Brazilian communities that have resisted industrial tree plantations for decades now face the threat of glyphosate-resistant GE trees
by Kaitlyn Duthie-Kannikkatt
October 12, 2023
Note: This article was originally published in the Watershed Sentinel, October/November 2023 issue.
In May and June of this year, I was part of an international delegation to Brazil organized by the International Campaign to Stop GE Trees. We travelled around the states of Espirito Santo, Bahia, and Mato Grosso do Sul — epicentres of the production of eucalyptus trees destined to become pulp, paper, biofuels, and other products shipped around the world.
For thousands of kilometers, on either side of the highway, we passed row upon row of eucalyptus trees. Local communities call these tree monocultures (and other monocultures such as GM soy plantations) “green deserts” – areas of cultivation that appear productive, but are absent of almost any life outside of the single species planted in them.
Part of our goal was to connect with and learn from communities that have been affected by – and resisting – these dense and expansive eucalyptus monocultures for decades. Brazilian pulp and paper company Suzano almost tripled its area of land under cultivation between 2015 and 2020; it now exceeds 1.3 million hectares. Much of this cultivation takes place on land stolen from Indigenous, peasant, and Quilombola peoples (Afro-Brazilian people whose ancestors escaped slavery into the forests and formed their own autonomous communities).
We met with Quilombola communities and representatives from the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil to learn about the impacts these monocultures have had on their way of life and to share information about how the potential release of genetically engineered trees will exacerbate these problems.
GE herbicide-tolerant eucalyptus trees?
In 2021, Suzano got government approval to commercially release their genetically engineered (GE, or genetically modified) eucalyptus tree in Brazil. This GE tree has not been planted yet, in large part because Suzano markets its products with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which prohibits the commercial use of GE trees.
As has been observed with GE crops, the convenience of trees that can survive glyphosate will likely result in the use of more glyphosate, more often.
Suzano’s GE tree is glyphosate-tolerant, which means that the tree has been genetically engineered to survive being sprayed with glyphosate-based herbicides, even when it is young and more vulnerable, while all the weeds and other plants around it will die. Glyphosate is used to clear the land of other plants in order to prepare tree plantation sites; it is also applied to new plantations in the first few years of growth.
“An end to everything”
Eucalyptus plantations have severe negative impacts on local communities and ecosystems. Companies repeatedly spray plantations with pesticides (the term “pesticides” includes herbicides, insecticides and fungicides), often from the air, in order to keep insects and other plants out. The trees themselves are also particularly water-hungry, resulting in lower water tables and frequent drought. Our group met with Quilombola women from the community Angelim II in the state of Bahia, who told us about the impacts that nearby plantation monocultures have had on their community and their territory:
“The eucalyptus made the river in our community dry up. And the spraying killed off all the wildlife. I grew up seeing so many butterflies but they’re not there anymore. My daughter has never seen these things. The plantations are putting an end to everything.”
Suzano claims that its newly approved GE eucalyptus will lower the chemical load. However, this promise was also made by the biotechnology industry for the use of GE herbicide-tolerant crops and it proved false. Herbicide use increased significantly with the use of GE herbicide-tolerant crops in North America and South America. For example, pesticide use in soy production in Brazil increased threefold between 2000 and 2012 after the introduction of Roundup Ready [GE] soy.
As has been observed with GE crops, the convenience of trees that can survive glyphosate will likely result in the use of more glyphosate, more often. In the case of eucalyptus plantations, it will encourage aerial spraying of new plantations where direct spraying of plants on the ground is the current norm.
Imagining a new way forward
The Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil has been promoting an alternative food and forestry model in Brazil for decades. Our group met with residents from one MST settlement that began occupying a former eucalyptus plantation more than 13 years ago and slowly converted it into a diverse agroforestry haven that produces food to sustain settlement residents and nearby communities.
One MST member spoke about the need to come together to imagine a new way of doing things:
“We have two settlements that are suffering with aerial spraying [of pesticides]… We have to denounce this now and into the future, networking our struggles together. We have to join hands and tell the world what we’re experiencing here, that this is not the future.”
Suzano and other companies that are pushing GE technology are promoting the idea that the way to reduce the impact of tree plantations is to intensify production, and that GE trees can help. But plantations reduce these territories to “sacrificial zones,” and that won’t change unless we change the whole plantation forestry model and reduce demand for paper products. Lower pesticide use and decreased land use are dangerous myths used to sell “sustainable intensification” as a false solution to the climate and biodiversity crises.
The message we heard over and over again was that people, not corporations, have the solutions to the ecological problems we face. Indigenous and Quilombola communities and territories are not sacrificial zones. They are forging a new path forward that centres on healthy food and a healthy environment for all.
In partnership with the National Farmers Union, the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network will host a webinar on October 26 (3pm PDT, 6pm EDT) featuring Quilombola and MST leaders in Brazil who are fighting the expansion of eucalyptus plantations with agroecology. All are welcome. Click here for details and to register.
September 21 is the International Day of Struggle Against Monoculture Tree Plantations. From Brazil to Canada and around the world, people are resisting the industrial tree plantation model and saying to no glyphosate use in forestry and food.
Kaitlyn Duthie-Kannikkatt is a campaigner at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN), which brings together 15 groups to research, monitor, and raise awareness about issues relating to genetic engineering in food and farming. CBAN is a project on the shared platform of the MakeWay Charitable Society. www.cban.ca
For more information:
Report: The Global Status of Genetically Engineered Tree Development: A Growing Threat
(Available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese)