Brazil’s Suzano boasts its pulpwood plantations are green; critics disagree

  • Suzano, the world’s largest pulp exporter, is strongly promoting a new green agenda. Its plantations, now being grown in association with native forests, could help curb the global climate crisis, the company says.
  • Some conservation groups agree, and are working with the firm to ensure it gets greener.
  • But other environmentalists say that the expansion of eucalyptus monoculture is causing widespread environmental damage in Brazil. Plantation carbon sequestration is minimal, they argue, while pulpwood factories are highly polluting and eucalyptus forests lack the biodiversity of rainforests.
  • Moreover, they say, eucalyptus plantation expansion is resulting in the usurpation of natural lands and the expulsion of traditional and Indigenous communities who have much more to offer in the fight against climate change and efforts to protect intact forests.

Suzano, the world’s largest exporter of eucalyptus pulp, has been energetically distancing itself in recent months from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, notorious for his resistance to combatting Amazon deforestation, which surged 22% in the last year.

A leading member of the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests and Agriculture, Suzano was active at the November COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Its chief executive, Walter Schalka, said: “Our most important goal is to work to have more ambitious environmental goals in the short term and to find financing for this [effort].”

Suzano — which provides pulpwood products to the world — emphatically declares that, far from exacerbating the climate crisis, its eucalyptus plantations are helping combat it. Schalka told the Financial Times that “planted forest is going to be part of the long-term solution to the targets we have in the Paris [Climate] Agreement.”

Cristiano Oliveira, the company’s sustainability executive manager, detailed that claim. Suzano, he said, relies on a vast forest base of about 2.3 million hectares (4.9 million acres) — with its eucalyptus plantations encompassing one of “the largest privately-owned conservation areas in Brazil,” covering about 960,000 hectares (2.4 million acres).

These monoculture tree plantations contribute to the “preservation of local species, the regulation of hydrological cycles and to the removal and storage of carbon dioxide,” Oliveira said. The firm’s new plantations, he added, interweave ecological corridors, linking them up with native forest reserves, to support biodiversity, meeting protection requirements under Brazil’s Forest Code.

Suzano claims it only plants eucalyptus “on anthropized and degraded areas, so it is not true that our business destroys native forests.” It also tracks the origin of its forest products to ensure they do not come from areas deforested after 1994, as required by Brazilian environmental law. “Every piece of wood that crosses our gates into our mills has a control on it. We know where it comes from and who is behind it,” Suzano says.

Eucalyptus trees stacked, ready for transport and processing. A eucalyptus plantation can be seen at right. Image by Steve Strauss/Oregon State University via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Conflicted Brazilian environmentalists

Some environmentalists argue fiercely against Suzano’s rosy world view, saying that the firm’s plantations — composed solely of eucalyptus trees non-native to Brazil — shouldn’t be counted as legitimate forest restoration, that they fail to sequester carbon long-term, and that eucalyptus monocultures are mostly biologically barren; while neighboring traditional communities complain of social inequities and land grabbing by the company.

But Suzano’s new focus on environmental sustainability and social responsibility has persuaded some environmental organizations. Mauricio Voivodic, executive director of WWF Brasil, which is working with Suzano, recently declared: “Suzano sets a good benchmark for other companies.”

SOS Mata Atlântica, an NGO dedicated to protecting the remnants of the Atlantic Forest — Brazil’s most threatened biome — is also collaborating with Suzano. Malu Ribeiro, the NGO’s director of public policies, said that deciding to do so was difficult, because that choice would be controversial with other environmentalists. But, she added, referring to the Bolsonaro administration: “Brazil is living through one of the worst anti-environmental moments in our country’s history,” and, “if the expansion of eucalyptus plantations occurs without measures to protect the native forests, we will face an irreversible loss of biodiversity.”

Ribeiro believes working with the biggest pulp and paper maker in Latin America offers new conservation opportunities, and provides an example of successful cooperation between the NGO, municipal governments and Suzano that is in obeyance of Brazil’s environmental laws. “Without international pressure from the market, Suzano wouldn’t be changing its behavior,” she said. “We are seizing the moment to create ‘a good agribusiness.’ that distances itself from the very reactionary rural elite allied with Bolsonaro.”

Ribeiro does, however, recognize that eucalyptus plantations have environmental drawbacks, including the decrease of groundwater levels (potentially impacting nearby native forests and farms), and discharging large quantities of toxic substances into rivers. But she believes that the NGO’s cooperation with Suzano will lead in time to deals that eliminate the worst practices.

Suzano subsidiary, FuturaGene, issued a poster expressing its views and listing the advantages of GM eucalyptus over conventional eucalyptus. Although Suzano is not yet cultivating GM eucalyptus on a commercial scale, it is expected to be rolling it out soon. Image courtesy of FuturaGene.

A pulpwood climate solution?

Not surprisingly, Suzano uses its partnerships with environmental organizations to promote and polish its green credentials, and likely hopes that its plantations will be accepted by the international community as part of the widely backed call for reforestation on a world scale to combat climate change. Under current U.N. rules, “both an industrial eucalyptus tree monoculture plantation and a rainforest with its hundreds of different tree species are classed as forest.”

However, critics of this U.N. policy say there is no comparison between the immense carbon storage capacity and extensive biodiversity of a native Brazilian forest and that of a tree farm. Activists and some researchers have dubbed eucalyptus monocultures as “biological deserts,” though other researchers say that overstates the case.

The company’s close association with global reforestation efforts isn’t only good for Suzano’s image with eco-conscious consumers, like those in the European Union. It also could help the firm gain government funding in the short term, possibly garnering some of the $19.2 billion pledged by the Glasgow Forest Declaration, announced at COP26 in November, “to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation” by 2030.

In the longer term, Suzano hopes to have its plantations recognized by government authorities as contributing to Brazil’s Internationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — the country’s carbon emission reduction pledges made as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement. That designation could open up further funding possibilities in the future, possibly in the form of international financial support, subsidies and tax incentives.

Mongabay asked Suzano if its new plantations would be included in Brazil’s NDCs and the company responded: “Brazil announced adjustments to its NDCs very recently during COP26, but the whole range of actions related to it is yet to be fully disclosed.”

Based on the reference year of 2005, Brazil’s 2020 NDC pledge approved at COP26 commits the nation to reducing total net greenhouse gas emissions by 37% in 2025, by 43% in 2030, and achieving climate neutrality (net-zero emissions) in 2060. WWF was highly critical of Brazil’s 2020 NDC pledge, noting in part that, “The omission of measures to reduce deforestation, fossil fuel emissions and subsidies, and to encourage forest restoration actions and the adoption of integrated crop-livestock-forest systems, among other areas (which were included in [Brazil’s original 2015] NDC) make the new [2021] NDC a vague and unfocused proposal compared to the previous one.”

Eucalyptus plantations have been described as “green deserts,” preserving little native biodiversity. And while the United Nations counts tree farms as carbon sinks, researchers and activists say that native vegetation provides better sequestration than eucalyptus. Image by Cássio Abreu via Flickr.
A field after eucalyptus has been harvested. Photo by Ignacio Amigo for Mongabay
A mostly barren landscape after eucalyptus has been harvested. Image by Ignacio Amigo for Mongabay

Ongoing controversy over eucalyptus plantations

Some environmentalists believe it’s a mistake to cooperate with Suzano in promoting its image as a forest conservation ally because, they say, that green designation obscures the damaging impacts of eucalyptus plantations.

There is no doubt that eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.), native to western Australia, is a useful tree species. Highly tolerant to infertile soil, its pulp is made into toilet paper, tissues and other paper products; while the tree is utilized globally for large-scale reforestation projects. In 2015, the world’s eucalyptus plantations covered 20 million hectares (49.4 million acres), with Brazil holding the biggest share 4.12 million hectares (10.4 million acres).

Eucalyptus plantation expansion is currently soaring in both China and Brazil. According to the Brazilian government’s Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the area covered in Brazil by these plantations by 2019 increased to 7.6 million hectares (18.8 million acres).

Eucalyptus grows rapidly, so is touted for its carbon capture ability. A 2018 study found that “The carbon dioxide removed by [all] Brazilian forest plantations over the 26 years [1990-2016] represent almost the totality of the country’s [carbon] emissions from the agriculture, forestry and other land use sector in 2016.” The researchers concluded that “forest plantations play an important role in mitigating GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions in Brazil.” In 2016, the study noted, eucalyptus plantations, which were then expanding fast, accounted for 71% of all plantations in the country. The research also suggested plantations could play a role in achieving Brazil’s NDCs.

Other researchers argue that it’s insufficient to only count the amount of carbon eucalyptus captures as it grows. Markus Kröger, associate professor in global development at Helsinki University, pointed to the findings of a 2004 study showing that land use changes associated with eucalyptus production, including “soil acidification and diminution of soil organic carbon,” led to a marked decline in stored carbon, cancelling out about 80% of the carbon captured by eucalyptus.

Harvesting underway on a eucalyptus plantation in Brazil. Image by Steve Strauss/Oregon State University via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Moreover, because eucalyptus grows so quickly and is felled in rapid rotation, the carbon it captures isn’t stored for the long-term as with a native forest, but is soon released back to the atmosphere. A report by the Environmental Paper Network (EPN), a global collective of climate and forest protection researchers, concluded: “Within two to three years after [eucalyptus] harvest almost all the ‘stored’ CO2 is re-released into the atmosphere.”

There are other major concerns. “The pulp mills pollute heavily, with the production of one million tons of pulp leading to at least two million tons of carbon emissions,” Kröger said. “This information is hidden by the pulp companies and not considered in the calculations.”

Geraldo Wilson Fernandes, lecturer in ecology at Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais, agreed: “We need to consider the footprint these plantations have overall. There are problems stemming from the burning of waste material, from the processing of the wood, from the planting of trees where they don’t occur naturally.”

Fernandes underlines another key difference between tree farms and natural forest: “These homogenous plantations, or monocultures, have a very much lower diversity of species when compared to the environment that has been destroyed to make way for them. They have fewer birds, fewer mammals, fewer insects and fewer pollinators.… Along with this, the companies always use [toxic chemical] pesticides which make the situation much more serious. The forest looks like a desert compared with the native ecosystem.”

Kröger concludes: “Eucalyptus plantations are not sustainable for Brazil or any other country. The expansion of tree monocultures is characteristic of the wider phenomenon of land grabbing, which is driven by the dominating financial logic of current capitalism.” Critics argue that the Paris Agreement rule equating tree plantations with native forests is not wholly science-based, but was leveraged by the forestry industry and nations with large forest areas such as the U.S., Russia and Brazil.

A toco toucan in a Brazilian forest. Experts underline the fact that homogenous plantations, or monocultures, have a much lower diversity of species when compared to the environment that has been destroyed to make way for them. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Suzano: A company with a checkered history

In 1920, Leon Feffer arrived in Brazil from Ukraine, fleeing pogroms against the Jews. Then in 1939, he bought two paper mills which used imported long-fiber pulp; one of these factories was in the town of Suzano, in São Paulo state, which Feffer then adopted as the firm’s name.

After the second World War demand for paper took off, and Leon’s son developed a new manufacturing process, using short-fiber pulp from eucalyptus trees grown in Brazil. Since then, Suzano has expanded massively, increasing both its eucalyptus plantations and pulp manufacturing capacity.

Before becoming one of the world’s pulp giants, Suzano was involved in other sectors, including petrochemicals. And like many big Brazilian companies, its growth was tainted by allegations of corruption. Federal investigators during the Lava Jato (Car Wash) scandal found that in 2007 Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, had paid three times the market price for its purchase of Suzano’s petrochemical company, Suzano Petroquímica, while also taking on the company’s debts. Petrobras paid R$4.1 billion (US$2.1 billion) for a company valued at just R$1.4 billion (US$706 million).

More recently, Suzano consolidated its leading position in the pulp market. In 2018, it bought Fibria, which until then was the country’s largest pulp producer. Facilitating that deal was BNDESPar, the equity branch of Brazil’s giant state-owned Social and Economic National Development Bank (BNDES), the majority shareholder in both pulp companies. The Brazilian press was severely critical of the take-over because BNDES used public money to facilitate the creation of a huge private monopoly. “There are around US$2.5-US$3 billion of synergies in this transaction,” said Suzano CEO Schalka, who defended the deal, explaining that the two firms combined enhanced future competitiveness.

Today Suzano is a gigantic company. Its company-owned plantations cover 2.3 million hectares (4.9 million acres). The firm is, by far, Brazil’s largest pulp producer, and its 10 factories currently have the capacity to make 10.9 million tons of pulp per year. In 2017, Brazil produced 10.2 million tons of pulp, far less than the output of both China (99.3 million tons), and the U.S. (75.1 million tons). But its much lower domestic consumption meant that Brazil was the leading global exporter of pulp, with a 17% share of the world market.

Suzano’s pulp production is expected to rise rapidly. The company claims to be planting more than 500 million eucalyptus seedlings per day, which will soon add nine million hectares (22 million acres) to its eucalyptus plantations. The company is also building a new eucalyptus pulp mill in Minas Gerais state. Suzano’s Oliveira told Mongabay that it will be the company’s most efficient plant, with a capacity of 2.55 million tons of pulp production annually.

Suzano continues to adopt new technology. The genetically modified (GM) eucalyptus developed by FuturaGene, a Suzano subsidiary, produces 20% more wood and was approved for commercial use by the government in 2015, but has yet to be commercially deployed. In November 2021, Brazil approved another GM eucalyptus, this one modified to be resistant to the controversial cancer-linked herbicide glyphosate, better known as Roundup.

Land deforested to make way for a eucalyptus plantation. Image courtesy of Flávia Bernardes, FASE.
A farmer holds pumpkins grown near a eucalyptus plantation in Brazil. Campaigners against eucalyptus plantations say that the fast-growing tree hogs water and nutrients, ruining surrounding farmland — not to mention the problem with pesticides that sometimes end up in the water supply. Image by Hanna Nikkanen via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Ongoing social conflicts

Suzano’s aggressive expansion has led to conflicts with Brazil’s traditional communities, some of which have lost their land. This has left a legacy of ill-will and resentment in some localities near the plantations and pulp mills.

“Because it has incorporated various other companies, Suzano has built up immense social and environmental liabilities, and a long-running track record of violations and illegalities, resulting from having promoted a nefarious model of industrial scale eucalyptus monoculture plantations over the course of several decades,” said Winnie Overbeek, international coordinator with the World Rainforest Movement.

Some conflicts are still occurring. Flávia dos Santos, leader of the Traditional Quilombola Territory of Sapê do Norte, between São Mateus and Conceição da Barra, in northern Espírito Santo state, was scathing in her denunciation of the impact of Suzano’s plantations: “We live off vines, fish,… and manioc… we depend on the land, the river and the forest for survival,” but, she said, Suzano grows eucalyptus in the headwaters of those waterways. “The rivers dry up or the springs become polluted. We end up without the minimum conditions for survival.”

“We have a daily struggle against Suzano,” she added. “The eucalyptus monoculture arrived by riding roughshod over everything and, with racism, took our land. Land that belonged to our ancestors. Land that was our means of survival. The quilombolas [communities inhabited by the descendants of run-away slaves] here had everything in abundance — fish, fields, woods. But today we are building our houses one on top of the other because we have no space.”

Sapezeiro, a resident of the Sapê do Norte Quilombola, Espirito Santo state, Brazil. The soil there had been degraded by decades of pesticide use, but residents use traditional farming methods to restore it to something resembling its former vitality. Image courtesy of Flávia Bernardes, FASE.

Under Brazilian law, this quilombola should have been secure in its land protection. That’s because the Palmares Cultural Foundation, a public institution set up to defend Afro-Brazilian culture, certified the validity of the community’s claim to be a quilombola a decade ago and it is now waiting for INCRA (the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform) to mark out its territory. Despite this, the land titling process for its 32 communities has not been concluded by the government, and many fear that traditional residents will be forced off their land by expanding eucalyptus plantations.

The pulp company’s Cristiano Oliveira admits to the conflict: “Suzano has been working to recover, through legal avenues, certain areas of its property in northern Espírito Santo state that were illegally occupied. We emphasize, however, that since the start of the pandemic no actions to regain possession have been carried out for areas alleged as being occupied by quilombola communities, which remain in place.”

Suzano says that, provided its ownership rights are respected, it is keen to collaborate: “We recognize the importance of local communities, which is why Suzano maintains relations with all communities in the region. We have various social investment lines that directly benefit some social organizations in northern Espírito Santo, including over 20 quilombola associations.”

A mother and her children plant seedlings as part of the reforestation initiative at the Sapê do Norte Quilombola. Image courtesy of Século Diário.

The way forward

Views differ as to whether Suzano’s recent dedication to environmentalism means that a way can be found to make its eucalyptus plantations sustainable and socially and conservation-friendly.

“The increase in eucalyptus plantations is currently having serious negative impacts on biodiversity and is causing more poverty, social injustice and harm to the planet,” says Fernandes, but he remains confident solutions can be found. “Companies like Suzano have very capable, well-trained staff. They could easily apply science to make their business truly sustainable. I’m not talking about economic sustainability but permanent environmental, ecological and social sustainability.”

Kröger is less sure. “I think the current eucalyptus plantation model is so deeply ingrained into the basic business model of Suzano, which even wants to be a pioneer in expanding GM glyphosate-resistant eucalyptus, that [environmental sustainability] is not possible. Companies like Suzano need to be treated more like fossil fuel companies, as remnants of an obsolete business model, from which there is a need to quickly divest. The companies must transform radically their business models and forestry practices, if they are to become part of the solution.”

Kröger says the true allies of environmentalists in the fight to curb climate change are not large corporations. “Traditional, Indigenous, quilombola, and other rural communities can make a huge contribution [to the environment], by replacing eucalyptus and other monoculture plantations and pasture areas with agroforestry, which would provide food as well as bring soil, climate, hydrological and socio-economic benefits.”

Banner image: A eucalyptus plantation in Brazil. Image by Victor Camilo via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

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