Mac Margolis – Newsweek, 04/29/2013
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.