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.