MANY Europeans think that Brazil is guilty of destroying valuable habitats like rainforest.

My recent trip to that rapidly changing country convinced me that far from being eco-vandals, Brazilians care a great deal for their environment and the wide diversity of species that it contains.

Brazil is increasingly producing beef from land that is not much use for anything else, in much the same way as we graze hill sheep on our poor hill land. Profitable crops like sugar cane for ethanol production, GM soy bean and GM maize are displacing cattle.

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They are being pushed back into the cerrado – scrubland similar to the Australian bush, that was cleared and reseeded to be grazed by Nelor cattle, a Bos indicus type, originally imported from India.

The cerrado is best described as naturally regenerating, native deciduous scrub.

Following intense pressure from environmentalists, Brazil has put in place policies to protect its natural environment. In some parts of Brazil, such as the Mato Grosso do Sul (MGdS), the main beef rearing area in Brazil where we were touring, farmers must keep at least 20% of their land as a "legal reserve" – untouched natural cerrado.

Further north that increases to 40% and even 80% in the Amazon rainforest region.

Enforcement is by means of geo-satellite technology, and breaches of the rules lead to hefty fines or imprisonment.

Statistics provided by Famasul, Brazil's farmers' union, revealed that 31% of MGdS land is natural forest, so at least at the aggregate level these rules were not only being enforced, but exceeded.

Water courses must also be protected and left in a natural state, and it is now illegal to divert water from rivers for irrigation.

There are similar rules in Paraguay, where the legal reserve is 25%, with an additional requirement for 100 metre strips of natural cerrado to be left between grazing blocs.

We visited two very remote ranches in Paraguay – one had been established for about 15 years and extended to 35,000 hectares with 20,000 head of cattle, while the other had been recently cleared and extended to 11,000 hectares. The latter had been sold by the Paraguayan Government to a Spanish timber company which had extracted the hardwoods.

It was then sold on to Germans who presumed the Government would invest in infrastructure such as roads.

When that didn't happen it was sold on to an absentee Brazilian who invested heavily in developing it.

The cerrado was being cleared in accordance with an agreed plan with the Government, and in conjunction with advice from Australians.

Unlike EU farmers, who, under proposed changes to the CAP, will probably receive a Single Farm Payment for setting aside a mere 7% of their land for environmental conservation, Brazil's farmers are not paid a penny for setting aside a minimum of three times that amount of land.

Nevertheless, while they were initially very angry at the introduction of those rules, many now recognise that retaining trees and scrubland helps to maintain cloud-cover and avoid desertification.

Maintaining ecosystems has also created lucrative diversification opportunities from the growing number of eco-tourists who are prepared to pay good money to enjoy the varied flora and fauna.

One ranch that we visited had a river flowing through it with crystal clear water that allowed visitors to snorkel and view a wide range of fish. That, and other eco-tourism activities had led to a situation where, in terms of division of the farm's profits, 80% came from tourism and 20% from cattle.

Another ranch, where we stayed overnight in chalets, extended to 14,000 hectares and was on the edge of the Pantanal, a tropical wetland This 150,000 square kilometres national park was established in 1981 and is mostly located in MGdS, although it also extends into neighbouring Bolivia and Paraguay.

The ranch organised night-time safaris, where tourists sat in the back of specially designed trucks, while a guide in a swivel chair on top of the roof of the lorry's cab searched for wildlife using a powerful spotlight.

We saw an abundance of capybara, the world's largest rodent that grows to about four feet in length and weighs between 75 and 150lbs. There were also deer, jacare – a type of caiman, or alligator – and ocelots, Brazil's fourth biggest cat after puma, panther and jaguar. Indeed we were unlucky not to see jaguars that night as they regularly attacked young calves on the ranch.

Thank goodness I didn't have that problem when I was farming.