New Brazil ag minister seen friendly to business, maybe not to Amazon

SAO PAULO, May 13 (Reuters) - Brazil’s new Agriculture Minister, agribusiness mogul Blairo Maggi, is expected to make policy in one of the world’s leading commodities exporters friendlier for business, though environmentalists may still see him as a threat to the Amazon.

Once known as Brazil’s “soy king”, Maggi entered Brazil’s billionaire club in his 40s, when he ran his father’s Andre Maggi Group, a grains trading, logistics and energy conglomerate.

He eventually gave up day-to-day control of the business to enter politics, serving his first of two terms as governor of the soy-rich state of Mato Grosso in 2002 and winning a Senate seat in 2011 for the same state.

He still holds a controlling stake in the company, once Brazil’s largest producer of soybeans. Members of his close and extended family are prominent in agribusiness in the region. His cousin Erai Maggi Scheffer displaced him as the so-called soy king with his rival agribusiness group Bom Futuro.

On Thursday, Maggi joined the new cabinet of interim President Michel Temer, who took power while suspended President Dilma Rousseff is being tried by the Senate for allegedly manipulating public accounts.

He replaces the outgoing Katia Abreu, who also got her start in soybeans but rose quickly through farming associations to become Brazil’s first woman agriculture minister in 2015.

Since entering the Senate, Maggi has focused on trying to streamline the bureaucracy he blames with sapping farm sector productivity.

He is also interested in modernizing agricultural practices in Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of soybeans, coffee, sugar, poultry, beef and orange juice.

Analysts say Maggi has enough gravitas to make sure Temer’s Cabinet gives the farm sector a fair shake even as the ministries of finance, foreign relations and the environment address Brazil’s severe economic crisis.

“He has political experience and will not be at a disadvantage when interacting with the other ministers,” said Luiz Carlos Correa, president of Brazil’s agribusiness association Abag, adding he thought Maggi would succeed at opening new commodities markets for Brazil.

Soon after Maggi became governor of Mato Grosso, the activist group Greenpeace gave him its Golden Chainsaw Award, saying he backed efforts to destroy forests on the lower rim of the Amazon to plant soy.

Maggi denied violating environmental laws. He has since worked to curb illegal logging and deforestation by the farm sector, which he sees as a steward of the environment. He created a program to monitor farms near the Amazon by satellite.

But Mato Grosso continues to rank among the states with the heaviest rates of deforestation.

One challenge Maggi will face is the pull-back in private credit lines from lenders looking to reduce exposure to commodities in the current market downturn, as well as the higher interest rates and tougher standards required to access government loans earmarked for the local farm sector. (Writing by Reese Ewing; Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Gregorio)