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LONDON – Brazil is the world’s largest Better Cotton producing country, with 2,027,000 tonnes of Better Cotton produced in the 2018-19 cotton season, a 34% increase on the previous season. This volume was grown by just 312 BCI Farmers, representing more than 75% of Brazil’s large cotton farms.”

That’s a direct quote from the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) 2019 Annual Report.

The analysis outlined here will, hopefully, give the “sustainable apparel” sector pause for thought.

It shows that the BCI’s number one source of cotton – Brazil (36 per cent in 2018/19) – has characteristics that make it neither “more sustainable,” “better,” nor “preferred.” BCI Brazilian cotton comes almost entirely from huge farms, owned by soy billionaires and other members of the Brazilian elite, and may be tainted with corruption, necropolitics, and illegal deforestation. Moreover, Brazil, despite accounting for just 5 per cent of the world cotton area and 11 per cent of world production in 2019/20, also accounted for about 25 per cent of all pesticides used on global cotton.

This comes hard on the heels of my revelation that BCI’s number two source of cotton – China (16 per cent of total BCI production in 2018/19) – was almost entirely from Xinjiang and much could be traced directly to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corporation. Accordingly, much of last year’s supposedly “Better Cotton” was tainted with prison labour, child labour, appropriation of natural assets and forced Sinification.

Surely it is time for BCI’s main funding brands, including Adidas, H&M, Gap, Nike, C&A, PVH, and others, to take a long hard look at what they are doing and to ask themselves: Is this sustainability or is it greenwashing?

1. Preamble

When I started to write this article, I was advised that the man to contact was Dr Terry Townsend, former executive director of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) and generally acknowledged as an expert on global cotton issues.

Dr Townsend has a long standing and close relationship with Brazilian cotton production. I quote his email, to me, of August 20, 2020: “Production in the Cerrado region (central Brazil) was encouraged by the textile industry, and farmers, many of them with nothing more than what they could carry in a truck, moved out to cities like Rondonopolis and literally pioneered on vacant land. I spent 10 days in Mato Grosso and Goias in July 2000 traveling by small plane from farm to farm, and my impression was of a vast area of virgin scrub land. In the years since, I have been to Brazil and the Cerrado region many times. I have spent days touring farming areas, watching field operations, talking to farmers and farm workers, visiting gins, visiting warehouses. I have met various ministers of agriculture in Brasilia. I have spoken at both state and national conferences. I have visited the ABRAPA (the Brazilian Cotton Growers Association) office in Brasilia, and until I retired, I knew every ABRAPA president. I have toured research centers operated by CONABE and talked with scientists leading breeding programs…

“I was not out there looking for corruption or abuse, and I suppose abuse could occur and an international visitor would be carefully kept away. However, I also know that cotton is heavily regulated and farm operators are required to provide housing, health care, minimum wages and education for children in their package of employment practices. Brazilian farmers believe they are at a competitive disadvantage with farmers in the United States and elsewhere because of the social costs they are required to provide.

“Just because Brazilian agriculture has problems, does not mean that cotton farmers are causing those problems.”

I, on the other hand, have never been closer to Brazil than its neighbours: Peru, Argentina, Columbia and Uruguay. My analysis is a desk review, based on available literature.

I believe that Dr Townsend views Brazilian cotton through somewhat rosy spectacles. I imagine he thinks mine are tinted grey.

Where we unite however, is in the opinion that for some or all of the reasons outlined below, ABRAPA cotton – and so BCI cotton from Brazil – cannot be labeled “preferred and more sustainable” – and preferred and more sustainable than what, one might ask? Than Australian cotton? Than US cotton?

It is no such thing.

2. Some background

a) The Country

Brazil is the 9th largest economy in the world but in terms of per capita income, the CIA World Factbook puts Brazil’s GDP – per capita (Purchasing Power Parity, PPP) at 108th in the world. So, we are talking about a very large economy, with an even larger population (5th largest in the world), whose per capita income is a bit – about 10 per cent – below the global average. But the devil is in the details – how equitably is Brazil’s national income distributed?

Inequality is not easy to measure. One recent important source is The World Inequality Database – founded by economics wunderkind Thomas Piketty – and its 2018 World Inequality Report. From this, Folha de S.Paulo (FSP) concluded, in 2019:Brazil’s super-rich lead global income concentration. No other democratic country has a higher income concentration among the top 1 per cent. Privileges, slavery and patrimonialism are seen as causes.” A causation seconded by Piketty himself.

FSP claims that Brazil is second only to Qatar in the inequality tables and that,the 1 per cent richest in Brazil (around 1.4 million adults) capture 28.3 per cent of the country’s total income … By comparison, the 50 per cent poorest (71.2 million people) receive 13.9 per cent of national income, less than half of the portion captured by the 1 percent richest.”

Given that every ‘sustainability’ declaration in the global apparel sector pays lip service to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we would expect that any preferred or more sustainable cotton programme would focus on the bottom 20 per cent. Is that true in Brazil?

b) The cotton

Although globally, cotton fibre production rose only 70 per cent between 1975 and 2019, cotton fiber production in Brazil soared. It was 1.8 million bales in 1975 (to convert bales to tonnes, divide by 4.593), and 13.2 million bales in 2019. Exports fared even better rising from 356,000 bales to 8.6 million bales over the same period – an increase of 600 per cent and 2,000 per cent respectively. Much of this vibrancy can be attributed to the state of Mato Grosso, which in 1995, offered 907,000 square kilometers of land, divided into three main biomes: Amazon forest, Cerrado/Cerradao and the Pantanal wetland. Only 15 per cent of the land was occupied or under cultivation, when 40 per cent was actually suitable for agriculture.

In four short years, 1995/6-1999/2000, cotton production in Mato Grosso climbed from 33,000 tons to around 302,000 tons, rising in the process, from a small portion of the Brazilian total to about half. Average lint yield was estimated at 1,125 kilos per hectare in 1999/00 – possibly the highest average rainfed yield in the world. Because cotton production was relatively new, pest and disease problems in Mato Grosso were unusually low for tropical production. Nowhere however, has cotton production on a large scale been possible in a tropical climate, in the long run.

Mato Grosso has continued on the up and up. For 2018/19, it produced two-thirds of Brazil’s cotton, on a record cotton area of 1.07 million hectares – up 38 per cent on 2017/18 levels, and more than 90 per cent in the last five years. As a result, Brazil harvested its largest ever cotton crop for MY 2018/19 – estimated at 12.8 million 480-lb bales.

So, cotton in Brazil is booming. But is it “more sustainable”? Indeed, would most of us deem it sustainable at all?

3. Cotton is a Secondary Crop

In attempting to investigate and analyse all this, it is important to know that in Brazil, cotton is a minor crop, grown in rotation with soybeans. In the rotation, cotton is predominantly the secondary crop, meaning most of Brazil’s cotton is planted on the same fields, after the soybeans are harvested. Farmers do this because cotton, with its long tap root, enhances the primary (soybean) crop yield by breaking up hardpan, and bringing soil nutrients nearer the surface.

In round numbers, Brazil produces 110 million tons of soybeans on 35 million hectares, compared with 2.8 million tons of cotton lint on 1.7 million hectares. Cotton and soy have different agronomic needs. Soybeans are much simpler to grow. They are susceptible to fewer diseases and a narrower range of pests. Consequently, fewer herbicides and insecticides are applied to soybeans. Any abuses in chemical handling procedures are more likely to relate to the farms’ cotton cultivation than to their soybean production. But for the other abuses that this essay will cover – corruption, necropolitics, illegal deforestation – they are one and the same.

So, if we look at Brazil’s cotton, and Brazil’s soybean production – as a proxy for the issues and concerns that taint Brazil’s cotton – do we find Brazilian soy farms to be models of sustainability?

4. Brazil – the largest producers of sustainable cotton on the planet.

The claim that Brazil is “the largest producer of sustainable cotton on the planet” is a direct quote from Milton Garbugio, president of ABRAPA (the Brazilian Cotton Growers Association). But it is a claim enthusiastically endorsed by all of the big names in the “sustainable” apparel sector, from the Pesticide Action Network UK, Solidaridad, and WWF to IDH and Textile Exchange. According to the latter’s 2020 Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report, total “Preferred Cotton” production in 2018–19, was 6.4 million MT. Some 2.2 million MT, or 34 per cent of this came from ABRAPA. No other country even comes close. Pakistan and China jockey for second and third position on a comparatively paltry 0.95 million MT, and 0.94 million MT, respectively.

To anyone who has read a newspaper in the past ten years, this claim – that Brazilian agriculture is so outstanding, in a good way – may come as something of a surprise. It certainly surprised me.

5. The Better Cotton Initiative

Brazil joined the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) in 2010, when ABRAPA became an Implementing partner (IP). To quote the Better Cotton Fast Track Program (BCFTP) Program 2010-15 Report itself:ABRAPA and its state-based association represent nearly all the cotton farmland and production, as well as all the cotton exports, across Brazil. BCFTP funded ABRAPA in 2012, but by 2013 the project was entirely self-reliant. The association’s ‘ABR’ standard was formally benchmarked with Better Cotton, exemplifying a successful partnership model that embeds sustainability into the cotton supply chain.”

In 2015, there were 189 BCFTP farmers producing 761,991 tonnes of cotton, almost entirely on massive plantations with an average area under cotton of almost 3,000 hectares, on farms that are probably many times that size. Indeed, the July 6, 2000, report ‘Brazil Aiming to Export Again’ states: “Cotton area per farm ranges from 500 hectares to 35,000, with 5,000 hectares the average. Most farms have as much again in soybeans and corn, with many also running beef cattle. The largest single cotton operation in Brazil is 35,000 hectares made up from farms in Mato Grosso, Goias and Sao Paulo, and single farms of 1,500 hectares in Mato Grosso are considered small.”

The BCFTP only financed projects in Brazil in 2011 and 2012. In 2011, 50 farmers produced 40,000 tonnes of cotton lint, at a cost of €9.87 per tonne. Whilst in 2012, 100 BCFTP farmers in Brazil produced 325,000 tonnes of cotton lint, at a cost of €2.04 per tonne. On this basis, the BCFTP spent €394,800 in 2011, and €663,000 in 2012, or a cost per farmer of €7,896 and €6,630 respectively. Why the conversion cost per farmer was so much higher in Brazil than anywhere else, and why it cost BCFTP €1,057,800 to benchmark an existing system – the ABR system – with Better Cotton, is one of life’s mysteries.

6. Corruption

What we do know is that a total of over one million Euros of funding – including taxpayer’s money – was handed to huge farms, so, presumably, not to the poorest, but to some of the wealthiest people in Brazil, a country renowned for its corruption.

BCI and IDH can hardly have been unaware of this; in 2011, the newspaper Gazeta do Povo and RPC TV, in the Brazilian state of Parana, were winning awards for their investigative reporting on the pilfering by the Parana state legislative assembly of almost US$400m in public funds.

A quick Google reveals a stream of articles on arrests of prominent figures for corruption, ever since.

Moreover, the fact that a few very rich and powerful landlords control Brazil’s agriculture, to the detriment of the rest of the nation, has been known for quite a long time. I quote a 2013 article in The Independent: “So how do the big landowners get away with such murder, violence and intimidation? The answer comes down to their overwhelming power and the ease with which they can abuse it; Brazil is extraordinarily unequal. Almost one-third of all its arable land is owned by 0.8 per cent of landowners, according to research by academics at the Brazilian think-tank CEBRAP. Similarly, some 85 per cent of the value of farm production is held by just eight per cent of Brazil’s farms.

Such vast economic power gives large landowners political clout too – and the ability to corrupt the police and politicians. Some contribute to hugely expensive election campaigns and others are in politics themselves, at national, state and lower levels. Some even own media companies that influence public debate.

“It’s a rotten system, made all the more crooked by the failure of the police and justice to reliably catch and punish the killers and, most importantly, those they work for.”

The president of BCI partner ABRAPA, Milton Garbugio, appears to be a politician himself – vice mayor of Campo Verde in Mato Grosso. Former Minister of Agriculture, and former Governor of Mato Grosso, billionaire Blairo Maggi, is himself the subject of corruption charges, whilst Agropecuaria Maggi, the agribusiness branch of his Amaggi Group, is an Abrapa producer.

7. Necropolitics

In Brazil, the murder, violence, and intimidation practiced by agribusinesses runs from subjecting unwanted villagers to daily aerial pesticide spraying – as observed by the reporter from The Independent – to hundreds of shootings, dismemberments, and other atrocities documented by the CPT. For the period 2007 to 2011 – when BCI and IDH first partnered with these huge Brazilian cotton producers – it seems there was an average of one land conflict-related murder every 12 days. There were 38 attempted murders in 2011 alone, and 347 death threats over the same period.

The situation does not appear to be improving. In 2017, Brazil experienced its most violent year in terms of conflicts and deaths in rural areas since 2003, and 70 people lost their lives – an increase for the fourth year in a row, from 34 in 2013 to 70 in 2017. And whilst in earlier years, the most common victims of rural violence were activists who occupied farmland near big ranches, that has now shifted, with indigenous groups and other traditional land users now more affected.

It is worth noting that in 2000, it was claimed of Mato Grosso: “About half the state consists of Indian reserves, parks, wetlands and government areas, and 40 per cent of the land area in the state is suitable for agriculture.” It is hardly surprising if those Indian reserves and parks have proved too tempting for some unscrupulous businessmen.

Indeed, the advent of Jair Bolsonaro’s government has simply augmented the pressure.

More than 4,000 indigenous people protested his administration’s attacks on native rights in April, 2019, but to no effect. In May 2020, FUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous agency, introduced a  new policy, opening 237 areas, or 37,830 square miles, to outside settlement and exploitation.

UOL Brazil claims at least eight activists involved in disputes with representatives of the soy industry died in 2018, in the state of Pará alone. Under the May 2020 laws, these kinds of confrontations are only expected to increase as they, “create legal cover for landgrabbers, ranchers, soy growers, loggers, and other outsiders to invade indigenous ancestral lands, claim permanent title to the property and exploit land vital to indigenous survival.”

We have to ask ourselves: under the cover of their newfound, BCI-granted status as the world’s most sustainable cotton producers, do we suspect that some soy/cotton growers will be among the landgrabbers exploiting these new laws?

8. Deforestation

The words “Amazon” and “deforestation” have become synonymous in many people’s minds – with good reason – and since the advent of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil, things have only become worse: Destruction rose 10.7% percent for the month, compared to June 2019, according to national space research agency Inpe… If there is another increase in deforestation in July, Brazil is headed for annual deforestation of more than 15,000 square kilometers… That would be up from 10,129 square kilometers last year and the highest level of deforestation since 2005, according to official government data.”

Note the article refers to the “highest level of deforestation since 2005.” This is not something new, something of which BCI and BCFTP were completely unaware. This is something that has been hovering in the background, throughout the time of the initiatives’ involvement in Brazil. Indeed, Forbes claims: “Approximately a fifth of Brazil’s Amazon has been cleared in the last 50 years.”

You will recall from section 3, above, that if Brazilian soy cultivation comes at the expense of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, Brazilian cotton cultivation does also. So, is Brazilian soybean production involved in Amazon deforestation? Yes – indeed cotton farmer Blairo Maggi, mentioned earlier, was awarded the Greenpeace Golden Chainsaw Award in 2006, as the Brazilian who most contributed to the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest.

And it is not just the Amazon that is being deforested.

As Reuters put it in a 2018 special report: “Brazil’s farmers have plowed under more than half of the Cerrado, South America’s largest savanna. The nation is the world’s largest exporter of beef and soybeans. The cost is greenhouse gas emissions, vanishing wildlife and weakened watersheds.”

WWF refers to the Bazilian Cerrado in glowing terms and mourns its loss: “The Cerrado savanna, which lies mostly in Brazil, has never received the same attention as its more glamorous neighbour, the Amazon. Yet it is the world’s most biodiverse savanna, home to 5% of the planet’s animals and plants.

“Since the 1950s, however, agriculture – most recently, the rapid expansion of soy and beef production – has driven the loss of about half of its native vegetation. By 2030, the Cerrado is projected to lose tens of millions of additional acres of native vegetation.

“The Cerrado’s wildlife and rural communities stand to suffer the most. This savanna contains about 200 species of mammal, 860 species of birds, 180 species of reptiles, 150 species of amphibians, 1,200 species of fish, and 90 million species of insect. Giant anteaters and armadillos are among its 60 vulnerable animal species, 12 of which are critically endangered. Of its more than 11,000 plant species, nearly half are found nowhere else on Earth, and local communities rely on many of them for food, medicine, and handicrafts.”

The irony that BCI was founded by the WWF, and that the WWF are staunch supporters of Brazilian BCI cotton should not escape anyone. Indeed, Textile Exchange claims 93 per cent of all ABRAPA cotton was BCI in 2018/19, and at 2.2 million tonnes out of a total of 6.4 million tonnes of sustainable cotton for the year, Brazilian cotton is the main product that WWF is promoting. Irony aside, is the WWF correct? Is soy cultivation involved in the deforestation of the Cerrado?

Certainly a 2018 study for Norwegian salmon farmers believes so: “Soy farming has substantial socio-environmental impacts. Its expansion into new agricultural frontiers, especially in the Cerrado biome, has become a major contributor to the destruction of native forests, in addition to the impacts on indigenous communities and land conflicts.”

Indeed, as a result of such concerns 84 companies, investors and organisations with Brazilian soy in their value chains supported a soy moratorium in the Brazilian Amazon in December 2019. Interestingly one of the signatories is Marks and Spencer, which actively promotes BCI – and therefore Brazilian cotton, produced on the same fields as the soy that it is boycotting.

Another, more recent study published in July 2020 found:20% of soy exports and at least 17% of beef exports from both biomes to the EU may be contaminated with illegal deforestation.”

This is not the place for a detailed analysis of abuses in the Brazilian soy (and therefore cotton) industry. Suffice it to say that between them, these two studies uncovered evidence, not only of illegal deforestation but also of land conflicts, use of banned pesticides, encroachment on indigenous lands, and slave labour.

One farmer in particular – Sadi Luiz Piccinin Junior – is named as involved in lawsuits related to land conflicts and the use of illegal pesticides, as well as labour irregularities.

The Piccinin farms are listed on the ABRAPA site as having produced ABRAPA and therefore, BCI cotton in both 2015/16 and 2018/19.

9. Pesticides:

The BCI website states that it, “aims to transform cotton production worldwide by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.” This implies that non-BCI cotton is not sustainable, and that BCI cotton is somehow “better.” Yet Brazilian cotton production requires the highest applications of pesticides per acre in the world. According to the ICAC Cotton Data Book 2020, national average pesticide costs in Brazil are five times the world average. In addition, the high cotton yields in Brazil that make production economically feasible are supported by applications of synthetic fertilizers that cost twice the world average. To the extent that consumers associate sustainability with reduced applications of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, they are clearly being misled when Brazilian production is labeled as “Better.”

The long-term outlook for cotton in Brazil, as well as in other South American countries, depends on an ability to manage the boll weevil without resorting to continued increases in insecticide applications. Brazil has not been able to implement an area-wide control programme for the boll weevil, as has been done in the United States, and as many as 20 insecticide applications are made each season for boll weevil alone. Despite accounting for 5 per cent of world cotton area and 11 per cent of world production in 2019/20, about 25 per cent of all pesticides used on cotton in the world were used in Brazil.

Moreover, not all pesticides are equally toxic, and Brazil uses many that are banned in the EU and the USA. Indeed, Monga Bay claims: “In 2019, 325 pesticides were launched in Brazil. They contain 96 active ingredients, 28 of which are not marketed or registered in the European Union. 36 of them are not marketed or registered in Australia, 30 are not marketed or registered in India and 18 are not marketed or registered in Canada.

According to WWF: “Cotton facts: Just 2.4 per cent of the world’s arable land is planted with cotton yet cotton accounts for 24 percent of the world’s insecticide market and 11 percent of the sale of global pesticides. 73 percent of global cotton harvest comes from irrigated land.”

In the usual lamentable standard of WWF ‘Science’ reports, no source is given for these “facts” and no year for this data is cited. Indeed, later in the same “report” we are told: “Cotton alone is responsible for a quarter of all insecticides and herbicides used in farming with severe health impacts on workers in the field and on ecosystems.”

How cotton went from accounting for 11 per cent of global pesticides to 25 per cent within a matter of paragraphs, is not explained.

The most important component of global pesticide use is herbicides, which represent almost 50 per cent of the total. Nobody seems to be keeping a running tally at present, but Cropnosis Ltd. calculated that pesticides worth US$58.5bn were sold worldwide in 2014. Herbicides accounted for 47 per cent, insecticides for 19 per cent, fungicides 19 per cent, and seed care and specialised chemicals such as growth regulators/desiccants/defoliants, etc., accounted for 7.4 per cent.

In that same year, 2014, cotton accounted for 5.7 per cent by value of all the pesticides sold. This was composed of 16.1 per cent of total global insecticide sales, 3.9 per cent of herbicides, 4 per cent of growth regulators/desiccants/defoliants, and 1 per cent of world fungicide sales.

So not 11 per cent or 25 per cent as WWF claims, but just 6 per cent of global pesticide sales can be reliably attributed to cotton.

Perhaps more pertinently, because of its temperature, rainfall and pest complex, Brazil accounts for almost 25 per cent of the cost of all pesticide applications on cotton worldwide. Yet Brazilian BCI cotton is precisely what the WWF annually urges us all to purchase on the grounds that it is “more sustainable”

The WWF has previously been accused of “selling its soul’ to corporations.” Now it appears that aided and abetted by the WWF – and other, equally unscientific and ill-informed NGOs and sustainable sourcing sites – the apparel sector has spun a web of deceit around cotton production. This has contrived to keep demand down, prices low, and to facilitate substitution with even cheaper fossil fibres. That this has harmed some of the poorest on the planet – subsistence cotton farmers from Benin to Pakistan – is self-evident. Not only have all these interventions been unscientific, they were, and are, completely unethical.

Conclusion:

To repeat the BCI quote from earlier: “ABRAPA and its state-based associations represent nearly all the cotton farmland and production, as well as all the cotton exports, across Brazil.”

All Brazilian export cotton is ABRAPA, and all ABRAPA ABR cotton is BCI.

As a secondary crop to Brazilian soy production, we have seen that Brazilian cotton production is potentially – in some instances, demonstrably – involved in illegal deforestation and human rights abuses, and is responsible for a disproportionate share of cotton’s global pesticide use.

Cotton is a commodity, produced in less than ideal conditions in many different places and for many different reasons.

I am not calling for a ban or boycott of Brazilian cotton. I am simply saying that to label it “more sustainable,” “better,” or “preferred,” is nonsense.


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