for National Geographic News
February 8, 2007
In Brazil ethanol has become economically competitive
with gasoline, and the country's biofuels program
could serve as a world model for producing sustainable
energy, officials say.
South America's largest country is the world's
reigning ethanol king, producing 4.4 billion gallons
(16.5 billion liters) of the biofuel from sugarcane
each year, on average.
Biofuel is widely considered a way to reduce
greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use and thereby
reduce human-caused global warming.
(Related news: "Global Warming "Very Likely" Caused by
Humans, World Climate Experts Say" [February 2,
Brazil's sugarcane-based ethanol program is
"appropriate for replication in many countries,"
writes José Goldemberg, secretary of the environment
for the Brazilian state of São Paulo, in a perspective
article in this week's issue of the journal Science.
But an unregulated biofuels boom in Brazil could mean
bust for the Amazon rain forest and a vast savanna
ecosystem known as the Cerrado, environmentalists
Expanding large-scale agriculture to grow sugarcane,
critics say, will worsen the loss of species
diversity, water-quality problems, and habitat
fragmentation in some of the world's most biologically
"The primary concern is that the biofuels push will
directly or indirectly increase the loss to Brazil's
remaining natural high biodiversity areas, such as the
Cerrado," said John Buchanan, a senior director for
the U.S.-based nonprofit Conservation International.
Sugar Farming Not So Sweet?
The 740,100-square-mile (1.9-million-square-kilometer)
Cerrado region is South America's largest savanna—one
of the richest in the world, in terms of bird,
reptile, fish, and insect species.
According to a study published last year in the
journal Conservation Biology, more than 50 percent of
the Cerrado has already been transformed into
pastureland, causing soil erosion, biodiversity loss,
fragmentation, and the spread of nonnative grasses.
"Most of the expansion required will affect the
Cerrado ecosystem and the Amazon, which are already
being destroyed because of cattle ranching and soybean
farming," said Leonardo Lacerda of the Brazilian
chapter of the international conservation group WWF.