbau is talking about in this story. He's also clarifying that it will not be only Brazilian companies but rather a combination of foreign and domestic firms, which would help local companies learn from the Brazilians.

    I apologize if this was not clear, I did not mean to imply the Angolan government was selling land to Brazilian companies, only that Mozambique is interested in receiving investment from these companies. Cheers, QC

  7. The mozambican Land Bill is very clear: the land in Mozambique can´t be sold. It´s state owned and if anyone is interested on invest on it should submit a project, evaluated by the three levels of government, depending on the size of the land. Even consults should be made to the community leaders. I think it is a very good law and ProSavana will work to improve the enforcement capacity of the Mozambican government.