Food and Water in Brazil. Current and potential conflicts

Essay, 2014
19 Pages, Grade: 2C


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Food Security and Land-Grabbing
2.1. Facts and ongoing developments
2.2. Analysis

3. Water: dropping rights
3.1. Factual situation and recent developments
3.2. The role of biofuels
3.3. Analysis
3.4. Concluding Remarks

4. Conclusion

5. Sources

1. Introduction

Recently, Brazil registered one of the fastest economy growth rates in the world: in 2010, its GDP annual growth was of 7.5%. Despite a remarkable reduction of this figure during the following years, forecasts predict that the recovery will take place within few years. This rapid economic growth translates in an increasing stress on the numerous natural resources, in one of the world’s wealthiest countries from this point of view. As an example, Brazil is the richest country in the world as regards water.[1] Consequently, the country will probably face a major challenge in counter-balancing the fast GDP growth with the sustainability concept and the integrated management of major development installations.

This paper aims to study the current and potential future conflictual impacts of the Brazilian development strategies, in two different areas: firstly, the analysis of the consequences on food and land security will be carried out by focusing on the land-grabbing and biofuels themes; secondly, an assessment of the conflicts related to the displacement of indigenous villages in the hydroelectric power plants pre-construction phase will be conducted. Biofuels play an important role also in the growing demand for water in Brazil.

The implications of these developments for the Human Security landscape in the country are directly linked to the overwhelming global theme of Climate Change: Brazil is strongly committed to reduce its GHG emissions,[2] but, as will be seen further, this target often justifies economical choices, agricultural policies and energy strategies which negatively rebound on the local communities who live nearby the development sites, affecting their social lives and livelihoods, as in the case of dams building.

2. Food Security and Land-Grabbing

2.1. Facts and ongoing developments

It is possible to identify a clear pattern in the evolution of the market of crops which can be grown both for food and biofuels production. As argued by Goodhall (2008: 167), for example, “turning huge quantities of corn into fuels has tightened the world market for foods. Prices rose dramatically in 2007-2008 […]. One International Monetary Fund survey indicated that the use of corn for biofuels was responsible for about 70% of the increase in the world price for corn between 2004 and 2008.” Nonetheless, in 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition asserted that, because of the specific characteristics of sugar cane (the main source for the Brazilian production of ethanol as biofuel) “the global sugar cane market is less central than corn”[3] in the food security perspective (HLPE, 2013).

According to a United Nations Economic and Social Council Report of 2002, although Brazil had improved its food security situation, “more than 22 million Brazilians [were] still go[ing] undernourished every day, in a country which is now one of the world’s largest food exporters” (Ziegler: 2002). In 2010, an amendment to the Constitution (first promulgated in 1988) officially adopted the right to food as a human right.[4]

Moving on to the most recent updates, Brazil is the first world producer of biofuels,[5] and, in recent times, it has increasingly shifted its ethanol production from sugar cane to soy. Soy has a greater potential in terms of biofuels production compared to corn and sugar cane. Various authors (Hall et al., 2009 for instance) highlight the potential repercussions of this trend on food security in the country.[6]

Social exclusion, therefore, is an unattended byproduct of an ongoing effort, by the Brazilian authorities, to convert large portions of land to the cultivation of soybeans.[7]

illustration not visible in this excerpt


Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazonia (in particular in the State of Mato Grosso)

As recognized by the Basel Criteria for Responsible Soy Production in 2004, the cultivation and production of soy has potentially negative consequences both in the ecological and social fields.[8]

Since 2003, 70,000 km2 of Amazonian rainforest have been destroyed: two thirds of these operations have been conducted with illegal methods. This affects the environment and biodiversity of these areas, as well as the human health and the local villages social structure. Because of the high level of mechanization, the intensive cultivation of soy does not require much manpower. Normally, local people is hired for low-skilled temporary jobs; cases of hard-labour are not rare. Most of the surplus deriving from the production of soy goes to the big landowners, to the banks, to the big corporations that dominate the sector and to the transportation businesses. The absence of an adequate planning and the lack of respect for the indigenous people lands often lead to conflicts over the land ownership, with armed conflicts and homicides.[9] Various authors have noted the similarities between the recent developments in the large scale production of biofuels and the typical dynamics of the Green Revolutions (e.g. Hall, 2008: S80, and Shiva, 2008).[10]

Although the opinions about the consequences of the expansion of biofuels production are controversial, the fact that the increasing demand of biofuels by the developed countries (the European Union, in particular, is committed to achieve a share of biofuels in the transportation sector of 10% by 2020)[11] is almost universally recognised as the main factor driving deforestation and land-displacement in the developing countries. Laborde (2011), in a Report for the International Food Policy Institute, notices that sugar crops lead to high LUC (Land Use Change) rates.[12]


[1] Source:

[2] See for reference: Haroldo Machado Filho, Brazilian Efforts Towards Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Transport Sector and in the Energy Intensive Industry, UNFCCC Workshop on Good Practices in Policies and Measures, 8-10 October 2001, Copenhagen. Available at:

[3] Corn is the main source for ethanol in the United States, for example.

[4] See:

[5] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, The Emerging Biofuels Market: Regulatory, Trade And Development Implications, New York and Geneva, 2006.

[6] He argues that “previous generations of agricultural modernization, such as capital and chemical intensive ‘Green Revolution’ techniques, the introduction of foreign crops […] and agricultural biotechnology, have increased economic efficiencies and exports, but have also been scrutinized for excluding small farmers from participation. These concerns have influenced policy makers in Brazil, a major agricultural exporter and one of the most advanced countries in biofuel technologies and production, yet one grappling with economic disparity and poverty.”

[7] Source: Also the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledges the fact that the increasing demand of soy for biofuels production is reducing its availability for food purposes. See:

[8] Source:

[9] Source:

[10] As regards Shiva, the reference, here, is to a conference organised by the University of California. Source: The negative consequences of Green Revolution on the ecology, the biodiversity and the social schemes of developing countries were first systematically addressed by Shiva in 1993, in her book entitled The Violence of Green Revolution, Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics, published by Zed Books Ltd., London and New Jersey, and Third World Network Malaysia. Moreover, Gao et al. (2011) state that “biodiesel from soybean in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso may have been responsible for up to 5.9% of the direct annual deforestation over the last few years.”

[11] See: Directive 2003/30/EC on the promotion of the use of biofuels and other renewable fuels for transport. Available at:

[12] The already mentioned HLPE (2013), citing a study conducted in 2011 by the International Law Commission, the CIRAD (La recherche agronomique pour le développement ) and the Resource Conflict Institute (RECONCILE), underlines the risks posed by the increment in biofuels investment on customary land rights, which consist of: restriction/denial of access to strategic resources, undermining production for local consumption and food security and/or flooding of local markets, undermining local genetic resources and environment with monoculture, agrochemicals and pesticides, appropriation of customary rights with no compensation, breaking up of social networks through fencing.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Food and Water in Brazil. Current and potential conflicts
University of Stirling  (School of Arts and Humanities - Division of Law and Philosophy)
LLM International Energy Law and Policy
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ISBN (Book)
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food, water, brazil, current
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Roberto Cui (Author), 2014, Food and Water in Brazil. Current and potential conflicts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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