Cuiaba, Brazil – A few years ago, when I heard that Brazil‘s most influential soy producer would be named minister of agriculture by then-President Michel Temer, I commented to a colleague that this was like appointing the fox to watch over the chicken pen. Once nicknamed the “King of Soy”, 63-year old billionaire Blairo Maggi presides over the Amaggi Group, a family company that has been instrumental in the growth of Brazil’s agribusiness sector.
Maggi had already been a senator and two-time governor of Matto Grosso, the Amazonian state where his soy empire is based and which at the time was Brazil’s leader in deforestation.
In 2005, Greenpeace gave him the Golden Chainsaw award, for his “unparalleled contribution to Amazonian deforestation”. Maggi remains a leader of the “ruralist bench”, the agribusiness lobby that dominates Congress and that has supported President Jair Bolsonaro‘s promise to expand Brazil’s agricultural frontier.
But Maggi himself is not easy typecast. He has grown critical of the Bolsonaro’s aggressive anti-conservation stance. And the enigmatic businessman has gone from being vilified to winning praise from some conservationists for dramatically reversing deforestation in Matto Grosso while he was governor.
Sporting jeans and a simple shirt, the former agriculture minister welcomed us to his headquarters in Cuiaba earlier this year to discuss his apparent change of heart.
Al Jazeera: What made you change your way of viewing deforestation since you “won” the Golden Chainsaw award?
Blairo Maggi: We need to put this into context. I come from a generation that came to this region with an order to exploit it. The government at the time encouraged deforestation, land grabbing, the expansion of agriculture and livestock production. So much that the people who came here and didn’t do those things, didn’t have the right to get loans, or get documents for the land because it belonged to the government. So, I’m from that generation.
When I started my mandate as governor in 2003, we were deforesting 400,000 hectares (about 1 million acres) per year in this state. Nowadays, it doesn’t reach 80,000 hectares (about 200,000 acres). So we have had a big reduction. At that time, my company, as an exporter, was already under pressures from overseas markets to adopt a different attitude, a different awareness of the value of the forest and biodiversity. And since the markets always rule, we started changing the way our company did things.
I saw the situation was getting out of control. Then came the Golden Chainsaw award you mentioned. It symbolised a public outcry, that something had to be done. So, I called the farmers to my office and told them that Mato Grosso needed to review its approach. There was no point in planting and producing if you don’t have a market to sell it to and everyone agreed. So we created a program called MT Legal, together with the state and Federal Public Prosecutors, (IBAMA ) and other monitoring institutions, and we were recognised as a big driver in reducing deforestation. There was a reduction of up to 84-89 percent of deforestation at the time. And since then, this has continued to fall.
But no longer. Since 2017, Amazonian deforestation has been on the rise, especially since Bolsonaro took office this year and relaxed controls, lambasted the notion of climate change and even threatened to follow US President Donald Trump’s example by pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord.
Maggi, too, was once a fierce promoter of opening up the rainforest, a policy that allowed his family to build its empire, as well as roads and waterways to take their soy from Matto Grosso to Brazil’s Atlantic Ocean ports. Today, he is clearly worried about the threat of international boycotts against Brazilian exports, in retaliation for the sharp spike this year in Amazonian deforestation. He also says he opposes Bolsonaro’s policy of dismembering the organisations in charge of policing illegal deforestation and mining.
Al Jazeera: Why do you now criticise the president?
Maggi: Through his narrative, [Bolsonaro] has hinted there would be changes to the environmental protection law and so we saw a slight increase in deforestation. And I say slight because, compared with what it was in 2004 and today, the levels are very different. We never reached levels of deforestation such as the ones in 2004, 2006, 2007 again. But this government’s discourse has ended up prompting some illegal deforestation and it has culminated with the wildfires.
Because fire is a tool for those who deforest and want to occupy the area for economic activities, the first thing they do is burn the forest. Some people still think like I did back in the 90s. They haven’t yet understood all of the global changes that have occurred. I think that the mistakes done now, and with the concern many producers now have about embargoes, it’s possible that this situation will actually end up benefitting the Amazon. More Brazilians will realise that although the Amazon belongs to us because it’s our sovereign land, in a globalised society, the whole world needs it.
But Maggi warns that trying to strongarm Brazil could backfire.
Maggi: Of the Amazon, only 14 percent of it has been occupied, the rest is just the way Jesus Christ created it and just how the Portuguese found it when they arrived in Brazil. That speech of ‘we don’t want your soy or corn any more’ is not good for anyone. It has to be the opposite: ‘I want your soy, your corn, your livestock, but show me that this comes from properties that were not illegally deforested and that follow environmental protection laws.’ I think that’s what needs to be done.
Matto Grosso, and Brazil, is the world’s number one exporter of soy and beef. During his time in office, Maggi got the controversial MT-235 road built through the Utiariti Indigenous reserve, which enabled soy to be trucked to the Madeira River and from there to global markets. Now he argues that economic growth and conservation are not mutually exclusive.
Al Jazeera: Do you really think it is possible to increase the agribusiness in Brazil in a sustainable way?
Maggi: Without a doubt – that’s [what] we did. Agricultural production in Brazil grew 300 percent in the last 20 years. And new land occupation grew less than 40 percent. So how did we grow an agricultural economy but didn’t expand deforested areas in the same proportion? Because we have new techniques, new seeds, new biotechnologies, new machines. We’ve replaced areas degraded by livestock to do farming. All of that helps us to grow. So it is possible to grow even more without having to open up new areas.
Of course, that is easy for him to say now since Amaggi has already cleared vast amounts of Amazonian land and amassed a fortune. Critics say his is a deceitful discourse meant to shield his company from more pressure. But be it out of enlightened self-interest or not, the former King of Soy (he is no longer number one) is becoming an influential voice among those who believe that to save the Amazon, Brazil has no choice but to make the agribusiness sector part of the solution instead of just the problem.
The Q&A portion of this story was edited for clarity and brevity.