The Amazon: It’s What’s for Dinner

The Spread of Soy Plantations Poses a New Threat to the Rainforest


aboveground graves in a cemetary; an empty field behindPaulo Santos/ReutersDeforestation rates in the Amazon more than tripled from 2007
to 2008. Close to two million acres of rainforest were razed.

Edilberto Sena is a priest in the liberation theology mold. After running a community development project deep in the Amazon for six years, he now manages Radio Rural, a Catholic radio station in the Amazonian city of Santarém. He uses the post to advocate for the rainforest and its people – a task that is more difficult than ever.

“Oh, man, you should come here to see with your eyes what is happening here,” he wrote me in an e-mail. “I become angry anytime I start thinking about this. You know, the government, the judges, the politicians, the First World – nobody comes here to help us to stop the destruction of the Amazon. … The only help is this financial crisis in the world, because this way the commodities markets will cool down.”

It’s the seemingly innocuous soybean that has Padre Sena so upset. During the last decade, industrial soy farming has joined cattle ranching as a primary cause of deforestation in the rainforest. As room for agriculture runs out in the woodland savannah that borders the Amazon to the south – an extraordinarily rich ecosystem in its own right – soy producers have begun to buy up land in the rainforest. Far from stopping them, the government has waved them in.

Brazil began growing soy on a large scale in the 1970s, during the long rule of a leftist military dictatorship. Soy functioned mostly as an export crop, but the regime tried to encourage Brazilians to integrate it into their diets. When the spread of soybeans resulted in a shortage of black beans, a traditional staple, the government distributed a soy-based version of a popular recipe. Even then, it was clear that large-scale soy production had environmental and social costs: Almost three million small farmers from the states of Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul were displaced. Many made their way north to the Amazon, where they cleared jungle to settle. Government infrastructure projects undertaken at the time spurred dizzying rates of deforestation.

In 1975, as a result of the Brazilian government’s efforts to popularize soy, state researchers developed a crop variety that fared well in the heat and humidity of the tropics. Then, in the late 1990s, genetically modified soy, designed to withstand the powerful weed killer Roundup, was illegally introduced in Argentina. The Roundup Ready soy quickly appeared in Brazil and stimulated still more cultivation of the crop.

Also in the late 1990s, the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture publicized results of a study that showed that soy grew well in the Amazonian state of Pará. The state tried to dodge the environmental implications of the report by directing growers away from virgin forest – thereby easing environmental pressures there – to “non-pristine areas,” ratcheting up the pressure on small family farms in those locations.

The boom was on. Brazil’s soy production has nearly doubled since 1998, and the Amazon is now home to at least 14 million of the country’s 284 million acres of plantations. Summer deforestation rates more than tripled from 2007 to 2008, and in the 12-month period ending in August, close to two million acres of rainforest were razed. The destruction amounted to 2.7 percent of the sprawling rainforest’s total acreage – well over the two percent the UN considers a dangerous annual deforestation rate.

Brazil’s left-leaning president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has justified his largely pro-development stance on the Amazon with populist claims that the rainforest belongs to Brazilians. But the soy plantations there clearly don’t. Brazilians consume just a small fraction of the soy grown in their country. Most of it travels to Europe and China, where it is fed to livestock to support the world’s growing demand for meat.

The major players in Brazil’s soy boom are agribusiness conglomerates Cargill, ADM, Bunge, and the French-owned Louis Dreyfus. The traders provide seeds and fertilizer in exchange for a low price on the resulting crop. Only one Brazilian company – Grupo Andre Maggi, which owns more than 400,000 acres – has a real share of the soy pie.

When asked whether the soy boom benefited the country’s economy, Sergio Schlessinger of Brazil’s Federation of Agencies for Social and Educational Assistance (known by its Portuguese acronym, FASE) replies: “In my opinion, no. The benefit is international.”

A widely cited statistic says that 11 small farmers are displaced by soy plantations for every one that finds a job in the highly mechanized industry. In Brazil Is Naked: The Advance of Monoculture Soy, the Grain That Grew Too Much, a book Schlessinger authored with Silvia Noronha, he writes, “The idea that soy generates jobs in Brazil is absolutely false.…Although it represents 44 percent of the area planted with grains in the country, soy generates just 5.5 percent of farm-sector jobs.”

Stephen Vosti, a UC Davis economist who supports limited development in the Amazon, believes that selling their land to industrial plantations can help peasants economically. “But,” he acknowledges, “the real question is where they go afterward. They could go further into the forest or to urban areas, and either way you have the potential for increased poverty.”

The orgy of deforestation brought about by Brazil’s soy boom has garnered international attention, but its effects on the rural communities of the Amazon have been largely overlooked. While providing food to the rest of the world, the giant soy fields leave more Brazilians at risk of hunger. The soy boom is also foreclosing one of the best options for forest conservation. In displacing small farmers, the soy plantations are removing those people who are perhaps best suited to protect the forests.

Santarém sits at the junction where the Tapajós River folds its blue waters into the muddy, powerful Amazon. A Cargill soy port – operating in defiance of a Brazilian high court ruling – dominates a beach once used by local fisherman. Surrounded by dense forest, including several reserves, Santarém is at the heart of Pará’s growth spurt in soy.

Outside Santarém, huge growers, backed by government loans unavailable to smallholders, are buying out small farmers’ plots. Thugs sometimes help seal the deal; other times, aerially sprayed pesticides do. Even when sales are legal, the end result is the same: Seas of soy displace the fruit, bean, manioc, and rice crops of small farmers, many of whom came to Pará through government settlement projects.

Between 1998 and 2004, the Pastoral Land Commission recorded 641 land disputes in Pará alone. The steady stream of refugees from these conflicts slips into Santarém’s urban life in a human version of the process Brazilians call “the meeting of the waters” that takes place at the city’s edge.

Eric Stoner, the general coordinator of environment programs for USAID Brazil, first arrived in Brazil 35 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. He describes the industrialization of agriculture in states like Pará and Mato Grosso as a radical transformation.

“It’s like capitalism on steroids here,” he says. “People who couldn’t make it moved on. They have jobs in cities or small towns, and they have to buy their food, which is a change.”

Stoner insists there’s enough economic activity in Santarém and cities like it “to absorb” small farmers who sell their land to soy plantations. But he acknowledges the absurdity of moving the rural poor around the country like so many checkers.

“Big landowners buy land, and the government resettles the people,” usually elsewhere in the Amazon. “That goes on again and again,” Stoner sighs. “The government knows it’s not going to establish a productive future for these people. And the dynamics of it destroy the forest.”

Sena, Santarém’s radical priest, also paints a bleak picture. “The farmers have three choices after they sell their land,” he wrote. They can go deeper into the forest and clear land, try to buy poor agricultural land along one of the Amazon’s controversial roads, or “take the money and go to the outskirts of Santarém. Here they buy a poor house, build a small room in the front and sell bananas that they buy from others, or they go to the streets to sell ice cream or popcorn.”

Leila Salazar-Lopez, who directs Rainforest Action Network’s campaign to pressure US-owned agribusinesses to stop clearing rainforests to grow commodity crops, notes that the Cargill plant created only a few dozen jobs at the cost of doubling deforestation rates in the region. She says, “There’s raw sewage on the streets near the main plaza. I’d say there’s a long way to go to really develop Santarém.”

In a 2003 interview praising the newly elected Lula’s attempts to address hunger, Andrew MacMillan, the director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s field operations, couldn’t help remarking on the irony that “the very success of agriculture has been disastrous for poor rural people.” MacMillan elaborated: “In most developing countries, small farmers have either had to remain on the land, often with a diminishing size of plot as families have grown, or to migrate to the cities with no job in sight. Most chronically food insecure people are, therefore, small farmers or recent urban migrants who have fled rural destitution.”

Though few Brazilians are starving, roughly 10 percent don’t get enough to eat every day. The problem is worst in Lula’s native Northeast, where the land and weather make farming nearly impossible, and in the cities. Those who farm in fertile areas or fish in one of the Amazon’s many rivers aren’t rich by any measure, but they get enough to eat.

The people who live in the cities located in the rainforest are not as lucky. FASE’s Schlessinger told me, “Hunger is worse in the Amazon, because food has so much further to travel to get to the small cities.”

Lula’s Zero Hunger initiative provides direct payments to those in need. But even with the monthly payments, Brazil’s undernourished are among the 75 million people around the world teetering on the brink of hunger as a result of the recent spike in food prices. The same price spikes, in turn, fuel the expansion of soybeans in the rainforest, which displaces even more people.

And fuel is the right word: The eager embrace of biofuels in the US and Europe has dramatically increased the price of vegetable oils. As food prices spiraled out of control in early 2008, the UN released a report concluding that 30 to 65 percent of the price increases were due to demand for crop-based fuels.

Blairo Maggi, the owner of Grupo Andre Maggi and the governor of Mato Grosso, told a São Paolo newspaper, “With the worsening of the global food crisis, the time is coming when it will be inevitable to discuss whether we preserve the environment or produce more food. There is no way to produce more food without occupying more land and taking down more trees.”

”Tropical forests are the world’s biggest diversity machines. The forest doesn’t want to have one crop – people know that by now.”
—Eric Stoner, USAID

There isn’t much good news when it comes to the Amazon. But there are two strategies that could improve the forest’s chances for survival. The first is to increase pressure on the Brazilian government to enforce its own forestry laws. As concern about the soy boom spreads, the government has faced more international pressure to uphold the requirement that large landowners leave 80 percent of their lands intact.

“A lot of environmental groups have kind of a spotlight” on landowners and agribusinesses, says Stoner of USAID. “They’re having to be careful not to clear additional land unless they’ve got permission to do it.”

Another limit on soy’s growth spurt is a Greenpeace-brokered moratorium, now in its third year, on agribusinesses buying soy grown on newly cleared land. The agreement has won significant buy-in from NGOs, agribusinesses, and the Brazilian government.

Still, some environmentalists are quick to point out that the current set-aside laws don’t go far enough. “When we’re talking about a global ecological crisis,” says Salazar-Lopez, “we don’t think there should even be 20 percent allowed for deforestation.”

The second, and perhaps best, strategy is to promote an entirely new model of development. The Amazon crisis has intensified long-simmering doubts among aid groups about the value of commodity-based agriculture. At the same time, climate change has nurtured a keener awareness of agribusiness’s contributions to deforestation, which account for at least a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Oxfam now prominently features the soy price problem on its Web site. Its recommendations echo those of groups working with rural farmers in Brazil, whose support for small-scale farming would once have been considered naïve and unrealistic. Calls to increase support for family farmers with credit, seeds, and education have entered mainstream development debates. Even USAID is supporting various traditional farming efforts around the Amazon.

Yet supporting small farmers who grow diverse crops has not been undertaken in a systematic way. Stoner says, “Tropical forests are the world’s biggest diversity machines. The forest doesn’t want to have one crop – people know that by now.”

Small farmers need the forest to remain healthy for their crops to thrive: Unlike industrial soy growers, they can’t just add fertilizer and pesticide. Agribusinesses like Blairo Maggi’s like to say that small farmers can’t compete bushel for bushel, but small farmers’ beans, rice, manioc, and bananas go directly toward feeding human beings, whereas soy’s nutritional value is whittled away as it is processed for cows processed into meat. Include the fossil-fuel energy required to transport food from Brazil to China, and soy’s advantage all but disappears.

To a Westerner’s eye, the life of a small farmer eking out a living in the Amazon may look like both a meager existence and a threat to the rainforest. But the real appeal of diversified small-scale farming in the Amazon is that it isn’t just what the forest wants; it’s also the solution rural poor communities envision for themselves. They don’t want modern urban jobs: They just want to work their land and earn a fair price for what they grow.

Cameron Scott, a former staffer at Rainforest Action Network, writes the San Francisco Chronicle’s new environmental blog, The Thin Green Line.

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