April 22, 2013

Growing Better Sugarcane: A Model in Brazil

The air is hot; the fields dry and dusty from last year’s sugarcane stalks now tilled back into the earth. As far as the eye can see the landscape is cultivated with soya beans, sugarcane, corn and pasture. This is central São Paulo state, Brazil. And here it is apparent what impact fast-expanding commodities, such as sugarcane, can have on the landscape. Their production methods often exert a substantial strain on ecosystem services and biological diversity, as new areas of commodity production many times overlap with areas containing high-levels of biological diversity (e.g. Indonesia and Brazil).

In response to these challenges, certifications such as the Bonsucro Sustainability Standard (released in 2011) set out guidelines for sustainable sugarcane production, operating under five guiding principles from human rights to ecosystem impacts, all the way through the processing stages. A partnership between IUCN, Shell, and Raízen (a joint-venture sugarcane-based ethanol company) has piloted the standard in the sugarcane cultivation areas of São Paulo. Recently, a group of experts carried out an assessment of the standard’s performance so far, gathering information related to biodiversity on existing mills and cultivated areas. This information would then go to improving management of land and agricultural production, and determine what tools and approaches would best achieve this.

The approach to biodiversity conservation taken by the Bonsucro Standard is familiar among the fast expanding commodities. It’s all about land use planning, and having the policies in place (and enforced) to make sure businesses can easily do what they should. One of the main recommendations from the assessment of the standard is to emphasize maintaining and improving conservation value at a landscape scale. This means developing a consistent methodology for pinpointing  degraded land optimal for production and High Conservation Value (HCV) areas to preserve biodiversity. However, without Brazil’s Forest Code, enforcing this targeting of high priority habitats would be quite a challenge.

The Forest Code requires conservation or restoration of natural habitat on farm properties, which offers an opportunity for Raízen to incorporate small patches of natural or semi-natural vegetation (e.g. hedgerows or live fences) that provide for services like clean water, biological pest control, and pollination on its large estates. Moreover, there is the potential to go further, to improve landscape connectivity – restoring key vegetated riparian zones in fragmented landscapes and including larger patches of habitat among the smaller ones.

One of the major barriers to this type of focused spatial planning is simply the cost of mapping the region’s land uses. Where national governments can step in and carry out some of the technical work, this may encourage business participation. Measuring and monitoring impact is also a considerable investment of resources for companies. While the standard requires the development of a comprehensive Environmental Management System to monitor progress towards targets, collect data, and analyze results, the assessment also recommends connecting to some of the monitoring efforts already underway (e.g. Biota Program) to increase efficiency and tap a wider pool of expertise.

So, why would a company go beyond compliance with the law and adopt a sustainability standard? Many of the fast expanding commodity crops exert strong pressures on land and water resources, and are coming under increased scrutiny by consumers, brand manufacturers and retailers. Mitigation of risks associated with reputation as well as biodiversity, land use, and agricultural production practices is a major driving factor. Following recommendations to reduce or eliminate use of harmful pesticides and chemicals would reduce the health risks for employees and surrounding communities, as well as maintain biodiversity that ultimately helps crop production. But, sugarcane-based biofuel is also in an interesting position where a major potential buyer, the European Union, already has sustainability screening criteria in place. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to align practices with the expectations of primary purchasers, anticipate future regulatory updates, and serve as an example for best practices.

Working beyond the farm or concession through landscape approaches offers companies an operational nexus to ensure that collaborative processes for dialogue, planning, negotiating and monitoring are in place, involving government and local actors who influence land management decisions. Though eco-certifications and standards may not include criteria to directly solve landscapes issues about land rights, land conversion, etc., they do offer an effective platform to begin work on them. Ultimately, the pet issues of sustainability standards – deforestation, community relations, climate, and water can only be assessed and managed at landscape scales. This is a start; where do we go next?

Related Reading:
Read IUCN’s webstory and the full report online.

Measuring the Impacts of Eco-Standards

The Biodiversity Risk & Opportunity Assessment (BROA) Tool

More In in Staying Current

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