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Katia Abreu Named Brazil's Agriculture Minister
From the Wall Street Journal of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 18:34:05 EST
Sen. Katia Abreu, left, and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff are seen during the inauguration of the new board of the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock on Dec. 15. Ms. Abreau was named to Ms. Rousseff’s cabinet on Tuesday as agriculture minister.
Sen. Katia Abreu, left, and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff are seen during the inauguration of the new board of the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock on Dec. 15. Ms. Abreau was named to Ms. Rousseff’s cabinet on Tuesday as agriculture minister. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

SÃO PAULO— Katia Abreu, a rural politician once dubbed “Miss Deforestation” by environmentalists, was named Brazil’s new agriculture minister on Tuesday, setting the stage for potential conflicts between farmers and environmentalists over the future of the Amazon rain forest.

Currently a senator representing the agricultural state of Tocantins, Ms. Abreu will replace Neri Geller at the head of the ministry.

Ms. Abreu has long been a vocal advocate for Brazil’s agricultural sector, both as part of the so-called farm caucus in the Senate and as head of the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock, or CNA.

“She has an excellent profile that best fits the needs of the job,” Antonio Camardelli, president of the Brazilian Association of the Meat Exporting Industry said last week. “She was a (farmer), she has political expertise from being a senator, she’s a leader. She’ll be welcome.”

But environmentalists are wary of Ms. Abreu, who they say has worked to weaken laws aimed at protecting Brazil’s rain forest from development and who has supported awarding some deforested Amazon land to the farmers and ranchers who denuded those properties.

“The senator is an excellent politician and she’s very articulate, but unfortunately she’s very articulate in support of policies we oppose,” said Sérgio Leitão, director of public policy for Greenpeace Brasil. “She always takes the most extreme stance on any issue defending farmers.”

Ms. Abreu declined, through her senate staff, to be interviewed for this article.

The 52-year-old Ms. Abreu, who was widowed at age 25 while pregnant with her third child, has a degree in psychology and started working at age 15 as a teacher at a school for gifted children in the state of Goias.

After her husband died in a plane crash, she took over management of the family farm in what is now Tocantins state, and went on to become president of a local agricultural group in 1994.

From there she went on to lead bigger agricultural groups, and was elected to office first as a deputy in Brazil’s lower house of Congress, then to the Senate. She currently is a member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party or PMDB, which is part of President Dilma Rousseff’s ruling coalition.

Ms. Abreu will take the reins of the agriculture ministry at time when Brazil’s farm sector is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise anemic economy.

An agricultural powerhouse, Brazil has long been the biggest global producer and exporter of sugar, coffee and frozen concentrated orange juice. In recent years it has become the biggest exporter and second-biggest producer of beef, the second-biggest producer and exporter of soy, and a major grower of corn.

The farm sector expanded 6.4% in 2013, when gross domestic product as a whole grew just 2.5%. This year agriculture will grow 3%, compared with a 0.1% expansion in GDP, according to estimates by Banco Mizuho.

Ms. Abreu’s activities as the head of the CNA has contributed to that success, observers say.

“Katia Abreu did very strong work to position the sector,” said Mauricio Borges, head of the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency. “She worked to position Brazilian food well. She has the qualifications to do a good job and to face the challenges she’ll meet.”

Critics see her as insensitive to Brazil’s wilderness areas and to native people who have lost land to logging and agriculture. Last year, indigenous Brazilians invaded farms in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, claiming they had rights to those lands. Ms. Abreu complained that the country’s justice ministry worked only protect Brazilian Indians.

“Who will seek justice for white Brazilians? Who will protect the rural (farmers)?,” she said on the Senate floor.

Ms. Abreu has referred to green advocacy groups including Greenpeace as “Shiite environmentalists.” Greenpeace in turn dubbed her “Miss Deforestation.”

Ms. Abreu is a lightning rod even within the ruling coalition. Members of President Rousseff’s Workers Party, or PT, opposed her nomination as agriculture minister. Sen. Lindbergh Farias, a PT politician who represents the state of Rio de Janeiro, earlier this month said Ms. Abreu is “a terrible symbol, opposed to environmental policies, opposed to expanding indigenous lands and opposed to agrarian reform.”

Mr. Farias called on the president to name a strong supporter of green policies to the environment minister post, as a counterweight to Ms. Abreu’s influence in the cabinet.

A lot is riding on the outcome, according to Mr. Leitão of Greenpeace.

“Katia in the government will define the face of Dilma’s government for good or bad,” he said. “The future of the Amazon and the social rights of many people in the country depend on the answer.”

Write to Jeffrey T. Lewis at jeffrey.lewis@wsj.com



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