Interview: Roberto Smeraldi – Director of Brazil’s Amigos da Terra

Roberto Smeraldi is one of Brazil’s leading environmentalists. Co-founder and director of Amigos da Terra - Amazônia Brasileira he talks in this interview about the need for innovation in certification and Brazil’s constant challenge with deforestation and cattle ranching.


Don’t be shy, tell us something about yourself!

I’m a co-founder and director of Amigos da Terra which was founded 21 years ago but originally I was a journalist. I’m also part of various boards of other organisations in the area of forests and sustainable development. I used to be the chairperson for the NGO steering committee for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio in 1992 – called the Earth Summit. For various years I was in charge of a broad NGO spectrum which I represented at the United Nations. I also represented for many, many years Friends of The Earth International at the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations.

And over the years, I was the chair of the international advisory group for the pilot programme of Brazilian Rain Forest which was a G7 initiative started in the 1990s. Currently, I serve on the steering board of Forests Dialogue at Yale which is a large multi-stakeholder initiative and includes the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, World Conservation Union (IUCN), Kimberly-Clark, your colleagues IIED and many others. I’m also in some national committees appointed by our president like the National Committee on Climate Change, the National Commission on the Social Determinants of Health which is related to the International Commission on Social Determinants of Health by the World Health Organisation. I also write books on issues related to the Amazon. My last book was on sustainable enterprises.

It’s good to be busy! Tell me more about Amigos da Terra?

Amigos da Terra was created at the end of the 1980s at a time when Brazil had just adopted its new democratic constitution. One of the founders of the organisation Fabio Feldmann was the Member of Parliament who wrote the Environmental Chapter of the 1988 Constitution. We were part of a period of democratisation and there was a strong emphasis on public policies, not just the policy aspects of the environmental issues but also the economic aspect of the environmental issues. We focused more on the human dimension of environmentalism rather than on nature conversation in a narrow sense.

We were also well known for experimenting with new approaches and new ideas both in field projects - like promoting the degraded forest economy at the community level - and through economic arrangements that continue over years. We also used to be a help desk for small businesses using forest products.

We were among the pioneer organisations in the 1990s to introduce forest certification here in Brazil. In 1998 we created an alliance - the Sustainable Consumption Alliance concerning forest products - which included Imaflora and Imazon, an NGO from the Amazon which is nowadays rather important.

We have created a Brazilian buyers group that uses certified forest products which is made up of some 65 companies that now prioritise FSC products in their procurement. But high on the agenda at the moment is the issue of livestock and ranching.

So, the figure I have for cattle ranching is 65 to 70 per cent of deforestation becomes land for cattle ranching, is that right?

Well, these figures are actually higher if you focus on the Amazon region. Between 75 and 80 per cent of deforestation in the Amazon region in the years 2003 to 2008 results in pasture. This study used heat sensing technology to detect new pasture. But in the Cerrado – a large tropical ecoregion which is very rich in biodiversity and is very carbon-rich especially in the soil - we have an average of 57 per cent of the area that was deforested and converted in those years. We do not have specific research for the Atlantic forest or for the dry forest in the northeast. But more or less conservatively we would say that two thirds of any deforestation is related to ranching in Brazil.

Did you have a campaign against ranching or do you have a campaign against deforestation in general?

We do not have a campaign against ranching. We have various activities aimed at changing the way ranching is done. Our focus is to prevent ranching from further horizontal expansion. So we propose good management techniques, intensification and regulation of the expansion of the processing with an agro-industrial zone that doesn't encroach into new areas.

You can increase the economic returns of ranching (increase yield productivity) with a more efficient use of land. Of course, this requires some investment! But that is the answer to prevent expansion. Just to give you an idea, with existing technology we could keep the same herd in one-third of the area currently occupied and with the more advanced technology on the horizon we could actually double this, so actually make it six-fold better than it is today. But of course that change is more expensive.

This is really a question of demand and supply though, isn’t it?

This is not just a Brazilian issue. We’re moving towards a world where meat and especially pasture-fed meat might become more expensive in the medium to long term in comparison to other sources of protein mass - sources of protein which are more efficient in terms of land use. In a situation of land scarcity pasture-fed beef would probably become a luxury product for a special occasion.

Can certification of – for instance - beef be a solution?

We say that certification is not the solution to everything. If we thought it was, it would create frustrations. We need to realise what the role of certification in a wider strategy is. Some people think that once you have certification, you have solved all the problems.

At the moment our priority is on the agricultural sector in general. We think the trend for crop-specific types of standards is a limitation and that we need to have something more comprehensive. We do not have certification for mahogany or for cedar or for eucalyptus. We have FSC certification for forest and timber but naturally a forest also includes non-timber products: nuts, oils, and different types of foods.

A comprehensive certification can work in native forest, flood plain forest, low land forest, planted forest, temperate, boreal and tropical forest. So that’s the approach we would need for the agricultural sector. The producer can plant soy this year and move to cotton in the next harvest or just decide to have half soy and half maize depending on the prices in the Chicago Stock Exchange. Or include sugar cane every five years because it helps to fix nitrogen in the soil and then move back to soy. Or do soy and cattle so that the producer already has the meal for fattening the cattle and sell the soy oil in the market.

We need to stop focusing on the product and start focusing on the farm. What do the stakeholders want really? The consumer in the supermarket just wants to know that the farm is ok. They want to know that the landscape where the farm operates is managed decently. That’s the consumer demand. And everything between farm and consumer will reflect that same concern.

On top of that they want to avoid other liabilities such as slave labour or child labour. But the general concern is that we need a system. And then within the system we need to have specific criteria that apply to certain crops like sugarcane, maize etc in the same way as FSC has general standards and then it has specific standards for different types of management.

We also need a tripartite type of balance. Economic. Social. Environmental. If we want to be a legitimate movement and if we want to be convincing, we cannot have everybody creating their own certification system.

This brings me to ISEAL. ISEAL is about credibility. If we want to have credibility, which is the most important asset for somebody who is doing certification, I think we need to have these multi-stakeholder types of engagement. If we want to introduce critical transparency into the agricultural chains both related to food and to energy, we need to work towards this comprehensive system. This is where your experience is extremely important because you have already learned lessons over many years in different areas.

The challenge of agriculture is its huge scale and complexity in comparison to any other area where certification has been developed successfully so far. But we’re trying to provoke discussion in these areas so as to develop a sustainable model for certification in the agricultural. We realise that this might prove more complicated and you probably need to reduce the scope of your stakeholders if you want fast decision making on criteria. But the big question is, is it sustainable? Is it something that is convincing?

We are currently having this discussion with the association of Brazilian large retailers, which also includes some large foreign companies like Wal-Mart or Carrefour.

It strikes me that this free thinking would at some stage put you at odds with the umbrella organisation?

Friends of the Earth International used to respect diversity, understood different positions and was different from other groups like Greenpeace which were more centralised. Friends of the Earth International used to work more as a federation. We had this dialogue without major problems until around 2006-2007 when Friends of the Earth International started to evolve toward having a strong ideological position on certain issues.  

There were three issues in particular. First, before the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali 2007 they decided to have a very ideological anti-REDD* position. So it was not just criticizing how REDD was conceived - as we have always done - but it was being against REDD and completely not accepting the concept. But we were working with indigenous organisations and people from the forestry sector directly – how could we justify breaking contact with them?

The second point was about certification. They started to be anti-certification – not for practical reasons but on ideological grounds. They saw certification as a market instrument and they did not want a market instrument. We had years of accumulated initiatives here about certification and couldn’t just abandon them the next day.

The third reason was also very ideological. They wanted an immediate moratorium on biofuels. Any biofuels. Well maybe that can work in the Netherlands where you don’t have to add a new fuel source but biofuels make up 40 per cent of Brazil’s energy mix. If we have an immediate moratorium on biofuels we would just increase our oil and fossil consumption by 40 per cent – it just wouldn’t make sense.

But they kept very strictly to these issues and we could not stand back. We had to leave the federation in 2008. We still retain good relations with them and collaborate with Friends of the Earth groups on various issues and I hope someday when the network will have some more reflection on these aspects we can get together again.

*REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is an attempt to create economic value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation. REDD+ goes beyond this requirement to include the role of conservation and sustainable forest management.


For all things REDD visit the website The REDD Desk, a resource for all those involved in REDD and REDD+ projects.