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Jan 24, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

Guyana's Jungle Is Brazil's Agricultural Frontier

Brazil's increased interaction with Guyana is closely tied to the growth in agricultural production in Roraima. The state's main areas of soybean and corn cultivation are located close to the Guyanese border.
(iStock/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • Crop production is set to expand in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, one of the country's last untapped agricultural frontiers.
  • Brazil's relations with Guyana will increase in importance as the latter's ports could become key to exporting Roraima's crops.
  • Greater cooperation between Brasilia and Georgetown on infrastructure could lead Brazil to informally side with Guyana in its long-running border dispute with troubled Venezuela.

It's a long way from Roraima to pretty much anywhere in Brazil. The remote, sparsely populated state in Brazil's far north is thousands of kilometers from Brasilia and presents federal administrators with any number of logistical headaches. States like Roraima, however, have become the country's last agricultural frontier with millions of hectares of cheap land suitable for cultivation, while also boasting a treasure trove of untapped minerals. But with geographic isolation an inescapable fact, Brazil is turning its face to Guyana as it mulls ways of bringing the region's products to market – even if a northern route to the sea presents its own series of issues.

Go North, Young Man

Brazil's government recently assented to the sale of 4 million hectares of state land to grain farmers in Roraima, which borders Guyana and Venezuela. Lacking easy access to Brazilian ports, the landlocked region's closest port is Georgetown, although dense jungle separates the Brazilian state and the Guyanese capital. Unsurprisingly given its remoteness, Roraima is also not connected to Brazil's national energy grid, though there are long-range plans to hook up the state to the rest of the country. Roraima lacks its own sufficient power source, and it is increasingly unable to depend on its main provider, Venezuela, for reliable electricity delivery because of its northwestern neighbor's precipitous economic decline.

Despite these logistical problems, crop production in Roraima has been growing at a tremendous rate over the past five years. Nearly a decade ago, soybean production in the state was close to zero, but farmers harvested more than 100,000 tons in 2017, while corn cultivation reached 36,000 tons this past year – mostly for export to China and the European Union. Roraima's 100,000 tons of soybean production might be a comparative drop in the bucket compared with the national total of 108 million tons in 2017, but the state presents better farming prospects than other producing states such as Mato Grosso, where land is very expensive. Brazil's state-owned agricultural research company, Embrapa, confirmed five years ago that Roraima's lands not only were suitable for soybean and corn production, but that they also would yield soybeans higher in quality than those grown in other states – a factor that could help local growers offset the higher transport costs associated in bringing the crop to market. Roraima also boasts a climate that allows farmers to reap a soybean crop twice a year, making it more productive than southern Brazilian states, where producers are limited to a single annual harvest.

Mining is another economic activity that is expected to grow in Roraima. The prospect of striking it rich with gold and diamonds drove the first waves of migration to the state, but mining in the area has never succeeded in attracting major companies, partly because many niobium, gold and diamond reserves are located on protected indigenous land or environmental reserves. Brazil's government is trying to find a solution that would permit mining activities in some of these areas.

Charting a Path Through the Wilderness

With Roraima unable to look south to the rest of Brazil, it might be time to look north to Guyana, which has long been an afterthought for Brazilian policymakers because of its low economic importance. Guyana itself often looks more to the north to the Caribbean rather than south to the rest of South America. Such a disconnection is unlikely to persist in the coming decades, however, as agricultural and mining production expands in northern Brazil. Diplomats in Brasilia, for example, have been making overtures to Georgetown over the past decade, while Brazil also pushed other members of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) to accept Guyana and Suriname as associate members in 2013.

Brazil's increased interaction with its forgotten neighbor is closely tied to the growth in agricultural production in places like Roraima, whose main areas of soybean and corn cultivation are located close to the Guyanese border. But accessing the sea in Georgetown is difficult because the road is extremely rough, with a critical section between the towns of Lethem on the border with Brazil and Linden 105 kilometers (65 miles) south of Georgetown still lacking asphalt. In an effort to resolve some of these logistical problems, Guyanese President David Granger traveled to Brazil in December to sign an agreement to construct 448 kilometers of road to better connect Roraima and Guyana. Work on the project, which will benefit from partial Chinese funding, could start this year. Over the past two years, Brasilia and Georgetown have also discussed building another deep-water port in Guyana. Granger's visit to Brasilia, meanwhile, also included talks with Brazilian President Michel Temer regarding trade, investment and especially energy. During his visit, Granger invited Brazilian petroleum giant Petroleo Brasileiro to explore for oil and natural gas in the country. Already, new oil discoveries could make Guyana an oil exporter by 2020.

Brazil Seeks to Reach the Atlantic Through Guyana

Because Venezuela is an increasingly unreliable source of power for Roraima, Brazil has proposed the construction of a hydroelectric dam on Guyana's Mazaruni River that would generate electricity for Roraima and Guyana. Although the project, which is currently undergoing feasibility studies, might not materialize for several years, it could become a priority because of Roraima's growing appetite for power and Venezuela's descent into ever-greater problems.

A Pandora's Box on Borders

Brazil and Guyana's best-laid plans, however, could be upset by territorial disputes between Caracas and Georgetown. Brazil has avoided taking any side in the issue, in part because it succeeded in settling its various border disputes with its numerous neighbors (Brazil shares borders with every South American country except Ecuador and Chile) in the early 20th century and does not wish to reopen a potential Pandora's Box on the issue. Any revision of borders could prompt other countries, such as Bolivia, to attempt to renegotiate deals, such as one in which it sold the state of Acre to Brazil in 1903. Nonetheless, Brasilia periodically has offered its mediation to Venezuela and Guyana on their continuing boundary dispute.

Despite its public stance, Brazil has discreet reasons to support Guyana. Venezuela's claims extend to an area that would include the land that Brasilia and Georgetown have earmarked for the road to the Caribbean. Accordingly, if Caracas gained control of the territory, Brazil would face higher time and transport costs as its products from Roraima would need to cross two countries instead of just one.

Moreover, Brazil's relations with Venezuela have deteriorated sharply since 2016 when Brasilia pushed Mercosur to expel Caracas from the bloc over trade and human rights issues. Although a new Brazilian president is almost certain to assume office in 2019 due to historically low approval ratings for Temer, who has taken a hard line on Caracas, there appears little prospect that the countries' ties will improve significantly. The latest spat between Caracas and Brasilia occurred last month when the Venezuelan government expelled Brazil's ambassador for allegedly interfering in Venezuelan affairs. And because of Venezuela's deep economic crisis, Caracas has been forced to delay this year's repayments of its $1.5 billion debt to Brazil's National Development Bank.

Previous Brazilian presidents proposed infrastructure investments to better connect Roraima with Venezuela's ports. In reality, however, most of Roraima's agriculturally productive areas lie closer to Guyana's ports than to Venezuela's – to say nothing about the grim prospects of political and economic stability returning to Venezuela anytime soon. With little other option, Brazil will have no choice but to beat a path through the jungle to Guyana's Atlantic shores if it wishes to unlock isolated Roraima's full potential.

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