Brazil: Plantations, profits and GM trees

30 Nov

The pulp industry is experimenting with genetically modified trees in Brazil.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 88, November 2004.




Proponents of industrial tree plantations often argue that plantations can relieve pressure on forests. Brazil’s pulp and paper industry exposes this myth for the pro-industry propaganda that it is. Rather than growing more wood on less land, the industry grows more wood on more land. Every year the area of plantations increases and every year the area of forest decreases.

Take Brazil’s Aracruz Cellulose, for example, the world’s largest producer of bleached eucalyptus pulp. Aracruz’s three pulp mills produce a total of two million tons of pulp a year. The company’s eucalyptus plantations were established on the lands of the Tupinikim and Guarani indigenous peoples and other local communities. The eucalyptus trees that feed Aracruz’s pulp mills are among the fastest growing trees in the world. Yet Aracruz continues to expand both its pulp operations and the area of its plantations, pushing yet more people off the land.

Aracruz is also carrying out laboratory research into genetically modified trees. In 1998, Aracruz became the first company to receive permission from Brazil’s National Technical Commission of Biosecurity (CTNBio) for laboratory experiments on GM trees.

A year before receiving this application, which is still current, Aracruz produced a statement on GM trees. “Many sectors such as agriculture are using genetics, and there is no reason to impose a genetic prohibition on the forestry industry, which, for plantations, follow the same basic concepts as any food crop,” the company explained. To Aracruz, then, there is no difference between an annual food crop and trees which can live for hundreds of years.

Gabriel Dehon Rezende, Forest Improvement Manager at Aracruz told me in July 2004 that “the company believes that Genetic Engineering could help bring about sustainable social, environmental and economic benefits to agricultural and forestry activities in the future.” Rezende was quick to point out that at present “Aracruz does not use Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in its field trials or commercial plantations.”

Brazilian pulp and paper company Suzano owns more than 180,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantations in the states of Sao Paulo, Bahia, Espirito Santo, Minas Gerais and Maranhao. Last year, Suzano spent US$180 million on expanding its mills in Bahia and Sao Paulo and has plans to double its production capacity by 2008.

Each year, Suzano spends US$2 million on research and development. Suzano is financing research into GM eucalyptus at the Luiz de Queiroz Agricultural College. The research aims to engineer trees with reduced lignin and higher cellulose content, an attempt to find what Suzano describes as the “perfect tree”.

Suzano is also interested in producing a GM eucalyptus tree which can withstand drought. While the company acknowledges that “the water shortage already being experienced in some areas is a huge challenge”, it fails to mention that Suzano’s water guzzling eucalyptus plantations are one of the causes of the water shortage.

Suzano is among thirteen companies working with Brazil’s Ministry for Science and Technology on a project to map the eucalyptus genome. More than 50 scientists are involved in the “Genolyptus” project, which focuses particularly on the way genes affect wood formation and disease resistance. The project started in 2002 and is due to be completed in 2006.

International Paper, the world’s largest pulp and paper firm, has almost 200,000 hectares of industrial tree plantations in Brazil. Wood chips from Brazil are exported to International Paper’s mills in the US. Two years ago, International Paper of Brazil received permission from CTNBio for experiments with GM trees.

International Paper is a partner in ArborGen, the world’s largest GM tree company. ArborGen has plans to test its GM eucalyptus in Brazil. New Zealand biotech firm Horizon2 has a research contract with ArborGen. The company states that the research aims “to help improve the pulping characteristics of eucalyptus destined for the Brazilian market.”

In March 2004, Bruce Burton, the vice-president of Rubicon, a partner in ArborGen, announced that ArborGen would not carry out any GM tree trials in New Zealand. Instead, “we’ll carry on doing test in the US and Brazil” he said.

Aracruz, Suzano, International Paper and ArborGen are involved in research into GM trees because they believe they can make more money by doing so.

In April this year, the Movement of Landless Peasants protested against the pulp and paper industry’s take over of vast tracts of land in Brazil. Landless people occupied areas of industrial tree plantations owned by the pulp and paper companies Veracel, Suzano, Klabin, VCP, Aracruz and Trombini.

None of the companies hoping to plant GM trees in Brazil is doing so in order to relieve pressure on forests or to help resolve the land problem in Brazil. Their profits come at the expense of Brazil’s people and forests.

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