Government

Iowa CEO whose company has Brazil ethanol plants say they aren't causing fires in Amazon

Bruce Rastetter says Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has responded properly to Amazon blazes by sending troops

Summit Group CEO and Iowa Ag Summit host Bruce Rastetter speaks to reporters during the 2017 summit in Des Moines, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. (The Gazette)
Summit Group CEO and Iowa Ag Summit host Bruce Rastetter speaks to reporters during the 2017 summit in Des Moines, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017. (The Gazette)

An Iowan whose company is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build ethanol plants in Brazil said his facilities don’t contribute to deforestation some have blamed for wildfires in the Amazon rainforest.

Bruce Rastetter, chief executive officer of Summit Agricultural Group, based in north-central Iowa, said this week his ethanol plant in Mato Grosso, Brazil’s largest agricultural region, is hundreds of miles south of most of the fires eating away at the rainforest valued for biodiversity and its role in reducing greenhouse gases.

“We’re not in the actual Amazon region,” Rastetter told The Gazette in a phone interview about the FS Bioenergia plant in Lucas do Rio Verde, in the Mato Grosso region.

Most of the 77,000 fires in Brazil since Jan. 1 — an 85 percent increase from 2018, according to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute — have been in the northern states of Roraima, Acre, Rondônia and Amazonas. But Mato Grosso also has been hit by wildfires and is one of six states where Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sent troops last week to help fight the fires, Time reported.

Rastetter said he has seen evidence on past trips there of small fires in Mato Grosso during the summer.

“Normally in the dry season, there might be road ditch fires along the edge of the highways,” he said. “Small areas that have been burned, similar to what we see in Iowa.”

It’s typical for the Amazon rainforest to have dry season fires due to lightning strikes, he said, but not this many.

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“They have some fires that have been intentionally set further north, but none of it due to industrial use,” he said.

Backs Brazil Leader

Bolsonaro, criticized for lax environmental protection, has said non-governmental agencies started the fires, while others say the wildfires follow reports of farmers burning trees to create farmland and pasture.

The Brazilian president has so far declined to accept $22 million in foreign aid to help fight the fires because of a dispute with French President Emmanuel Macron, the Washington Post and others reported.

Bolsonaro, who was at the groundbreaking for FS Bioenergia, has responded properly to the fires, Rastetter said.

“He reacted last week and sent the military up to help fight the fires,” Rastetter said. “A lot of that doesn’t get reported as accurately as it should. I think sending the military in is a big move on his part and really important to put them out.”

‘Iowa of Brazil’

Mato Grosso, which Rastetter called the “Iowa of Brazil” in a March 2018 Iowa Public Television Market to Market interview, had about 250 million bushels of corn 10 years ago, Rastetter told IPTV. In 2017, corn in Mato Grosso had expanded to 1.2 billion bushels and within the next decade, Rastetter expects corn production there will reach 4 billion bushels.

But the land now growing corn for FS Bioenergia ethanol production used to be pastureland — not forest, Rastetter has said.

The acres now produce soybeans from September to January, then corn from January to late May or June, Rastetter said.

“They have about three months they leave the stalks and residue on it and then they start planting again,” he said of the dry season from May through mid-September. “That’s when these fires happen, when it’s real dry.”

Ethanol expansion

The FS Bioenergia plant in Lucas do Rio Verde is the first of up to six corn ethanol plants Rastetter and his partners have planned for Mato Grosso.

The first plant opened in August 2017 and was expected to process 10 million tons of corn a year. A second plant will be operational in February and a third facility just had its groundbreaking, Rastetter said.

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A video posted on the Summit Ag website says the collaboration between Iowa-based Summit Agriculture and Brazilian agribusiness Fiagril expects to invest $1.4 billion in the area through 2023.

Rastetter, of Alden, also served a six-year term ending in 2017 on the Iowa Board of Regents.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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