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George Soros vs. The Planet

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Well, that whole beating George Bush thing in 2004 didn't work out, so now billionaire financier/Democratic fundraiser/democracy spreader George Soros is back to his first love: making money -- apparently even when it comes at the expense of the planet.

Sabrina Valle of The Washington Post is reporting that Soros is one of the biggest investors in growing sugarcane for ethanol in the Brazilian cerrado, "a vast plateau where temperatures range from freezing to steaming hot and bushes and grasslands alternate with forests and the richest variety of flora of all the world's savannas."

That could soon come to an end. In the past four decades, more than half of the Cerrado has been transformed by the encroachment of cattle ranchers and soybean farmers. And now another demand is quickly eating into the landscape: sugarcane, the raw material for Brazilian ethanol.

"Deforestation in the Cerrado is actually happening at a higher rate than it has in the Amazon," said John Buchanan, senior director of business practices for Conservation International in Arlington. "If the actual deforestation rates continue, all the remaining vegetation in the Cerrado could be lost by the year 2030. That would be a huge loss of biodiversity."

The roots of this transformation lie in the worldwide demand for ethanol, recently boosted by a U.S. Senate bill that would mandate the use of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, more than six times the capacity of the United States' 115 ethanol refineries. President Bush, who proposed a similar increase in his State of the Union address, visited Brazil and negotiated a deal in March to promote ethanol production in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Now Soros (as well as Goldman Sachs and the Carlyle Group) has joined longtime Big Ag environmental villains Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland in investing in sugarcane expansion on formerly wild land, fueling the loss of 7.4 million acres per year of pristine land. This would ordinarily violate sustainability principles adopted by Goldman Sachs and others (Goldman Sachs's policy, for instance, says that the company "will not finance any project or initiate loans where the specified use of proceeds would significantly convert or degrade a critical natural habitat.")

So, they claim they're not contributing to the extinction of the jaguars, blue macaws, and giant armadillos that roam(ed) the savannah because they're growing on fallow land, but that's just a big greenwashing cover.

But environmental groups argue that as soy and sugarcane displace cattle and less lucrative crops, ranchers are moving farther into the unspoiled areas of the Cerrado.

"There are ranchers substituting sugarcane for cattle in the Sao Paulo area, for instance, and displacing cattle to the state of Bahia, both in the Cerrado. So what is the point?" asks Ricardo Machado, author of a study about the Cerrado for Conservation International.

It's a widely documented phenomenon fueling deforestation in Indonesia, West Africa and elsewhere: increased demand for land fuels higher commodity prices and expansion into pristine forests.

It's particularly ironic that Soros is working hand in hand with the Bush family by investing $1 billion in growing sugarcane in Brazil. Jeb Bush formed the Interamerican Ethanol Commission in December to promote increased ethanol exports from Latin America, leading, perhaps not coincidentally to President Bush's March deal with Brazilian President Luis Lula Ignacio da Silva.

What really frustrates me more than anything is that these rogue billionaires are destroying these tropical forests for a relatively tiny amount of money, compared to the potential financial value of protecting these lands as carbon sinks. The value of agricultural land on the cerrado ranges from as little as $140 to as high (in areas with the richest land) to $3,000. But protecting these areas as carbon sinks could give them a value of up to $6,000 per hectare, based on current prices of carbon dioxide that exceed $20 per ton on European markets.

Of course, that would require governments to come together to allow countries and polluters to get greenhouse gas reduction credit for protecting intact ecosystems as carbon sinks, as I recently outlined with Bill Powers in a New York Times op-ed. But there's increasing support for the idea, and as these financiers destroy the forests to create agriculture, they're also destroying much greater potential returns for themselves.

I guess being a rogue billionaire doesn't make you a smart billionaire.

P.S. I've set up an action alert on my website where you can contact George Soros and ask him to withdraw from this project and invest instead in conservation; click here to send him a note. Soros has actually done a tremendous amount of good in his long career, from fighting Soviet tyranny to fighting George Bush, so I think a bit of media scrutiny combined with a grassroots outcry could convince him to align his business practices with his principles and history of good work.