Zé Silva: a dissenting voice within Brazilian agribusiness

Congressman Zé Silva supports a more eco-friendly form of agribusiness in Brazil and says he’s not the only one


Zé Silva

Congressman Zé Silva is a rare voice for greater sustainability and indigenous rights within Brazilian agribusiness (image: Nina Cordero/ LatinClima)

Brazilian congressman Zé Silva, 54, appears as something of a contradiction on the official chamber of deputies website. He is both a member of Brazil’s agribusiness, or ruralista, caucus and the Parliamentary Front in Defence of Traditional Peoples and Communities – two groups that have been locked in ongoing conflict.

Ruralist politicians are known for defending weaker environmental legislation and rejecting the demarcation of indigenous territories in order to boost profits from private land. They have acquired an image as powerful lobbyists that environmentalists strongly oppose.

But this is not what Zé Silva stands for. While his environmental ideals are rare, Zé Silva insists he is not alone and that perceptions of Brazil’s agribusiness as one single bloc are inaccurate.

Did you know…

the ruralist caucus took shape in the 80s, defending the interests of agribusiness. It became the Parliamentary Front for Agribusiness in 2008 and is now one of Brazil's most powerful political groups. It has 257 parliamentarians that comprise 44% of congress and 39.5% of the senate

Zé Silva hails from western Minas Gerais state, Brazil’s agricultural heartland and a region that has suffered from drought, falling river levels, and deep social divides. He was first elected to congress in 2011, becoming its first agronomist, and is currently serving his fourth term representing the social-democratic Solidariedade (Solidarity) party, which he helped create.

In an interview with Diálogo Chino at the UN’s climate change conference in Madrid, Zé Silva spoke about the challenges of making agriculture more sustainable in Brazil and how Chinese demand for Brazilian meat is transforming the market.

Diálogo Chino [DC]: Could you tell us a little about your life and when you got started in politics?

Zé Silva [ZS]: My parents are farm workers and I stayed out in the country until I was 16 years old. I am from Iturama, in Minas Gerais, where agriculture is very big. I studied agronomy during a very fertile time for democracy in Brazil, when the process of transitioning [from authoritarianism] was beginning.

In 1990, I worked in an agrarian reform settlement. Brazil chose a more expensive model of development, [with the idea that] everyone had to go to the cities to be happy. In the 1970s, 85% of the population lived in the countryside. Today it’s only 15%. This led to a collapse in medium-sized and large cities, and rural areas are ageing and depopulated. Young people don’t want to stay in the countryside. In 2008 I realised that I had completed my mission in the technical arena and that it was politics that would enable me to make some sort of change. I first affiliated myself with a party in 2010, when I was elected federal representative. I went to the chamber of deputies with the aim of bringing value to rural areas.

DC: What is the ruralist contingent?

ZS: The ruralist contingent is the largest contingent among senators and representatives, accounting for half of congress. They are brought together by 50 agricultural organisations that include raw material producers and associations of soy and cotton producers, which are the strongest. Their main interest is to defend agendas and give the sector influence in drafting legislation. Within the ruralist contingent, I try to show that it is not agribusiness on one side and family farming on the other. There can be highly mechanised non-family farming that produces commodities for export, but there are also family agribusinesses involving artisanal processes that include cultural values passed down from generation to generation.

Zé Silva and agriculture minister Tereza Cristina
Zé Silva meets with agriculture minister Tereza Cristina (image: Frente Parlimentar da Agricultura)

DC: What divides the contingent?

ZS: I say that there is no agribusiness separate from family agriculture. I’m there to persuade everyone that there is only one [type of] agriculture. People have an image of the ruralists as a single bloc, but it’s not. One example is the use of pesticides. I wrote a statement about reducing the use of pesticides. The ruralist contingent agreed to make it into a statement from the entire group. We gain ground by talking about ecological transitioning and about what can be organic and agro-ecological.

DC: Can the environment and climate be aligned with agribusiness’ agenda?

ZS: I’m convinced it can. Maybe what was missing was someone putting these ideas [out there]. In Brazil, lawmakers lack technical vision. As long as there are technicians who can put together studies for legislators with a more sustainable vision, there will be change.

DC: Why do you support family agriculture?

ZS: In Brazil, there is an incorrect notion separating agribusiness from family farming. 84% of farmers [4 million] come from farming families who have only 24% of land that can be used for agriculture. They have a production system that is more integrated with nature, but have difficulty accessing technology and innovations. I am the chair of a [congressional] group for technical assistance and rural extension [the application of scientific research], so that producers can have access to research from the universities. But this does not mean that family agriculture is backwards and only produces enough for subsistence. It has high productivity.

DC: What has changed between livestock raising in the past compared with what it is today in Brazil?

ZS: 40 years ago, we were in a period of experimentation. My parents planted crops and raised animals, and this was passed down to their children. In the 70s, during the green revolution, we saw the reorganisation of the Brazilian system of research and technical assistance. We moved from the era of experimentation to the era of knowledge. Over the past 40 years, Brazil has increased its planted area by 2.3% each year, and productivity has grown 12%. Ranching was extensive, without technology, there was no control of diseases in the animals.

cattle farm in Xinguara in the state of Pará, Brazil.
A cattle farm in Xinguara, Brazil's northeastern Pará state. Some Brazilian farmers are moving towards more intensive methods (photo Bruno Cecim)

DC: Is sustainable ranching possible?

ZS: It’s already being done on a large scale. Today, 60% of Brazilian producers, regardless of property size, are ranching sustainably. Sustainable ranching integrates field crops, livestock, and forests, and reduces the carbon footprint. You plant a forest with native or exotic tree species, pasture, and you raise cattle. Production is not enough; it must be sustainable. This vision of sustainability is about 15 years old, from when there was a global awareness in the market that put constraints on the purchase of Brazilian products.

492 million

the total greenhouse gas emissions from the Brazilian agricultural sector in 2018, 25% of the nation's total. Cattle are its main source emissions in the industry

In the Paris Agreement, Brazil set goals to remediate 15 million hectares of degraded pastures and establish 5 million hectares [of integrated crop-livestock-forest systems by 2030]. If Brazil invests in agricultural research and technical assistance in the field, we can meet these goals.

Small-scale family farmers use biological controls and integrated pest management, like using the urine from their cows to control pests and diseases instead of pesticides. We can see that the population is mobilising. Awareness of sustainability in society ends up being reflected back to congress.

Technology has helped increase productivity, there is no longer the idea of "let’s clear forests" every year to increase the herds. In the Amazon, there are crooks in land grab schemes who set fires. This is a crime and it is a reality. Serious producers want this attitude to be stamped out and punished. The communities that live there must be respected. The Amazon biome was not made for ranching.

DC: Do you support land ownership reforms as a way of avoiding deforestation?

ZS: Brazil has a million settlers who were promised land titles under government programmes. 600,000 in settlements do not have [land] documentation. Without these land documents, families cannot access any public credit and cannot issue tax receipts. Agricultural settlements made up 23% of deforested land, 873 out of 2,554 settlements had illegal deforestation. This is the land regularisation [or formalisation] that I advocate in Law 13.465/2017. This is a serious point in the Amazon, if we do not legalise the settlements, there will be more deforestation.

Approved in 2017, Law 13.465 concerns latifundia regularisation, both rural and urban, and also in the Legal Amazon. A much-discussed law, initially called "grilagem law" (invasion + occupation) by its critics, who pointed out that the new legislation was going to facilitate latifundia concentration.

DC: How do you see the growth in Chinese demand for Brazilian beef?

ZS: The major buyers of Brazilian beef are the EU, US, and recently China. China has major interests. A rapprochement has begun not only between governments, but also exchanges between Chinese and Brazilian entrepreneurs. I was with the Minister of Agriculture in May 2019 visiting China, we went to Beijing and Shanghai. Before, China only purchased from six large meat processing plants in Brazil. Today, the minister has opted to accredit all companies. They want to buy our sustainable products, and also require sanitary controls. The demands of the market today are nearly universal: how to ensure that (products) don’t come from deforested areas; and good practices in techniques for disease control and avoiding mistreatment of animals.


China and Hong Kong accounted for 42.2% of all Brazil's beef exports in 2018

DC: What precautions Brazil should take with regard to the increase in demand?

ZS: There has been a 13% increase in Chinese demand over the last six months. This led to an imbalance. It also means that Brazil should not clear new areas, such as in the Amazon. We need to increase productivity in the areas that have already been cleared. They will continue to buy red meat. Our estimate is growth of at least 5% per year over the next ten years. They are not only concerned in buying here, but also in coming here. Groups that produce Chinese pesticides will establish themselves here in Brazil, such as Sinochem and the manufacturer Adama. And Brazil is a major consumer of pesticides, which is not sustainable, which is why we have this manifest need to reduce our consumption of pesticides. When you export and sell products, consumers want quality, price, and products that are sustainable and socially fair.

This story was produced as part of the COP25 Reporting Fellowship for Latin American Climate Journalists