Coffee growing in Brazil’s Cerrado region

by JulieCraves on October 28, 2007

Coffee growing in Brazil, in brief:
Coffee was first planted in Brazil in the early 1700s. By the mid-1800s, Brazil was already the world’s #1 producer of coffee, a distinction is still holds today. However, it produces a great deal of low quality arabica, as well as quite a bit of robusta. With so much invested in the coffee market, Brazil was in trouble during the coffee crisis of the 1990s. It turned to increased technification (high-density sun coffee, chemicals, and mechanization) to increase productivity. About 70% of Brazil’s coffee is technified coffee, much to the detriment of the environment in many places.

There are three main growing regions in Brazil. Mogiana is along the border of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais states. Sul de Minas is a more hilly/mountainous region in southern Minas Gerais state.  Here, we will discuss coffee growing in the Brazil’s cerrado region, mainly in Minas Gerais, as it is a primary area where Brazil’s specialty coffees are grown.

The Brazilian Cerrado: A biodiversity hotspot
The cerrado, consisting of grassy savannah, scrub lands, and gallery forest, is found on the high, flat, central plateau of Brazil. It covers over 2 million square kilometers — three times the size of Texas. Portions extend into Bolivia and Paraguay, making it the largest woodland-savannah in South America, and the richest savannah in terms of biodiversity in the entire world.

The World Wildlife Fund states it plainly: “The biodiversity of cerrado is extraordinary.” Nearly 45% of the 10,000 plants species found in this region are found nowhere else on earth. Almost 20 of the 800 bird species are endemic, such as the critically endangered Blue-eyed Ground-Dove (Columbina cyanopis). There are numerous unique mammals, reptiles, and amphibians as well. The Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), South America’s largest canid, is an iconic mammal of the cerrado.

Since the 1960s, vast areas of the cerrado have been destroyed. Over 40% of the original cerrado area has already been converted to agriculture (especially soy and sugar) and livestock (40 million cattle), with 67% of the land having been modified in some major way. The world demand for biofuels is now increasing agricultural conversion in the cerrado. Less than 2% of its region protected in national parks and conservation areas.

A recent article in the New York Times (Scientists are making Brazil’s savannah bloom), notes that the cerrado “has been transformed in less than a generation into Brazil’s grain belt, thanks to the discovery that soils could be made fertile by dousing them with phosphorus and lime.” Coffee has only been grown here for around 40 years, but the cerrado now supports around 3000 farms, mostly in small holdings.

Coffee growing in the cerrado
As indicated above, soil in the cerrado is quite lean, and requires fertilization. While organic fertilizer is used, non-organic nutrients are almost always necessary, and it is said that the soil in the cerrado must be “engineered” to grow coffee. Coffee production in this region is the most highly mechanized in the world, with little hand picking. The flat terrain lends itself to machine harvesting, as do the sharply defined wet and dry seasons, which result in most coffee trees ripening simultaneously. This synchronized ripening is further choreographed by targeted irrigation. Given the pronounced dry season, most farms in the cerrado are at least partially irrigated. Drip irrigation is very expensive, so pivot-arm irrigators (which are more wasteful) are frequently used.

Because the natural habitats of the cerrado have few trees, the whole concept of “shade coffee” is not applicable here — coffee is grown in the sun. Preserving biodiversity in the cerrado relies on setting aside areas of natural habitat.

Consumers will often read that Brazilian coffee farms have preserved natural areas on their property. For the most part, this doesn’t mean they have a commitment to the environment. The Brazilian Forest Code is a law that states that in certain areas, a proportion of the land must be permanently preserved for conservation of natural resources and wildlife. In the cerrado, the percentage is 35%.

A close friend of mine lives in Minas Gerais, Brazil, and is active in the bird conservation community, serving on the boards of several national bird organizations. Responding to my recent inquiry regarding the Forest Code, he wrote to me,

“[T]here is intense lobby to change the law to reduce these numbers and/or to allow other forms of compensation (such as: I destroy a virgin forest and buy some useless land *in another biome* and set aside to compensate for it). Also, farmers include everything in their reserve: useless land, land that is already set aside for permanent protection (such as water course margins and hilly slopes).

Unhappily, corruption is, let me make it clear, ***WIDESPREAD*** in Brazil, by far our biggest problem and the source of many others. Many people and companies do not obey the laws and [bribe] the inspectors.”

This lack of compliance is well documented. This is truly disturbing, for the amount of acreage set aside is critical. Unlike growing coffee in a rustic forest setting, which is similar enough to native habitat to support many insects, birds, and other animals, little if any of the fauna of the cerrado utilizes the densely planted fields of coffee. Coffee replaces the native vegetation of the cerrado, and does not in any way resemble the natural ecosystem, unlike shade grown forest coffee systems.

Currently covering around 160,000 hectares, coffee farms represent only a fraction of the agricultural landscape of the cerrado. Nonetheless, coffee growing is agent of habitat conversion in this unique ecosystem, offering fewer opportunities to preserve biodiversity than coffee growing in other regions.

Maned Wolf photo = World Wildlife Fund, UK.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Revised on July 1, 2016

Posted in Coffee and the environment,Coffee regions

Jessica lee April 21, 2008 at 9:05 am

i need to know about facts in brizil coffee growing

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: