Sustainable on paper: the eucalyptus plantations of Bahia, Brazil (2022)

Endless rows of tree trunks pass before our eyes behind the car window. In the utmost south of the Brazilian state Bahia, eucalyptus plantations are a common sight. Sometimes we can see the remains of the Mata Atlântica, the majestic Atlantic Rainforest that used to cover the region. Now there is only four percent left. Logging companies and sawmills have made huge profits here.
After the deforestation, something new was introduced to the region: eucalyptus, the new green gold. The plantations we pass are all owned by Veracel.

David Fernandes, Veracel’s forestry official, guides us over sand roads through a giant maze of eucalyptus plantations. The car halts at a slope with a view on the company’s pride: the mosaic landscape. Fernandes elaborates enthusiastically on the harmony between the eucalyptus on the higher plateaus and the rainforest on the steep slopes and alongside the rivers. ‘Veracel owns approximately 200.000 hectares of land. Half of that is intended for the exploitation of eucalyptus, the other half is protected rainforest. The interaction is very enriching. It’s important for the health of the eucalyptus, and the rainforest provides the animals with an ideal habitat.’

Further down the road the greenery makes room for an arid plain, where everything has been cut down. But next to the dry land, young eucalyptus is already growing for a future production cycle. We drive between two huge walls of stacked tree trunks. Big machines, resembling mechanised prehistoric predators, are cutting down the mature eucalyptus trees at incredible speed. It takes a mere 25 seconds to cut down, debark, saw and stack a tree. Fernandes: ‘For each hectare we plant 833 trees. After seven years the trees are thirty meters high and ready to be harvested.’

Bahia’s climate allows a higher productivity than elsewhere in the world. ‘It’s only during the first year that we spray nine litres of glyphosate per hectare. It’s a Monsanto weed killer, more commonly known as Round Up. It’s a perfectly safe product, there’s nothing wrong with it.’ The FSC agrees, according to them the use of the weed killer does not endanger sustainability. But what Fernandes lacks to mention, is that Veracel uses ‘large amounts of a chemical product blacklisted by the FSC’, as stated in an ASI report concerning Veracel’s certification. Plantations infested by ants are sprayed with Sulfluramide. The company asked and received an exceptional permission from the FSC in 2008.

IBAMA, the federal environmental agency, had to impose some restraints on Veracel’s use of chemical herbicides as well. The company used weed killers on land intended for the regeneration of rainforest, resulting in the destruction of a large amount of indigenous trees. Veracel was fined 400.000 real (€160.000). The company was also fined for deforestation, for not restoring rainforest and for planting eucalyptus trees next to national parks, all violations of the law. ‘Veracel always lodges an appeal in Brasilia’, says Cleide Guirro, head of IBAMA in Eunápolis. The agency is almost too short-handed to handle all the complaints against Veracel. ‘We have six inspectors for an area four times the size of Belgium. And eucalyptus is only one of the problems we have to deal with.’

The main characters

– The Forest Stewardship Council was founded in 1993 to protect the world’s forests and old-growth forests. Nowadays, FSC is the fastest growing certification system for sensible forestry. 135 million hectares in more than eighty countries are FSC certified. The success can be explained by the unique structure of the council: corporations, social organisations and environmental movements all take part in the decision making process. The ten FSC principles and criteria form the basis for certification.

SGS QUALIFOR – A certification organisation under the authority of the FSC that investigates the applications and approves or disapproves them.

VERACEL – A paper pulp company, a joint venture of the Swedish-Finnish Stora Enso and the Brazilian Fibria. Veracel manages 96.000 hectares of eucalyptus, producing a million tons of cellulose (a component of wood) a year. The pulp, which is used to make toilet paper, paper towels and shiny magazines, is for 98 percent intended for export. The coming of Veracel was announced as a project that would create jobs and help to develop the region. That is why the company could count on considerable loans from the Brazilian bank and the European Investment Bank. The two banks roughly financed half of the total amount of 1,25 billion dollars investments. Today, 2600 people work on Veracel’s 96.000 hectares of eucalyptus. That is one job per 37 hectares. Papaya farming, which used to be the preferred cultivation, produced one job per hectare. Coffee plantations produce one job per three hectares.

ASI – A company inspecting for FSC certificators like SGS Qualifor.

CEPEDES – A local NGO and research centre from South Bahia, focusing on the eucalyptus expansion and the protection of the Atlantic Rainforest in the region.

IBAMA – The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.

Illegal paper

In order to obtain the FSC label, the company has to respect the laws of the country. According to SGS Qualifor, Veracel complies with this condition, but João Alves da Silva, public prosecutor in Eunápolis, disagrees. ‘Veracel violates the labour legislation, the environmental legislation ánd the criminal code’, he says. During the past years, the employment tribunal in Eunápolis counted more than 850 lawsuits against Veracel and its subcontractors. Alves da Silva reaches for a stack of files. ‘The Public Prosecution can produce proof of environmental crimes, money laundering, tax evasion and corruption. We have a testimony of a town councillor who was bribed by Veracel to persuade his colleagues to vote for favourable laws.’

In 2008 Veracel was convicted by the federal court for deforestation of the Atlantic Rainforest, and was fined twenty million real (eight million euros). During the trial it was revealed that Veracel did not have a valid environmental impact assessment for its eucalyptus plantations. The judge ruled the licenses for the 96.000 hectares of plantations to be illegal.
‘The consumer buying cellulose from Veracel has to realize that he is buying an illegal product and that the sustainability label doesn’t reflect reality’, warns João Alves da Silva. Veracel lodged an appeal and is now working on the necessary environmental impact assessment. ‘We don’t want to involve ourselves in the judicial process’, Rosemary Vianna of SGS Qualifor reacts. ‘As long as there is no final judgement, we follow up on this case via our audits.’ The first complaint was filed seventeen years ago.

According to the public prosecutor, it’s a clear case of conflict of interest. ‘The certificator is paid by the company that is being certificated. This dependency relation causes big problems. SGS camouflages Veracel’s violations. I will inform the FSC that they are being abused by SGS and Veracel. And then I want to see if they take up their responsibility or not.

Indigenous protest

Respect for the rights of indigenous people is the third principle that companies have to obey to obtain the FSC label. Eliane Anjos, sustainability officer at Veracel, assures us that Veracel maintains an excellent relationship with all Indian communities in the region. Biribiri, a leader of the Pataxó Indian Community Coroa Vermelha, gladly confirms.
‘The government leaves us out in the cold, but luckily Veracel sponsors our education and health projects.’ The Indian village is located in the tourist heart Of Bahia, where the Portuguese set foot on Brazilian soil for the first time. In the meantime Coroa Vermelha itself has become a tourist attraction, and the local Jaqueira reservation is open for guided tours.

However, Coroa Vermelha is the exception that proves the rule. In the region of Veracel’s eucalyptus plantations, only four of the nineteen Pataxó and Tupinambá communities have their own territory. The inhabitants of Guaxuma, an Indian village alongside the BR IOI road, have been waiting on the recognition of their territory for more than ten years. The territory they claim reaches far beyond the plantations that come closer every second.
Since a couple of years they are completely surrounded by eucalyptus. Kuhupyxa – we can call him Antonio – tells us that ten years ago, his community was hunting in rainforest that has now turned into eucalyptus. ‘Day and night they cut down trees and pulverized everything with big tractors. But we cannot prove it.’ He takes us to the fence next to his house. ‘Veracel wanted to plant eucalyptus up to here. Ten meters from my house. They sprayed everything with poison while the kids were playing outside. We chased them away with bow and arrow. They don’t have the least bit of respect for us.’

Takwahy, son of Kuhupyxa, is father of two children. His smile hides a lot of powerlessness. ‘The rivers and wells in the neighbourhood dry up, because eucalyptus needs huge amounts of water. And if it rains, the poison of the plantations spills in the rivers – the water we use to drink and to wash ourselves. Since two years we have a water tank in the village because we don’t trust the river any more.’ SGS Qualifor knew of Guaxuma’s complaint, but nobody came to check it. ‘Bearing in mind the used products and dosages, pollution of the water is highly improbable’, the SGS report classifies the case.

Led up the plantation path

The research centre CEPEDES in Eunápolis has video images of Veracel, at that time operating under the name Veracruz, destroying the rainforest with tractors and chains in the nineties. For them it is crystal clear that the company does not deserve a sustainability label. ‘Together with some forty other NGOs, unions, environmental movements and Indian communities we sent a letter to inform the FSC of the negative impact of Veracel’, says Ivonete Gonçalves at CEPEDES.
An elementary condition to be recognized as a sustainable plantation, is that the plantation cannot be situated in places which recently housed natural forests or rainforests. ‘If a piece of rainforest has been remodelled after 1994, when the principles of the FSC were known, the company can never acquire the FSC label’, confirms Bart Holvoet, head of the Belgian FSC department.

Still we can read in the audit reports of SGS Qualifor that Veracel did deforest rainforest after 1994, in order to plant eucalyptus. ‘But this transformation happened before certification was an issue altogether’, Rosemary Vianna reacts. ‘And in addition, the eucalyptus has

‘The consumer buying cellulose from Veracel has to realize that he is buying an illegal product and that the sustainability label doesn’t reflect reality’, warns João Alves da Silva.

ready been harvested there and nature restoration has begun. So I don’t see why our label should be questioned.’

During the first audits of Veracel’s certification process, a number of important stakeholders were not being heard, which started a new wave of criticism. This time against the certification company SGS Qualifor. FSC announced an extra audit, and sent a team of ASI, a company that inspects certificators for the FSC. During the visit, an appointment with CEPEDES was arranged. ‘We were fairly optimistic’, says co-worker Winfridus Overbeek, thinking that ASI would take up the complaints.
‘But two weeks before the appointment we heard that the case was closed. Veracel had already received the label.’ The arranged appointment was not useful any more, stated the organisation. CEPEDES already had some bad encounters with two other controversial FSC certifications in the region, and has lost all belief in the label. Ivonete Gonçalves doesn’t beat about the bush: ‘This label serves as a means to mislead people in the North. The FSC label exists only on paper, not in practice.’

In a devastating report, the ASI inspection team crushes the work of SGS Qualifor. SGS Qualifor did not allot enough time for a thorough audit, and was pleased with figures and studies provided by Veracel without checking or verifying anything. The report reveals that ASI would not have granted the label. But the power of ASI is limited to inspecting certificators. Only SGS Qualifor can retract the label.

Nobody eats eucalyptus

On a rainy day we meet a group of men and women assailing young eucalyptus trees with machetes. They are members of MLT, a small organisation for landless farmers. Rose Lemos explains: ‘This land is terra devoluta, it is property of the state and is intended for land reform. Veracel doesn’t have the right to plant here’, she says. Social organisations assert that Veracel has planted eucalyptus like this on roughly 30.000 hectares of government property. MLT is still waiting on the judge’s verdict about this particular piece of devoluta.
‘We want to grow food crops again, because people don’t eat eucalyptus. This region has the capability to export food instead of importing it, which it does now.’ Further down, MLT has already planted cassava, beans, corn, pumpkins and other crops. The 65 families living under plastic sheets dream of the day they can supply the city, because now all the food comes from other states.
In the eyes of Veracel, the actions of the landless farmer organisations are nothing more than vandalism, costing the company already five million real (two million euros) since 2009.
‘A lot of people join these organisations because they are after land property, which doesn’t mean they want to till the land as well’, says Sergio Alipio, Veracel’s manager. ‘This region is intended for biomass production, like eucalyptus. There’s no tradition of familial farming here.’ Case closed for the landless farmers in question.

Idalberto José Lima disagrees. He lives on the verge of the BR IOI, in a shaky hut. On a piece of land the size of a handkerchief, he plants cassava ‘to survive’, he says, leaning on his shovel. The roaring truck traffic makes a conversation nearly impossible. ‘Veracel’ has bought all the farming land, there’s nothing left.’ But he does not complain, because ‘lots of people are worse off than me. They look for jobs in the countryside, but there’s nothing left but eucalyptus.’

A lot of farmers sold their property to Veracel. ‘Where there used to be productive fazendas (big farms, lb/akl) there is only eucalyptus now. People living in the countryside have moved to the city’, says Roberto Conceição Santana, head of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, the IBGE in Eunápolis. Veracel officials object using their own figures: ‘At the moment of purchase, 1197 people were working on the 212.649 hectares we bought’, says Débora Jorge, Veracel’s communication officer.

The city of Eunápolis now has 85.000 inhabitants. There are a lot of new, flourishing businesses owing their success to the presence of Veracel. But the drug trade has increased as well. Here, armed young boys barely twelve years old ride their bicycles through town hunting for cellphones and other valuable collaterals. On the outskirts of a favela, Roberto Joaquina dos Santos, living in the gut of the city, tells us how everything has changed: ‘The people who moved here only knew sowing and harvesting. They weren’t prepared for a life in the city. The slums grew and brought violence and drugs with them.’

Sustainability without borders?

If the stakeholders give the green light, Veracel will increase the production of its pulp factory from 1 million tons to 2,7 million tons. In order to do that, Veracel needs another 92.000 hectares of eucalyptus. The environmental applications for licenses have already been filed. According to ASI Veracel still has a long way to go to obtain the FSC label for the extended land. But SGS Qualifor has the final word on this matter. Manager Sergio Alipio is definitely optimistic: ‘If we keep complying with all the principles and criteria of the FSC, as we did up until now, then it’s only normal that the new plantations will be certified as well.’

Social and ecological conflicts, the question of indigenous people, problems with food security, rural flight and the decline in farmland are all enhanced by the expansion of eucalyptus, writes IMA, the environment agency of Bahia, in a report in 2008. For that matter, IMA expects that the conflicts will increase due to the coming of BahaBio, a project providing 300.000 hectares of sugarcane and 64.000 hectares of African palm for the production of biofuel in the region. ‘There’s a desperate need for an integrated vision’, the government report concludes.
This investigation has been made possible by the support of the Flemish Fonds Pascal Decroos voor Bijzondere Journalistieke Projecten.

‘Sustainable plantations’ under green scrutiny

The fact that big forest plantations can obtain the FSC label is not only controversial in Brazil. NGOs like Timberwatch Coalition, Green Desert Network, FSC Watch and World Rainforest Movement have been pressuring the FSC for years to stop the labelling of large-scale monocultures. Wally Menne of Timberwatch Coalition speaks from a South African context. There, eighty percent of the industrial tree plantations bear the FSC label.

Menne: ‘Plantations of fast-growing tree species increase the pressure on natural vegetation and valuable farmland. They bring about social havoc and disrupt local economies. The FSC has to realize that the large-scale industrial tree plantations cannot be certified as responsible forestry.’

The lion’s share of the complaints against the FSC are coming from countries where forest plantations are on a rise, like Brazil, Ecuador, Thailand and South Africa. Bart Holvoet, manager of FSC Belgium, labels the problems as the childhood diseases and growing pains of the organisation.

Holvoet: ‘Plantations will only grow more important for our fibre supply. Now they are already good for half of our wood and paper consumption. However, future plantations will find it probably harder obtain an FSC label if the problematic practices don’t cease to exist.’ Nevertheless, critics state that the certification of tree plantations is fundamentally irreconcilable with the other nine principles of sustainable forestry the FSC honours.

German and Swedish organisations leave the FSC
Member organisations of the FSC are beginning to criticize the situation as well. Last year the German organisation Robin Wood left FSC international after twelve years of membership. ‘We do not want to be partly responsible for the fact that industrial monocultures receive a green image thanks to the FSC’, Peter Gerhardt of Robin Wood explains. Gerhardt refers among others to the use of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers in FSC certified tree plantations.

Jutta Kill of the NGO Fern, an FSC member since 1995, is also displeased. ‘We are waiting for change for a long time now, but there are no results. The situation is so serious that our support of the FSC is questioned by our partners in the South. It happens all too often that companies abuse the green FSC image to undermine local protest. And regarding the paper, the FSC can hardly keep its promises.’

The problems are not limited to industrial tree plantations nor to the lawless outskirts of the Third World. In the report Cutting the Edge SSNC , the largest Swedish environmental organisation and co-founder of the FSC fifteen years ago, exposes the alarming condition of the Arctic forests in Sweden. According to the organisation, the three largest forest managements of Sweden endanger the survival of the woods and the biodiversity. Still they all have an FSC label.

One of the forest managements, SCA, was even scolded by the FSC for the deforestation of forests with a high protection status, cutting down 250 till 300 year old trees in the process. In an area of a mere forty hectares SSNC documented more than 300 severe violations with incriminatory pictures and coordinates as a result. SCA does not comply with Swedish forestry legislation, nor with their own standards, nor with the FSC principles. Still their FCS label was extended in 2008 without question.

In June 2010 the SSNC decided to terminate their membership of FSC Sweden. Jonas Rudberg, SSNC’s forestry expert: ‘For years we have done our best to improve FSC Sweden. But still standards are weak, and the conditions are trampled on. And when we report a violation, the sanctions applied to the companies are too light to have a real impact.’

In February 2010 FSC launched a readjustment of the FSC principles and standards for the Swedish context. They were put into effect from June 2010. If that means that forest management companies will be handled more severely, remains to be seen. For now, SSNC is still a member of FSC International.

The point of no return

Bart Holvoet admits that there are problems, but concerning the tree plantations, the point of no return has been reached. ‘We knew from the beginning that these plantations would be a controversial issue, and they will remain so. But the FSC won’t stop certifying them. It’s unfortunate that these organisations only focus on that. They throw out the baby with the bath water.’

The manager of FSC Belgium points out that out of 135 million hectares of FSC certified forests, only eight are plantations. But in some countries the proportions are very different. In Brazil, 5,5 million hectares of forests are FSC certified. 1,8 million of them are plantations.

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