Brazil's president names farmers' champion Abreu as agriculture minister

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (R) and Senator Katia Abreu are seen during the inauguration ceremony of the new board of the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA) in Brasilia on December 15, 2014.

SAO PAULO - Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff named Senator Katia Abreu, a high-profile politician who has vocally defended farmers from claims they cut down the rainforest, as the country's new agriculture minister on Tuesday.

Abreu has presided over the powerful Brasilia-based National Confederation of Agriculture and is expected to play a more visible role than other recent agriculture chiefs in the world's top exporter of soy, beef, coffee and sugar.

Considered the face of agriculture by many Brazilians, she faces opposition from environmentalists, indians and others in favour of limiting the expansion of farmland.

Abreu became a farmer herself at age 25 in Tocantins state in central Brazil. Pregnant and already with two small children, she took over the Aliança Ranch in 1987 after her husband died in a plane crash. Now 52, Abreu worked her way up the local political ladder and was elected senator in 2006.

She advocated for reforming a set of laws dictating the minimum amount of woodland to be left intact on farms, arguing that the old "forest code" held back investment in a sector that accounts for a quarter of Brazil's economy.

After changing the law in 2012, Brazil confirmed a 29 per cent spike in deforestation in 2013, the first since 2005. Activists accuse Rousseff's government of failing to punish illegal tree felling by loggers, ranchers and other developers.

Abreu also supported a measure in 2009 to normalize land ownership rights in the Amazon that environmentalists said would lead to more clearing of trees. Greenpeace dubbed her "miss deforestation" that year.

Abreu once opposed Rousseff's Workers' Party and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who she criticised for awarding too many jobs to party members. She later grew close to Rousseff, Brazil's first female president. Abreu will be the country's first female agriculture minister.

The president's relationship with Abreu has drawn criticism from traditional party allies such as the landless peasants movement (MST) who say too much of Brazil's farmland remains in the hands of a powerful minority and have held protests against her in recent weeks.

But Abreu, a frequent newspaper op-ed contributor, is known for defending small family farmers as well as large-scale soy plantations that have carpeted Brazil's interior over the past two decades.

She reported crying after seeing testimony from subsistence farmers who police evicted from an indigenous reservation in Mato Grosso in 2012 and supports changing Brazil's constitution to limit the amount of land set aside for native tribes.