| Hector Velasco |
BRASïLIA (AFP) – Before her husband died, Katia Abreu was a housewife who didn’t know a cow from a bull.
Today, she is a powerful rancher and senator who was named Brazil’s next agriculture minister, a choice that has infuriated small farmers, environmentalists and indigenous groups who call her the “queen of deforestation”.
The post is a high-profile job in Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest economy and an agricultural powerhouse.
Abreu, 52, wants to make it even more so, vowing to overtake the United States as the world’s largest food producer.
But in a country where big agriculture is often at odds with those fighting to protect the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people who live in it, the appointment of an agribusiness insider has ruffled feathers.
Abreu, the head of powerful industry group the Agriculture and Livestock Confederation of Brazil (CNA), won environmental group Greenpeace’s “Golden Chainsaw” award in 2010 for her “contributions” to destroying the Amazon.
Indigenous communities and Brazil’s landless workers movement have accused her of trying to expand commercial farming at the expense of the environment.
She has also been criticised by her own allies for joining forces with left-wing President Dilma Rousseff and her Workers’ Party (PT), whose policies Abreu attacked in the past.
Abreu is elegant and determined, with an iron will that drew a comparison to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from The Guardian newspaper.
After starting her political career on the right, she joined the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), a close ally of Rousseff’s PT, for elections last October.
“I don’t accept the demands of the left or the right. I’m free and I live in a democracy. I support whomever I want,” Abreu wrote on Twitter.
After Rousseff won the election by a tight margin – fighting off her unpopularity in the business world and accusations of mishandling Brazil’s struggling economy – she named Abreu her new agriculture minister Tuesday.
She will start the job when Rousseff begins her new four-year term on January 1.
A supporter of genetically modified crops and an opponent of expropriating large landowners’ property, Abreu is an unapologetic defender of big agriculture, which makes up 23.3 per cent of Brazil’s economy.
When indigenous groups have shot arrows at her photograph in protest, Abreu has fired back that if Brazil keeps creating indigenous reserves at its current rate, it won’t have any farmland left by 2031.
Abreu’s current political life is a long way from her life at age 25, when her husband, a large-scale rancher, died in a plane crash.
Abreu, who was pregnant with their third child at the time, had to take over their cattle operation in the northern state of Tocantins.
“When I started out I didn’t know a cow from a bull,” she told Brazilian magazine Epoca.
She not only took to the job but became an outspoken proponent for farmers and ranchers, winning a seat in the Senate in 2006.
Abreu does not hide her political ambition.
“Running for president is not a plan – it is fate. I’m getting ready for that, preparing in case it is my destiny,” she told The Guardian in May.
As minister, she will run up against old adversaries.
“She represents the most backward form of the landed gentry, who wield land as an instrument of power and real estate speculation … with no concern for the environment,” said Igor Santos, head of the Landless Workers’ Movement.