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Preserving Biodiversity and Protecting Precious Resources

Sugarcane production needs to expand to accommodate the booming demand for sugarcane-derived products, and especially for clean and renewable ethanol. Higher volumes of cane can be obtained in the future thanks to productivity gains, but additional land dedicated to sugarcane will also be required. Proper land use planning is essential to manage this growth while simultaneously preserving and protecting precious natural resources.

Brazil certainly realizes this challenge considering the country is home to 60 percent of the Amazon Rainforest and routinely thought to have the greatest biodiversity of any country on the planet. That’s why Brazil has taken the lead in establishing agricultural zonings across its territory to allow the expansion of food and bioenergy production while preserving its natural resources.

Besides the innovative domestic initiatives discussed below, Brazil has also signed, ratified and successfully implemented the main international treaties governing environmental policy, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Kyoto Protocol. 

Sugarcane Cultivation in Brazil Today

Sugarcane is grown on a small amount of Brazil’s farmland occupying 9.5 million hectares. Of that amount, 4.6 million is used to grow cane to be processed into ethanol. Using just 0.5 percent of country’s territory Brazil has managed to replace almost 42 percent of its gasoline consumption with clean and renewable ethanol.

The largest reservoir of arable land available in Brazil are pastures, mostly degraded, that currently covers 198 million hectares. With the progressive intensification of cattle ranching activities, substantial areas of pastures are released every year for the expansion of crop production such as sugarcane, but also grains and oilseeds. A 2008 report by the Dutch University of Wageningen reveals that 5.4 million hectares of pastureland were made available for other uses between 2002 and 2006, while the cattle herd increased by 18,383 heads.

Updated - Jan 2012

Almost 90 percent of Brazilian sugarcane production takes place in South-Central Brazil, with the remainder grown in Northeastern Brazil. Both producing regions are located some 2,000 to 2,500 km (1,240 to 1,550 miles) away from the Amazon. That is roughly the distance between New York City and Dallas, or Paris and Moscow. The Amazon region simply does not offer appropriate growing conditions for sugarcane and would never be a target for expanded production, regardless of government regulation.

Brazil: Where Sugarcane is PlantedMap of sugarcane production in Brazil and distance to Amazon

Explore this data in more detail

Progress in law enforcement, adoption of appropriate public policies, and pro-activity of the private sector and civil society led to a sharp decrease of deforestation rate in Brazilian Amazon rainforest over the past decade.

Managing Future Growth

In 2009, the Brazilian government launched the Agro-ecological Zoning for Sugarcane initiative to induce the expansion of sugarcane production in areas that are agronomically, climatically and environmentally suitable. This pioneer initiative – with the stated goal “to expand production, preserve life and ensure a future” – is essential to guarantee the sustainable growth of sugarcane production.

The rules established by the Agro-ecological Zoning include:

  • No sugarcane expansion or new ethanol production facilities in sensitive ecosystems like the Amazon, the Pantanal wetlands and Upper Paraguay river basin. 
  • No clearance of native plants to expand sugarcane cultivation anywhere in the country which protects the native Cerrado.
  • Identification of suitable areas where sugarcane should be prioritized. These areas include land with proper conditions for the use of mechanical harvesting, cattle breeding areas that are underused or degraded (more than 34 million hectares), and also regions with lower need for water usage in production.

Suitable Areas for Sugarcane Expansion

Agro-Ecological Zoning  Map

Another important government initiative is São Paulo’s Green Protocol. Under this program, 173 signatory mills and 29 associations of sugarcane suppliers have committed to protect and recover 280,000 hectares of land alongside streams and river banks.

Over the last seven years, producers from Brazil´s Centre-South have invested around US$ 4.5 billion in equipment purchases to increase mechanized harvesting of sugarcane.

Sugarcane Expansion in Brazil

So where will sugarcane growth occur?  According to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), more than 60 percent of new sugarcane production takes place on pastures while the remaining 40 percent expands on cropland. This trend is forecast to continue (see chapter 3 of this study).

Direct expansion of sugarcane on degraded pastures previously used for cattle ranching or on land used for other crops can generate a benefit in terms of carbon sequestration. Sugarcane is semi-perennial – meaning it only needs to be replanted every five or six years with minimum tillage – and can therefore capture larger amounts of carbon than the previous land uses. Empirical measurements have shown positive consequences on emissions when sugarcane replaces other agricultural activities (see chapter 5 of this study).

Carbon Balance When Sugarcane Replaces Other Agricultural Activities

Details on other programs supported by Brazilian sugarcane mills to preserve and restore the rich natural resources located on their estates can be found in UNICA’s most recent Sustainability Report.


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