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Being the fifth largest country in the world both in terms of geographical size and population, Brazil epitomizes the ongoing global tension pitying biodiversity preservation against agricultural sustainability and economic development.
Available statistics demonstrate that Brazil is a critical emerging economic power with a GDP of US$604.0 billion and a GDP per capita of US$3,326.21 in 2004, and that the country’s environment is one of the richest in the world not only because its fauna and flora is found nowhere else on earth, but also due to the fact that its ecosystems contain in excess of 15 percent of the plant and animal species known to science (European Commission, 2007).
Holding up to 12 percent of the available freshwater worldwide, the country is undoubtedly one of leading producers of food and biofuels in Latin America and globally (Ferreira et al., 2012).
But while Brazil continues to play an increasingly important role in the global challenge to supply food to a growing and more affluent human population through agricultural expansion activities, hence driving rapid economic development, available literature demonstrates that such events have also had significant adverse impacts on biodiversity and the conservation of ecosystem services in the country (Ferreira et al., 2012).
This paper borrows from Ascher and Healy’s (1990) concept of vicious cycle to demonstrate how Brazil may be sucked into the vicious cycle, entailing economic production, the environment, income distribution and resources, if policies are not put in place to address adverse impacts caused by agricultural expansion.
Understanding the Vicious Cycle & the Brazilian Problem
In their influential reading, Ascher and Healy (1990) employ the vicious cycle metaphor, which essentially is a circular constellation of forces tending to act and react upon one another in such a manner as to keep a poor country in a state of poverty, to demonstrate the complex interrelationships among four critical facets of sociophysical production namely economic production, distribution of income, natural resources, and the environment.
In the four key attributes, economic production is described as the level, source, and composition of the goods and services generated by the economy at any point in time, while income distribution is perceived as including functional distribution, size distribution among recipients of diverse income levels, distribution of in-kind income such as government services or gratification from environmental quality, as well as regional income distribution.
Likewise, natural resources have been described as a broad assortment of substantial natural endowments such as land, water, timber and minerals, while environment refers to the natural systems that provide the background or surroundings for human activity (Ascher & Healy, 1990).
Unlike other less advanced and developing countries, Brazil is on the verge of achieving long-term economic development that is partially fuelled by effective exploitation of natural resources (Ferreira et al., 2012), which not only include “the dense tropical rainforests of the Amazon, but also the important biomes of the Savannah-like Cerrado, the arid scrublands of the Caatinga, the Atlantic Forest, the grasslands of the Pampa and the wetlands of the Pantanal” (European Commission, 2007 p. 11).
Reports released by The Economist (2010) and Food Agriculture Organization (2012), cited in Ferreira et al. (2007), show that the phenomenal expansion of Brazilian agriculture has been at the core of its most recent economic expansion, corresponding to 28% of the country total exports.
However, as demonstrated by these authors, “there are rising concerns about the threats that these changes represent to Brazil’s globally significant biological wealth, including widespread deforestation and clearance of native vegetation, and rapid increases in the use of fertilizers, pesticides and other agricultural chemical supplies” (p. 535-536).
This observation, in my viewpoint, has the capacity to ignite a complex vicious cycle which will ultimately cut across two or more attributes of sociophysical production
Exposing the Adverse Relationships
Ascher & Healy (1990) have taken considerable effort to demonstrate the interrelationships between the various facets, such as the vicious cycle between economic development and environment and vicious cycle between economic development and income distribution.
In the Brazilian context, for example, it is evident that attempts by government and other stakeholders to enhance the country’s economic development through agricultural expansion have continued to generate a multiplicity of environmental externalities, such as reduction of biological diversity, soil erosion in rural farming areas, watershed damage, depletion of natural resources, soil and habitat degradation due to continued use of harmful pesticides, rise of slum areas, as well as health-related conditions brought about by overcrowding and increasing lead emissions from automobiles (Carneiro & Danton 2011; Ferreira et al., 2012).
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In the same vein, it emerges that the urge to achieve sustained economic development has catapulted policymakers into availing vast tracts of previously virgin land for cultivation aimed at increasing agricultural yield.
Although a sizeable proportion of farmers are employing modern practices to increase acreage and agricultural output, many are still using poisonous pesticides and farming practices that contribute substantially to soil erosion and degradation. Consequently, it can be suggested that a vicious cycle between economic development and environmental degradation has already set in.
But more importantly, environmental policymakers in Brazil should realize that another vicious cycle between economic development and income distribution will set in the near future as long as farmers in North-East regions of the country continue to use harmful farming practices to expand their agricultural production and benefit from international food markets.
When agriculture will no longer be sustainable due to ongoing poor farming practices, these farmers will lose their economic backbone, and hence, the income inequalities will increase.
Conversely, it can be argued that these farmers will not only lack the capacity to take care of their social and health needs but will also continue to haphazardly exploit available natural resources for economic gain, resulting in a vicious cycle that will have major adverse impacts on biodiversity and the conservation of ecosystem services in the country.
The way forward for environmental policymakers in Brazil, therefore, is to put in place strong institutional policies for managing resources and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the agricultural sector.
The government, in conjunction with relevant stakeholders, must act with immediacy to break the vicious cycle between economic development and environmental degradation by coming up with educational and awareness programs targeting farmers who use inferior farming methods to enhance their agricultural output.
Additionally, it is imperative for the government to develop clear management objectives and sufficient implementation capacity of the existing policies to ensure that the beneficial urge to achieve economic development through agricultural expansion does not shift into unwarranted destruction of the country’s strikingly rich biodiversity and ecosystem.
These interventions, in my view, will arrest the vicious cycle before it gains momentum towards a hazardous level.
Ascher. W., & Healy, R.G. (1990). Natural resource policymaking in developing countries: Environment, economic growth, and income distribution. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Carneiro, M.J., & Danton, T. (2011). Agriculture and biodiversity in the Brazilian social sciences: A possible state-of-the-art scenario. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Sciences, 24(3), 225-246.
European Commission. (2007). Country strategy paper 2007-2013. Web.
Ferreira, J., Pardini, R., Metzger, J.P., Fonseca, C.R., Pompeu, P.S., Sparovek, G., & Louzada, J. (2012). Towards environmentally sustainable agriculture in Brazil: Challenges and opportunities for applied ecological research. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49(3), 535-541.