Today, the economic giant of South America is fulfilling its industrial potential. In the 1990s in Brazil, a stable currency (the real
), the return to democracy,the expansion of diversified mining activities, and the establishment of vast, new agricultural areas on land previously considered infertile, propelled the country’s development. Yet it can still be argued that a buccaneering phase int he history of coffee first gave Brazil its thirst and impetus for modern development.
Indigenous only to Ethiopia, coffee (Coffea arabica
) was an Arabian, mainly Yemeni, monopoly for centuries. The secrets and fruits of its cultivation were closely guarded, and export of seedlings or fertile berries was forbidden on pain of death. Yet a very lucrative trade was enjoyed with parts of Asia, and later Europe, in beans that had been boiled or parched to destroy their ability to germinate.
The Dutch succeeded in stealing a healthy coffee plant in 1690 (earlier according to some reports), nurturing it at the Amsterdam botanical gardens, and planting its progeny in the Netherlands East Indies. In 1714, a Dutch-grown coffee plant was presented to Louis XIV and entrusted to his royal botanist, de Jussieu. It blossomed at the Jardin des Plantes (Paris), but a few years later, de Jussieu refused to cooperate with a young officer from Normandy who conceived the idea of growing coffee in the French West Indies. Accordingly, Mathieu de Clieu helped himself to one of the plants, and bore it off quickly and secretly to Martinique. The plot now thickens.
Coffee acclimatized very successfully in Martinique, and spread to other Caribbean islands, as well as to Cayenne and Surinam (respectively French and Dutch Guiana) on the South American mainland. Fierce rivals territorially and commercially, both the latter colonies banned the further export of coffee seed or seedlings, especially to their big Portuguese neighbor Brazil.
In 1727, however, Brazil was invited to arbitrate in a border dispute between the French and the Dutch, and sent Colonel Francisco Melo de Palheta. While in Cayenne, Palheta divided his attention between the boundary problem and the French governor's wife. Equally successful in both endeavors, he was presented at a farewell banquet with a bouquet of local flora in the bosom of which the governor's wife had hidden fertile coffee beans and seedlings.
Boron deficiency stunts coffee's start
Was that farewell bouquet the start of coffee in Brazil? Not quite; Brazilians tried planting coffee in the northern state of Pará but the crop failed. It was in Paranã, south of São Paulo, that coffee first brought out the genius of Brazilians. Part of the reason for the initial failure was probably boron deficiency in the soils of the Amazon basin.
The element boron is one of the seven micronutrients that are essential to all plant life, but it is required in larger doses by some plant species than by others. Coffee, brassicas, and grapes, for example, are all very susceptible to boron shortage, whereas most cereals are much less susceptible.
With boron supplementation to the soil, many parts of Brazil now grow excellent coffees, helping the country to maintain its position as the world's premier producer—a position it has maintained in the face of stiff competition for well over a century. This is largely thanks to the coffee culture skills and enterprise that Brazilians have developed in different regions and are now being transferred to new crops and new territories.
Over the years, strong demand and high prices have enabled growers to invest positively in the future through the optimal application of fertilizers and micronutrients, such as borates. Yet, the more important future benefits of the coffee experience may be seen as preparation for the agricultural development that is now helping to transform the Brazilian economy.
For example, Brazil has become one of the world's leading producers of cotton, and its apple production is growing year by year. Both these crops are strongly boron dependent. Boron is also applied widely in the orange plantations that make Brazil a world-class citrus producer.
Soybean expansion: Experience supports growth of boron dependent crops
Agricultural expansion and diversification is also illustrated by the expansion of soybean as a major crop in a very short space of time. Originally grown in the southern states of Paranã and Rio Grande do Sul, the soybean is now being cultivated over a wide area of Mato Grosso, Goias, and Pará. In only three years, soybean productivity across this huge area grew to match the rates achieved through high technology agriculture in the United States—although this part of the Amazon basin, known as cerrado
and long believed to be low in fertility, is boron deficient. Agricultural borates, therefore, are an essential partner to Brazil's soybean farmers.
Despite the country's giant size, no viable borate deposits have been found in Brazil. Its giant status in world agriculture, however, owes much to judicious application of agricultural borates.
Final historical note: Was the aviation age brewed up by Brazilian coffee?
While the American Wright brothers are justly honored for the first heavier-than-air powered flight (1903), Brazil's Alberto Santos Dumont made a spectacular contribution to man's mastery of the air. 'Le P'tit Santo' worked in Paris, but he funded all the aircraft he designed and built from the Brazilian coffee fortune he inherited from his father.
His achievements include the first flight in a given time from St. Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back (1901), the first airship station (1903), the establishment of a fleet of dirigibles which he flew around the streets of Paris between the houses, and prize-winning heavier-than-air flights in 1906 with espresso speeds above ten meters per second (about 25 mph). However, his outstanding achievement was the 'demoiselle' or 'grasshopper' of 1909, the first successful monoplane and true forerunner of modern light aircraft. Without coffee, man would still have mastered flight, but it may have taken a little longer.