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Polarising figure: Kátia Abreu is loved by the farmers she represents but opponents have nicknamed her ‘Lil’ Miss Deforestation’ for her support of a controversial new forest code
Kátia Abreu has come a long way since she cut her hair short to avoid provoking male attention. “Make me look beautiful rather than brainy,” jokes the rancher and senior Brazilian senator with the cameraman, running a brush through her now shoulder-length hair. “I’m a woman after all.”
It is a typical comment from a woman who knows she operates in the forbiddingly male world of ranching. As head of Brazil’s agricultural caucus, Ms Abreu is among the most powerful people in the country. And as the sole daughter growing up among seven brothers, she was almost raised for the role. Yet it was a stroke of fate that set her on the path to her ranching wealth and political career. “My life has been very improvised,” says the 50-year-old, toying with a large gold ring on her finger.
Twenty-five years ago, long before Brazilian agriculture became the global economic force that it is today, Ms Abreu had two young children, another on the way, and was studying to become a psychologist, “like my mother”. Then her rancher husband died of a heart attack, and she had to think again.
“In Brazil, when anyone sees a rundown farm, they say it belongs to a widow,” she says. “I knew nothing about farming then. I only knew I didn’t want that to happen to me.”
That was when Ms Abreu sheared off her hair. Since then, her business has grown to three farms, covering 14,000 hectares in central Tocantins state on the vast Brazilian cerrado, or high savannah.
Her political rise has been equally vertiginous. Supporters look to her as the spirited defender of the powerhouse Brazilian agro-industry – a sector that accounts for a quarter of the national economy, a third of its jobs and more than $95bn of exports. For some, it also represents the best hope for meeting the 70 per cent rise in food production the UN estimates the world needs by 2050.
Among opponents, however, she is known as “Lil’ Miss Deforestation” for championing a new forest code that has coloured the build-up to this week’s Rio +20 summit on sustainable development. Critics say the bill, partially vetoed by President Dilma Rousseff who wants Brazil to present a “green face” to the world, forgives farmers who have cut down rainforest illegally, giving them a green light to get their chainsaws buzzing again.
Be that as it may, Ms Abreu does not come across as the slash-and-burn rancher of popular imagination. Sitting in the Financial Times office, fresh from speaking at one London conference on sustainable agriculture and en route to another in France, she wears a pinstriped suit, red shirt and black high-heels – although it is easy to imagine her in cowboy boots and jeans, whooping up her farmer constituents with backcountry sass.
● Born:Feb 2 1962 in Goiânia ● Education: Bachelor of Arts, Psychology, Catholic University of Goiás ● Career: Farmer, politician, psychologist ● 1987 Takes over late husband’s farm in Tocantins state ● 1994 Elected president of Gurupi rural union, Tocantins state ● 1996 Elected president of Agriculture and Livestock Federation, Tocantins state ● 2000-02 Substitute congresswoman ● 2002 Elected as congresswoman ● 2006 Elected senator for Tocantins state, with the centre-right Democrats party ● 2008 Elected president of the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA) ● 2011-present Re-elected CNA president ● Family: one daughter and two sons
Having jostled up through the sleepy ranks of rural unions, she became a congresswoman in the early 2000s and then a senator in 2006 for the opposition centre-right Democrats party. “Brazilians tend to confuse the right with the military dictatorship,” she comments.
Her biggest triumph, though, came in 2008 when she became the first woman to head the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock, the rural lobby that is the largest cross-party block in Congress and a key power broker in Ms Rousseff’s government.
Ms Abreu says that she has risen “because I am vehement, well-prepared and articulate”. Her religious and tax-cutting political instincts are certainly robust, in the Texan manner (“I have great faith, am very obstinate and love my work”).
She is also proud of having once defeated a tax proposal by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the wildly popular former president. “I didn’t know anything about economics before, but it was the only bill Lula ever lost,” she says. “I lost seven kilograms through stress.”
Although known in Brasília by the nickname “Senator Ivete Sangalo”, after the pop musician who is Brazil’s answer to Shakira, such determination also speaks of Ms Abreu’s ability to master the intricacies of any brief.
Yet although she can whip up statistics in a wink, it is hard to pin down quite what Ms Abreu stands for. Besides her support for the controversial new forest code – she says the old one, although enlightened, “was unenforceable” – it may simply be to act as a flag-waver for the better parts of Brazilian agriculture.
For example, to its largely unrecognised credit, the country has slashed deforestation rates to a third of what they were 15 years ago – although more than 6,000 sq km is still cut down every year.
“Brazilian farmers don’t need more land, the challenge is to make what they have more productive,” she says by way of distancing the industry from the controversial practice. Brazil produces seven times more grains from just twice the land it did in 1998, largely thanks to the development of the cerrado. Ploughed with lime, this scrubby hinterland has become a magnet for foreign investors such as Jacob Rothschild, who have financed high-tech farms that span vast horizons.
Contrary to common perception, such farms are also hundreds if not thousands of miles from the Amazon, and most of the soya they sell is subject to a moratorium that prohibits international buyers from purchasing crops grown on deforested land.
Indeed, it is because of such schemes that Brazil’s hardscrabble small farmers, who make up the majority of the 5.2m rural landholders, are the biggest cause of deforestation. Giant outfits, which account for just 10 per cent of properties but three-quarters of cleared areas, meanwhile have sanctionable links to international consumers. (Greenpeace this month accused JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, of sourcing beef from the Amazon. JBS denies the charge and is suing Greenpeace.) “It’s not the big farmers who need my help but the small ones – the squeezed lower classes with no money,” says Ms Abreu.
It is a constant refrain. Brazilian farmers want to replant deforested areas, she claims, “but who will pay for it?” If Europeans want non-genetically modified crops, which require more pesticides, “we are happy to supply, but of course they will have to pay”. Stressing that “someone always has to pay” might make for an unromantic view of forest conservation – or “sustainability” as Ms Abreu calls it. But it is also a realistic viewpoint in a country that, for all its riches, still has many poor.
“Do you know what is the most sensitive organ in the human body?” she asks. “The pocket.”
Ms Abreu, the widow who made good, knows whereof she speaks.
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