Brazil’s Most Powerful Cowgirl

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This rancher’s widow turned lawmaker and land baron provokes admiration, praise, and fierce opposition in competing measures. Eduardo Martino

The Brazilian cerrado is no place for a tenderfoot. In the dry season in Aliança, the township just below the Amazon basin where Kátia Abreu farms, a withering sun leaves the land parched and choked in dust. A few months later, from November to May, downpours lash the dirt into a moonscape of potholes and mud. Many planters have stumbled here, and their tumbledown plots are strewn like headstones along the savanna. But for those who endure, fortunes can bloom. Once this sparsely peopled flatland was carpeted by niggardly scrub, home to jaguars and braces of toucans. Now corn, cotton, and soybeans grow on plantations the size of American counties, and cowboys in Land Rovers mind herds of bleached Nelore beef cattle that stretch to the horizon. The cerrado is the Western Hemisphere’s newest agricultural frontier, and no one rides taller here than Abreu.

She is not the biggest landowner or even remotely the richest (that title belongs to Blairo Maggi, the agrimogul who is the world’s largest single producer of soybeans). But this 51-year-old rancher’s widow turned land baroness, then national lawmaker, has left her brand on this Latin American powerhouse, provoking admiration, praise, and fierce opposition in competing measures. Abreu and her two sons tend a formidable stretch of the cerrado—three farms of soybeans and sorghum and 12,000 head of cattle in Tocantins, Brazil’s newest state and part of the planet’s emerging breadbasket. “It’s hard to say where she doesn’t have land,” said one government employee in Palmas, the state capital, quickly asking not to be named.

Abreu is no pampered heiress. Since 1987, when a plane crash killed her husband and nearly broke her, she has had to fend for herself. “I knew nothing about ranching,” she said. “But I am stubborn and don’t give up.” Pride and fear of failure did the rest. She cropped her hair to look less girlish and took care never to cry in front of the farmhands, sobbing only to herself at night. Ever since, the reluctant rancher has managed to command respect, authority, and a loyal following in the baritone world of cattle, crops, and rural rainmakers.

A number of notable women have succeeded in the men’s club of Brazilian party politics—starting with President Dilma Rousseff—and others have become prosperous planters and herders. But what makes Abreu stand out is the ease and gusto with which she moves from one power circle to another. She is on a first-name basis with President Rousseff, and knows how to draw a headline and spin criticism into political capital for her farm-country constituents. This alone has made her that rarest figure in Brazil, an alpha woman in a region ruled by patriarchs and a code of machismo that stretches from farmyard to city hall.

Virtually unknown on the national stage a few years ago, Abreu today is the leading voice for this developing-world agriculture powerhouse and the first woman to head the main farm lobby, the 5 million–strong National Agricultural Confederation (CNA). With agribusiness kicking in fully a fifth of Brazil’s $2.5 trillion gross domestic product, Abreu has been a backcountry evangelist, whose mission is to jolt this stodgy, often truculent constituency into a sophisticated lobbying machine. Along the way, she has met with resistance among the macho fringes and gone toe-to-toe with environmental groups and political activists.

margolis-FE02-brazilian-rancher-embed-01 For those who can endure the demands of the Brazilian cerrado, fortunes can bloom. John Stanmeyer/VII

She has also challenged an unspoken political apartheid in Brazil. Hailing from a part of the country that has traditionally been the brunt of jokes when it is not ignored, she has worked hard to wag the dog, converting her backwater origins into bona fides for a new Brazil, where silos rival skyscrapers. On a whirlwind tour of her state last year, she embraced gap-tooth farmers, coached mayors on handling record drought, keynoted a massive political rally for a dark-horse candidate in a mayoral race, all the while fielding phone calls from ministers, lobbyists, and even a supreme court justice. By nightfall, long after her aides—and this reporter—had wilted from the heat, she was dancing and waving from the back of a pickup truck to throngs of supporters.

Abreu has stumped the nation to whip the scattered and often ill-mannered ruralistas into a disciplined, aggressive interest group, eager to shape the national agenda. Where once farmers worried almost exclusively about the weather, price support, and soft loans, now they are fluent in commodities futures, logistics, global trade barriers, and the low-carbon economy. Abreu has become the unlikely face of the new Brazil: ambitious, self-confident, stylish, politically savvy, and tenacious in defending her turf, with PowerPoint instead of a Winchester (she abhors guns). “The world has evolved, and leaders need to come up with new ideas,” says University of São Paulo economist Fernando Homem de Melo, an agriculture expert. “Kátia Abreu has brought new ideas to the table.”

Twenty years ago, nothing could have been further from her mind. In the mid 1980s she was a young mother and a good wife, with no grand career plans. A college student majoring in psychology, she helped her mother run a school for special-needs kids in Goiânia, a regional capital, then quit to raise a family. While she stayed home, her husband ran the family ranch, a 5,000-hectare spread on the remote savanna. Then one day, a small prop plane he was traveling in crashed, killing him instantly. At age 25, Abreu was a widow with two small children to raise, pregnant with a third, and not a clue about herding cattle or growing soybeans.

Her family had no doubts. “Everyone pressured me to sell,” she told me on a flight over her home state of Tocantins, in northern Brazil. It must have been tempting. “I knew nothing about farming,” she said. “My husband was so exorbitantly macho that he said if anything happens to me, don’t sell the farm. Let it revert to weed and forest, and wait for the boys to grow up and fix it up again.”

margolis-FE02-brazilian-rancher-embed-02 Once the flatlands were carpeted by patchy scrub. Now corn, cotton, and soybeans abound. John Stanmeyer/VII

At the time, everyone could spot a widow’s ranch—a property so rundown and neglected that it could only belong to a woman who’d lost her man. From that moment on, she vowed to make it work. Instead of selling, she took the reins. “If I’d hired a manager, then he’d make all the decisions and I’d turn into his slave,” she says. “I decided to do it myself.”

Abreu doubled down and not only kept the farm thriving but bought two more ranches, where today she keeps 12,000 head of cattle, plants soybeans and sorghum, and plans to raise sheep and farm freshwater fish. Every chance she gets she flies to the main spread near the Araguaia River, to get her boots in the mud and ride her Palomino, Billy Jean, over one of the most fertile stretches of the Americas.

But these days Abreu is far more likely to be found in the trenches of the Senate, arguing agribusiness’s case or stumping the districts of Tocantins, the frontier state where she is hailed as something of a godmother to the forgotten farmer. I caught up to her late last year as she touted candidates in local elections, a grueling five-town marathon in a puddle jumper under a murderous sun that left her staff exhausted and sweat-soaked. “Kátia! Kátia! Kátia!” yelled the throng in straw hats and flip-flops, gathered at the dirt airstrip in Centenário, a village of 2,700 in the middle of the Brazilian nowhere.

Elsewhere, the reception has been less flattering. In 2009, Greenpeace demonstrators with Kátia Abreu posters over their faces dubbed her Miss Deforestation. (She sued them for defamation and won the case, though Greenpeace has appealed the verdict.) A year later, the green group followed her to Cancún, Mexico, to hand-deliver to her the Golden Chainsaw award, a “tribute” to the predation of cattle ranchers. And last month, members of the militant Landless Workers Movement (MST) invaded her farm, trashing a tree nursery and accusing her of ruining the environment.

margolis-FE02-brazilian-rancher-embed-03 Many planters have stumbled here and their plots are strewn along the savannah. John Stanmeyer/VII

Not so long ago, land barons might have answered their critics with guns drawn. But to Abreu, such belligerence was part of the problem, and only reinforced the public’s dim view of farmers. Abreu was upset at the criticism but reflective. “Thanks to farmers, Brazil went from a food importer to a major export power. But instead of national heroes we were seen as villains,” she says. “We had an image problem.”

In one of her first initiatives as head of the agriculture confederation, Abreu hired two international research firms to take a closer look. The result was surprising. “The surveys showed that society thought of us as bullies, destroyers, and debt chiselers, always getting what we wanted,” says Abreu. “But farmers thought of themselves as weak, neglected, and isolated. It was a total disconnect. We were losing the communications battle.”

With that, Abreu hit the road. She called on farm leaders around the country and sent them to media training seminars. “What do you do when squatters invade your property?” she’d ask farmers. “I’ll kill them!” they growled. “Wrong answer!” she laughed. She drew up a vocabulary blacklist. Words like “fight,” “struggle,” and “victory” were out. Instead, farmers were coached to wax serene about “democratic liberties” and “seeking their rights before the law,” while always expressing “total faith in Brazilian justice.”

Of course, it takes more than spin to change a storyline. And until just a few years ago, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest had become the Brazilian headline, with scofflaw ranchers and desperate peasants cast as the culprits. After all, slash-and-burn farming and herding razed a swath of forest the size of Jamaica on average every year through the 1990s and released hundreds of thousands of tons of planet-warming carbon into the atmosphere.

margolis-FE02-brazilian-rancher-embed-04 Not so long ago, land barons might have answered their critics at gunpoint. Damon Winter/NYT/Redux

Thanks to increased government crackdowns, forest cutting has since plunged to historic lows. Stiff fines made noncompliance exorbitantly expensive, and media pressure did the rest. Now many herders have gotten religion, embracing a moratorium on felling for new pastures, while some of the country’s leading meat packers have committed to buying beef only from ranchers who tread lightly on the rainforest.

But penitence can get you only so far. One of Abreu’s favorite talking points is that Brazilian planters are among the most productive in the world—reaping bumper crops year after year on plots once dismissed as wasteland. Her trump card is a computer graphic she whips out to show that Brazilians harvest nearly two and a half times the crop they did 35 years ago while the growing areas have expanded by just 36 percent. Fast-forward and that means Brazil can produce vastly more food without felling any more trees. “We are a lot greener than farmers in Europe and the U.S., who thrive on government subsidies,” she says.

Yet such arguments do not mollify the environmental movement, with which Abreu recently tangled in her drive to overhaul the forest code governing farming and felling across Brazil. One of the most sensitive items on the docket was the obligation for herders and planters to reforest areas that never should have been leveled in the first place. Ranchers and planters claimed such ecological niceties would possibly put them out of business. Greens volleyed that pardoning illegal deforestation was rewarding destruction. Behind the partisan posturing was a 13-year standoff that impeded reforming the antiquated forest code, leaving a legal quagmire that vilified producers even as it failed to protect the wilderness.

Last year Brazilian legislators broke the logjam and passed a new forestry code by 410 votes in the 503-seat Chamber of Deputies. The final text had something to displease just about everyone; greens griped about lawmakers caving to Big Cattle while farmers griped about paying for the sins of their chainsaw-wielding forebears. President Rousseff vetoed nine articles. But the dissonance was a clear sign that democracy was at work.

margolis-FE02-brazilian-rancher-embed-05 A lone tree stands at the end of a dusty road on a cattle ranch in Mato Grosso. Damon Winter/NYT/Redux

One big advance: farmers who felled too many trees can convert their fines into forests, replanting denuded fields. An even bigger one: Brazil now has a set of clear guidelines to replace a thicket of restrictions that farmers complained made it impossible to comply with and were often arbitrarily enforced.

Political observers scored it as yet another victory for Abreu, who is accumulating political clout and prestige. She is the deputy leader of her party, the centrist Democratic Social Party, and is whispered to be on Rousseff’s shortlist for a top post in a rolling cabinet shake-up. “This is mere speculation,” she says, adding coyly. “We have been working closely with President Dilma, and she has confidence in the Confederation. It’s a sign we are doing our job.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. “We still need to win the PR battle,” Abreu says. It’s a battle she takes personally. Not long after she took over as head of the agriculture lobby, she recalls, a well-known conservation group, SOS Mata Atlantica, was gearing up a splashy new campaign to name the country’s biggest environmental villains in the legislature. “Exterminators of the Future,” it was to be called, a takeoff on the Brazilian title of the Arnold Schwarzenegger picture The Terminator. Abreu topped the list.

She was livid—and wasn’t about to turn the other cheek. Instead of sounding off, she went online and, a few keystrokes later, found what she was looking for: the bright red and white banner of Banco Bradesco. Brazil’s largest private bank, it seems, was also a sponsoring partner of SOS Mata Atlantica. As it happened, Bradesco was also where most of the farmers’ association banked. Abreu picked up the phone. The conflict spilled into the press and sparked a war of words in Congress, but the list of “Exterminators” in Congress was quietly scrapped.

It was typical Abreu. Quick to spot a threat, anxious to snuff it out. Ready to go to the mat for her constituents. “I told them if that campaign goes to air, tomorrow 2,000 heads of rural producers’ unions will close their accounts.” One part chutzpah, one part crisis management, with a lobbyist’s nose for political opportunism. It’s a style the Brazilians are getting to know well.

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