The Devastating Consequences of Brazil’s Uncontrolled Agricultural Activities

Voçoroca Chitolina

In my last article I stated that I prefer to see (water sucking) eucalypti above soya fields. Well, see here the consequences of uncontrolled (i.e. illegal) deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado. Maybe you will agree with me that planting eucalyptus trees for paper pulp is not such a bad idea, compared to the planting of soybeans for biofuel or deforesting for pasture to raise livestock. The consequences are shocking and irreversible.

Huge craters, called voçorocas, swallow miles of farmland in the Central-West region of Brazil. It should be a warning to all who care about the environment. Seen from above: a huge green carpet, a soybean crop which only stops abruptly at the head of a voçoroca.

Voçoroca is the weird name that identifies a huge crater caused by erosion. It is impossible to farm in the crater. The cattle can’t even get close. The crater is a result of the deforestation and the uncontrolled growth of farmed land.

Whether it is called in English gully, in Portuguese voçoroca, or originally in Tupi-Guarani ibi-Soroca, these gigantic erosions always create problems. Caused by natural factors amplified by human impact, they degrade the fertile soil and dump tons of soil into the beds of streams and rivers, silting, choking, and changing the landscape in urban and rural areas.

“The consequences always are the same: the courses of the rivers will be silted up and you can just wait for the death and the siltation of where the stream springs into being”, says Luziano de Carvalho of the office of Meio Ambiente de Goiás (Environment of Goiás). They flew over nine municipalities in Goiás state and located 50 gullies of all sizes. The largest ones even got a name for easy identification.

One of them, near the town of Mineiros, is called Urtiga. Easily five football stadiums, the large ones, will fit inside it. The depth at some points is equivalent to a fifteen-story building. Researchers discovered the voçoroca three years ago. They had never seen anything like it and since then they are following the progress of environmental degradation.

And that is necessary as since the discovery, the erosion has increased by 30%. “I am ashamed to have to show something on my property that is so shameful”, says farmer Eduardo Oliveira de Rezende, the owner of the voçoroca.

Another crater, which has no name, is near the Emas National Park, the natural heritage of mankind. Not far away, there is a stretch of the Cerrado (savannah) turning into desert. You can’t cover these huge craters with soil. The only way out is to reforest.

The voçorocas appear in various parts of the country and gain contours of an environmental tragedy in the region where the Rio Araguaia springs up, between Goiás, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. Since the discovery of the area near the Emas National Park, erosions have been found in an area of about 5000 square km or four times the size of the National Park. In this area, you find about 130 gullies.

As explained by the researcher at Embrapa Environment Marco Gomes, the gullies that threaten the birthplace of the Araguaia were caused by agriculture on inappropriate soils, coupled with the increasing deforestation of the Cerrado. The extremely sandy soil of the region is easily carried away by the rains. Without the protection of vegetation, the soil will run off with the water, which gives rise to erosions. “Deforestation and pasture established on slopes and sandy soils are the main causes of the emergence of these gullies”, Marco Gomes says.

Geologically speaking, there are several regions of the country where the soils are still forming, continuously changing, as in the Araguaia region. There we have one end of the so called Botucatu Formation, with about 200 million years a descendant of ancient deserts. So, in other parts of Brazil, soil degradation and gullies are multiplying.

Of those scars in the soil of the Cerrado (savannah), more than two dozen have the size of a football stadium, or more. The two largest are the gullies Chitolina and Olho d´Água close to each other. Who once heard the “pop” of a gully, says the noise is deafening, similar to an avalanche.
Left unchecked, the erosion and damage will increase. From an economic point of view, the land loses its value because it ceases to be productive and can “break” many farmers with losses of crops and of pasture for livestock. The environment does not suffer less because, besides the voçoroca caused by erosion, several water sources are hit by tons of earth, suffering siltation, changes of their course and reduction of the volume of water in their beds.

The Environmental Police want the producers to plant trees in and around the craters. Expensive, but who refuses will answer for environmental crimes and faces up to one year in prison.
The Office of Environment of Goiás has summoned 90 farmers who have craters on their land. The idea is to curb the growth of the existing craters, as it is not possible to recover the eroded areas.

Farmer Milton Fries spent BRL 800,000 (450,000 USD) in an attempt to control Chitolina, one of the largest craters in the country. It is 2.5 km long and 80 meters wide. “Within ten, fifteen years you will not see it anymore. Because we continue with the intervention, throwing seeds, planting seedlings and nature itself takes care to reform nature”.

In 2005, Professor Selma Simões, Federal University of Goiás, published a comprehensive study on the chaotic situation of the headwaters of the Araguaia. The document reveals that the planting of soybeans began there nearly four decades ago, first on flat land and then in areas unsuitable for annual crops and for livestock. Today, the main crops grown are soybeans, sorghum, maize and millet.
“Improper use of the soil caused the gullies to grow after the Cerrado has been replaced by pasture and soybean. As always the most important influence is the misuse of land, coupled with the lack of state and national policies to combat the craters”, says Professor Selma Simões.

Amazônia rain forest pushed back by large areas of soybean fields in the state of Mato Grosso

Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado continues and so the erosion. Who needs soybeans for biofuel?