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Cerrado towns terrorized to provide toilet paper for the world, say critics

  • A Mongabay investigation has found that global consumers who buy brand name toilet paper and tissues may unwittingly be fuelling land conflicts, environmental crimes and the loss of native vegetation in Brazil.
  • Residents of Forquilha, a traditional community in Maranhão state, allege that an agricultural entrepreneur used armed gunmen to try and force them out in 2014. The businessman took land claimed by the community and converted it to eucalyptus plantations, intending to sell the trees to Suzano, Brazil’s biggest pulp provider.
  • Kimberly-Clark confirmed to Mongabay that it sources a significant amount of eucalyptus in Brazil from Suzano and Fibria, with pulp used to make “tissue and towel products like Scott, Cottonelle, Kleenex and Andrex.” Critics dispute industry claims that most pulp used is properly certified to prevent deforestation and protect local communities.
  • This year, Suzano moved to buy competitor Fibria. If the deal goes through, Suzano will become the world’s biggest pulp provider. Suzano runs large-scale eucalyptus plantations, and buys trees from suppliers’ plantations, and according to NGOs, has displaced traditional populations, driven land conflicts and cleared large swathes of forest.
Maria Sonia Silva de Carvalho and her granddaughter in their home in the traditional community of Forquilha. Eucalyptus plantation expansion there led to intimidation and threats of violence. Today, locals face an uncertain future. Image by Anna Sophie Gross.

This is the fifth in a series by journalist Anna Sophie Gross who traveled to the Brazilian states of Tocantins and Maranhão in Legal Amazonia for Mongabay to assess the impacts of agribusiness on the region’s environment and people.

FORQUILHA, Maranhão, Brazil — For decades, dozens of families lived peacefully in the small traditional community of Forquilha (pronounced Fork-quill-ya) in the Cerrado, Brazil’s vast savannah biome. As is typical in rural Brazil, the homesteaders lacked land deeds, leading a subsistence lifestyle, in tune with the seasons, annually planting crops and raising animals.

About seven years ago, a wealthy entrepreneur arrived and began converting native vegetation on communally shared lands into eucalyptus plantations. If all went as planned, he would sell the trees to the Suzano pulp and paper company to help feed a global demand for Kleenex tissues and Andrex toilet paper.

In 2014, things turned violent.

Armed men patrolled Forquilha, illegally entered people’s homes, smashed furniture and threatened to kill community members. The thugs came with a message: Renato Miranda, the eucalyptus grower, had always owned local lands and the community had unlawfully invaded his property. The people were told they had eight days to pack up their belongings and leave.

“No-one knew where to go, everyone was terrified, desperate,” remembers Antonia Luis Ramalho Lima, a 54 year-old wife and mother who still lives on a smallholding in Forquilha, where she raises livestock and grows crops for herself and her family.

The violence escalated. Gunmen abducted a father and son, took them to a nearby river, and threatened murder unless the family abandoned their homestead. Another day, armed men stole 22 cows, depriving a traditional family of their basis for survival.

Three elderly community members died that year, directly following threats to their lives. Lacking anywhere to go, the families stayed in their homes, though many individuals fell into severe chronic depression, a state from which they’ve yet to recover.

“I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping, just crying,” recalls Maria Sonia Silva de Carvalho, 46, wife and mother to those taken to the river. “I’m still depressed, I still hear the van passing the house at night. I won’t forget what they did.”

Land deforested to make way for a eucalyptus plantation. Image courtesy of Flávia Bernardes, FASE.

Forquilha’s citizens sought government help, but got none. Attempts to log complaints with local authorities were ignored. “We couldn’t go to the police because they were on his [Renato Miranda’s] side,” explained Marcione Martins Ramalho, a mother of two. The police, she said, had accompanied the armed thugs on one of their visits.

Finally, in 2015, the traditional community received an assist from Diego Cabral, a lawyer who was shocked to learn that a legal process was underway to expel the families from their homes. Cabral launched a countersuit. To this day, no verdict has been reached in either case. Uncertainty reigns and residents fear that the physical and psychological threats will start again.

“Without land there is nowhere to run. Land is life for us,” said Marcione. On Miranda’s plantations, the eucalyptus trees are already growing big, but to date, they remain mostly un-harvested and unsold.

Eucalyptus plantations have been described as “green deserts,” preserving little native biodiversity. And while the United Nations counts tree farms as carbon sinks, researchers and activists say that native vegetation provides better sequestration than eucalyptus. Image by Cássio Abreu on flickr

Blowing your nose with eucalyptus

For most of us, the terror experienced by Forquilha’s citizens likely feels remote and unlinked to our daily lives. But U.S. and European Union tissue consumers at the end of the eucalyptus supply chain may unwittingly be fuelling land conflict, land theft, the violent displacement of traditional communities, and the illegal clearing of large swathes of native vegetation in Brazil.

The nation’s eucalyptus plantations are primarily owned by – or sell their trees via contract to – Suzano, Brazil’s fifth biggest company, which in April began its $12 billion purchase of Fibria, another huge Brazilian pulp producer. Once complete, this merger will make Suzano the biggest pulp and paper company in the world.

The firm already has a gigantic environmental footprint, controlling more than 1.2 million hectares (4,600 square miles) in Brazil – though, once it owns Fibria it will oversee an area almost twice that big, roughly the size of New Jersey.

A chief buyer of Brazilian pulp is Kimberly-Clark, manufacturer of many popular toilet paper and tissue brands. Kimberly-Clark confirmed to Mongabay that it sources a significant amount of eucalyptus in Brazil from Fibria and Suzano, pulp which it uses to make “tissue and towel products like Scott, Cottonelle, Kleenex and Andrex.”

Like much agribusiness in Brazil, eucalyptus plantation expansion often comes hand-in-hand with serious conflicts over land, leading to the supplanting of native and traditional people. According to human rights advocates and NGOs, eucalyptus growers have regularly exploited weaknesses in land rights regulations, while conflicts have been aggravated by the government’s incentivization of eucalyptus expansion via subsidies and investment.

Activists in the northern state of Maranhao claim Suzano itself has behaved similarly to farmers like Renato Miranda, stealing land from traditional communities, displacing families and making livelihoods untenable. Suzano disputes these claims.

Eucalyptus colonizes the North

Renato Miranda was not the only entrepreneur who decided to start planting non-native eucalyptus in Maranhao. About a decade ago, it became a very popular enterprise.

Before that, the majority of Brazilian eucalyptus was grown in the Atlantic Forest biome. But then Suzano massively expanded its operations in the North, where the Amazon meets the Cerrado. The company inaugurated its first pulp mill in the region in 2015, located just outside the Maranhão city of Imperatriz.

That same year, Suzano announced that it had funding for two more pulp mills, both destined for the Cerrado.

Agribusiness entrepreneurs rubbed their hands together, thinking eucalyptus would soon become the next big Cerrado cash crop. Farmers rushed to claim large swathes of land in places like Forquilha, sometimes lawfully, often not, and began planting trees.

Suzano itself also staked claim to land in the region – roughly 300,000 hectares (1,200 square miles) – though the company declined to provide Mongabay with a precise figure.

However, the company’s expansion has not been a smooth ride for all. According to activists and academics, in several instances, Suzano claimed land that was already being used by traditional communities for small-scale agriculture and fruit-picking – their primary means of subsistence. The company struck deals with community leaders to prevent conflict, though many on the ground say that local livelihoods have been sorely impacted.

Francisco das Chagas, who runs the Center for Human Rights in the municipality of Santa Quiteria, in northern Maranhao, described Suzano’s arrival in 2002 as catastrophic for local communities, which often did not have deeds but had lived comfortably, and legally, off public land for decades.

“Suzano waltzed in and called itself owner of these lands, brandishing documents which we consider false,” he said. “All the while, they had security guards and police by their side.”

According to Chagas, one community called Cabeceiro do Rio (Head of the River) no longer exists because Suzano’s eucalyptus plantations usurped the flat, arable land on which traditional people planted small-scale crops, making their lives untenable. Community members migrated to nearby towns and cities, he said. Many rural Brazilians – similarly forced off traditional lands by agribusiness – end up living in severe urban poverty.

In some cases, traditional communities have successfully appealed to local government to reassert ownership of property that they historically occupied. In other cases, judges sympathetic to Suzano’s direct appeals have ruled that the communities invaded the company’s property, and so upheld the company’s right to the land.

According to Chagas, there are currently 23 communities in conflict with Suzano in Santa Quiteria. Many of these land conflicts result from the fact that, by law, Suzano must maintain 20-25 percent of its claimed territory as a “legal reserve” – lands left with native vegetation intact. Chagas says that, to remain within the law, Suzano has claimed un-deeded lands previously belonging to traditional communities for its reserves – a process known as “green land-grabbing.” Once these tracts are designated “legal reserves,” the communities are restricted as to what they can and cannot do on the land.

Chagas told of one case in which a security guard contracted by Suzano physically threatened a community leader for using wood from a tree in one of these “natural reserves” – a forest area the community had previously been free to exploit.

A recent study by University of Maranhão academics enumerates associated environmental impacts due to Suzano’s operations in the north of the state, including mass deforestation, the drying up of rivers and tributaries, pesticide pollution and a severe reduction in biodiversity.

Suzano responded to these claims, saying, “Suzano, like other Brazilian forestry companies, rigorously complies with all laws and regulations involving its business activities, including with regard to the purchase of land for planting new crops. This practice is verified by industry organizations, such as the Bahia State Association of Forestry Companies (ABAF) and the Brazilian Forestry Industry Association (Ibá), by Brazilian regulators and by international certification agencies.”

Eucalyptus trees stacked, ready for transport and processing. A eucalyptus plantation can be seen at right. Photo credit: Oregon State University on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Northern production stalls

Despite the Maranhão land rush, and its attendant conflicts, Suzano’s eucalyptus dreams in the North have as yet failed to fully materialize. Many of the plantations in the state – planted by the company and its contractors – remain un-harvested.

José Antonio Gorgen, nicknamed Zezao, one of Maranhão’s best-known soy growers, explained why: if a eucalyptus plantation is outside the 300 kilometer (180 mile) radius of a Suzano processing plant, transport of the trees is too expensive to be profitable.

“Everyone who started planting eucalyptus outside of Suzano’s radius, lost money. They couldn’t cover their costs,” he said.

Renato Miranda was one such plantation owner – to date, he hasn’t sold a single tree.

However, entrepreneurs remain hopeful. Now, with the global economy gaining momentum, demand for tissue and toilet paper is on the rise. And while Suzano’s eucalyptus plantations in Maranhão go un-harvested, they are still well tended, awaiting the day they can be harvested and turned to profit.

Fibria’s footprint

Suzano isn’t alone in the land theft allegations made against it. Similar accusations have been levied against Suzano’s main competitor-cum-ally, Fibria. The company arrived in the state of Espirito Santo in the 1960s during the rule of Brazil’s military dictatorship, displacing dozens of communities of descendants of fugitive slaves, known as Quilombos, at a time when there was no legislation in place to protect their land rights.

Once displaced, community members were forced to disperse; some settled on the outskirts of cities where they mostly live in poverty today, while others joined the landless movement, roving between informal settlements, and continuing their drive to obtain property. Of the 12,000 Quilombo families who lived in the region during the 1960s, only 1,200 remain, residing in small island settlements surrounded by a green desert of maturing eucalyptus trees.

Activist Marcelo Calazans, who works for Fase, an environmental and social coalition in Espirito Santo, said that the company has also deforested areas along the São Domingos River, known as “mata ciliar” (or forest eyelashes). Brazil’s Forest Code bans the removal of native vegetation along rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs because it serves as habitat for native plants and animals, while preventing flooding and soil runoff.

Fibria responded that it “does not adopt or condone illegal practices in its operations, which is a concern that extends to their sponsored companies, third parties, partners, etc.”

Sapezeiro, a member of one of the reclaimed Quilombos in Sape do Norte, Espirito Santo. The soil has been ravaged by decades of pesticide use, but Sapezeiro and others use traditional farming methods to restore it to something resembling its former vitality. Image courtesy of Flávia Bernardes, FASE.

Government propels and profits from pulp industry

It’s not surprising that Suzano and Fibria have controversial records regarding land conflicts. Experts say that the Brazilian government has largely failed to regulate the pulp and paper industry and hasn’t enforced traditional community land protections, while providing serious financial backing to the industry.

Plantation owners typically receive large government subsidies, recouping around 75 percent of the costs of production over three years. At the same time, the Brazilian National Investment Bank (BNDES), one of the world’s biggest development banks, has invested generously in pulp and paper companies. BNDES owns significant stakes in both Suzano and Fibria. As a result, Suzano’s purchase of Fibria will provide the bank with approximately R$ 8.5 billion (US $2.1 billion), with BNDES retaining 11 percent control of the combined company.

“It’s shocking actually how much the Brazilian government stimulates a concentration of corporate wealth and power,” said Simone Lovera, Executive Director of the Global Forest Coalition (GFC), an international alliance of NGOs defending the rights of forest peoples.

She points out that what’s good for business isn’t necessarily good for the environment. “There’s nothing worse you can do to land than plant eucalyptus. And yet, up until today, these [large Brazilian eucalyptus plantations] are funded by climate finance as ‘reforestation’,” Lovera said.

According to Brazil’s National Climate Commitment, made under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the federal government will offset its carbon emissions by reforesting 12 million hectares (46,000 square miles), of which only 2 million will be native forest cover, while 10 million hectares (39,000 square miles) will consist of monoculture plantations – including eucalyptus.

The argument that large-scale monoculture tree plantations are effective carbon sinks that help mitigate climate change is deeply in question, according to the World Rainforest Movement (WRM). This Uruguay-based NGO says that the conversion of South America’s grasslands into tree plantations destroys existing carbon sinks, with carbon storage short-lived because the trees will be cut down.

Scientists note that non-native eucalyptus plantations support little biodiversity, while also sucking up vast amounts of water, which can adversely impact stream flow and aquifers vital to subsistence farmers and herders. Suzano and Fibria refute this claim, stating that: “research conducted by experts shows that water consumption by eucalyptus cultivation is no different from that of other crops.”

Toilet paper and tissues are ubiquitous products used daily by consumers the world over. But few of us likely consider the socio-environmental costs of pulp and paper production in Brazil. Photo on Visualhunt

Keeping global consumers happy

“Suzano isn’t scared of the [Brazilian] government, it’s scared of European consumers,” said Calazans. More than 70 percent of the company’s net revenue comes from exports, shipped to more than 90 countries – for paper pulp alone that percentage rises to 91 percent.

While Kimberly-Clark (KC) openly admits to using Fibria and Suzano pulp to make Kleenex tissues and Andrex toilet paper, the company says that it, and its suppliers, are acting responsibly and sustainably. Kimberly-Clark told Mongabay that, “As one of the world’s largest buyers of wood pulp, we know that protecting our forests is critical to addressing climate change, conserving biodiversity and ensuring a resilient, healthy supply chain.”

Kimberly-Clark reported making a multi-stakeholder visit to Fibria and Suzano eucalyptus plantations in Bahia and Espirito Santo states in March, during which they found that “significant progress is being made by the companies but [that] there is more work to do.”

A spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium, which represents many UK retailers, told Mongabay that: “The British Retail Consortium’s members typically sell products that contain paper that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which demands that products are sourced without destroying forests and that the wellbeing of workers and their local communities are protected.”

However, Lovera is sceptical about the effectiveness of the FSC certification system.

“The Forest Stewardship Council has a massive stake in certifying eucalyptus plantations,” she said, noting that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has set ambitious targets to assure that consumers have a sufficient supply of FSC certified wood. That in turn has placed pressure on the FSC to certify many eucalyptus monocultures with potentially dubious social and environmental footprints.

“It’s super cynical because FSC now has a vested interest in the increased development of monoculture plantations,” Lovera said.

In a statement, the FSC conceded that Fibria and Suzano’s operations in the states of Espírito Santo and Bahia have “always been surrounded by controversies and disagreements, raised by social movements and other interested parties.” But FSC added that all their certified forest plantations are subject to annual audits and that they “do not have evidence of any current non-conformities… in relation to rural migration movement caused by the certified companies.”

WWF corroborated this view in a statement, saying: “We currently deem FSC to be the most credible certification scheme because of its multi-stakeholder process, governance structure and because it has systems in place to ensure that standards are applied. Research has shown that FSC is more demanding than any other forest certification scheme and has positive impacts on the ground.”

Clearly, with the world’s population soaring from 7.6 billion today to 9.8 billion in 2050, the demand for toilet paper and tissues will skyrocket too, with pulp and paper companies, and investors like BNDES, wanting to capitalize on that demand with new eucalyptus plantations.

But just as clearly, the realities put forth by the Forest Stewardship Council, Kimberly-Clark, and Suzano diverge from those of the citizens of traditional communities like Forquilha, where Maria Sonia Silva de Carvalho still shakes with fear when she hears a van passing in the night.

Mongabay contributor Anna Sophie Gross was accompanied on her trip by Thomas Bauer, a photographer and filmmaker who has been documenting and supporting communities in the Cerrado and Amazon for over 20 years. He produced nearly all of the photos and videos for this series.

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