soya cultivation in the Atlantic rainforest

In December 2019, we spoke with environmentalist Tony Juniper on the Earth911 podcast about his recent book, which explores the crucial and wide-reaching environmental importance of rainforests and the efforts to preserve them. The following excerpt from this book relates the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest for soya cultivation — and the efforts that not only reduced deforestation, but enabled the country to .

The following is an excerpt from Rainforest: Dispatches from Earth’s Most Vital Frontlines by Tony Juniper, pages 164-169. Copyright © Tony Juniper 2019. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Eating the Forests: The Soya Rush

While during the 1980s and 1990s most campaigning effort for the South American rainforest concerned logging and cattle ranching, it became clear by the 2000s that it was expanding demand for a range of other commodities that had become an ever more potent and important threat. During that decade the rate of forest clearance was rising steeply to make way for oil palms, beef cattle pastures, pulpwood plantations and, in particular, fields of soya beans. When it came to soya, the main frontier of deforestation was in the vast basin of the Amazon. During 2004 alone, some 12,000 square kilometers of land within the Brazilian Amazon was planted with the crop.

The rapid expansion of soya was enabled by new infrastructure. In 2003 the global commodities giant Cargill opened a $20 million facility at the port of Santarém on the confluence of the Tapajós and Amazon rivers. Then, in 2004, Brazil’s Federal Government announced plans to pave the entire 1,700-kilometer route of the BR163 highway, allowing year-round access from Cargill’s soya port into the heart of the western Amazon in Mato Grosso. The road soon became known as the soya highway.

Expanding soya cultivation was a major reason why 2004 saw the second highest level of deforestation ever recorded across the Amazon basin rainforests. Brazilian soya was (and remains) destined mainly for animal feed, driven by fast-rising global demand for meat and dairy foods, notably in China. As soya prices went up, land rose in value, and soya cultivation was moved into new areas across the southern and eastern fringes of the Brazilian Amazon states of Para, Mato Grosso and Rondônia. It caused, in effect, a ‘Soya Rush’ to take hold.

mass soybean harvesting, Mato Grosso, Brazil
Mass soya bean harvesting at a farm in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil, March 02, 2008. Image: Adobe Stock

As the scale of the mounting threat to the forests became apparent, so campaigners—and Greenpeace in particular— began to take an interest, with activists seeking to block soya from being shipped out at the new Santarém soya port facilities. John Sauven, who became Director of Greenpeace UK in 2008, was one of the architects of their rainforest campaign. ‘Cargill acted as a kind of magnet for encouraging farmers to come in and grow soya,’ he told me. ‘They had the port and facilities for receiving soya beans and exporting them. They also put a lot of capital into farmers. They paid them for the seed and equipment and everything else. Then they bought the product.’

Cargill and the other big trading houses—ADM, Bunge and Dreyfus—were the hub from which the soya flowed from the fields to the global market and were the obvious target for action. These vast, but relatively anonymous, commodity companies would not easily be swayed by Greenpeace, however. Neither would the soya growers who were actually cutting the forests.

‘There was absolutely no way we could touch the farmers directly,’ Sauven explained. ‘If we ever tried to do anything or blockade anything or go onto any land connected to them, they’d just shoot us. But the funnel that soya had to go through to get onto the open market was bizarrely small. There were five companies and they were taking most of the soya to global markets. But those too were pretty much untouchable, as most were privately owned.’

With no shareholders to influence and no real high street or brand presence to target, Greenpeace looked for other pressure points. The campaigners went in search of links to big consumer-facing brands who would be aware that if they wished to do good business in Western markets they’d have to do it without deforestation as a consequence. So Greenpeace set out to discover to whom Cargill was selling the soya. They identified shipments from deforested areas going to Santarém and from there monitored ships leaving the port, especially for shipments heading toward the UK. When the ships arrived at British ports, researchers watched soya shipments being unloaded and waited by roadsides for the trucks to pass by. ‘It was quite laborious,’ recalled Sauven. ‘Waiting at a lay-by for lorries to leave the plant and follow them up to some place in the middle of nowhere in Scotland, or the northeast. We kept on following them.’

They found that the soya was being sent to a central plant, crushed into animal feed and then trucked to hundreds of mostly small farms. ‘Eventually,’ Sauven said, ‘we followed one of these lorries and it went into a massive, Cargill-owned chicken processing factory in Herefordshire. Now that was a lucky break because now we had a big chicken producer owned by Cargill.’ One of the Greenpeace team pretended to be a teacher and got an appointment to see if it would be possible to bring his pupils in from the local school. The chicken farmers showed him round, and everywhere he went he saw posters with McDonald’s logos. The farmers proudly explained that they supplied the fast-food chain with its chicken nuggets.

That was it. Greenpeace had established a full set of links: from deforestation in the Amazon, to soya arriving at Cargill’s processing plant in Santarém, from there to Liverpool, where the soya was crushed, then to the chicken factory in Herefordshire producing nuggets for McDonald’s. The next task was to make public the connections between forest loss and McDonald’s, and in so doing to encourage that major company to insist that deforestation was eliminated from any soya used in its products.

cultivated soya ready for harvest
Soya ready for harvest. Image by Jan den Ouden from Pixabay

Greenpeace released a report called Eating up the Amazon, and volunteers dressed up as seven-foot-tall chickens and picketed McDonald’s restaurants. ‘It caused a huge storm,’ said Sauven. ‘There was massive amounts of press coverage about how McDonald’s was destroying the Amazon. They withstood the heat for about twenty-four hours before saying how it was outrageous that Cargill had never told them. They said they were shocked and wanted nothing to do with destruction of the rainforests.’ After that McDonald’s basically joined the Greenpeace campaign. The world’s largest burger franchise insisted that if it was to continue doing business with Cargill, then deforestation must end immediately. The campaign group and biggest fast-food brand comprised an unlikely alliance, but action followed.

In July 2006 a moratorium on deforestation was announced, whereby none of the big traders would buy soya from any farmer involved in deforestation. Two of Brazil’s farm industry associations, who between them controlled 92 percent of the country’s soya production, signed up to an agreement not to supply soya produced on land deforested after that point. A working group comprised of the trading companies, campaign groups, global brands, the Brazilian government and the Banco do Brasil (the main source of credit for soya farmers in the Amazon) was formed to oversee the accord.

Aerial surveillance and satellite technology was used to monitor the 76 municipalities where nearly all Brazilian Amazon soya was produced. Any farmer found to be in contravention of the forest clearance moratorium was to have contracts with traders like Cargill canceled. First time offenders were allowed to let the forest grow back, but repeat offenders were not only barred from trading but also from securing loans from the Banco do Brasil. The moratorium was initially adopted for two years, but was repeatedly reinstated and remained in place a decade later.

One interesting aspect of this change in attitude towards the Amazon is that in the years that followed the adoption of the moratorium Brazil still managed to increase soya exports. It did so by using new agricultural technologies, better practices to conserve soils and former pastures were cleared long before the moratorium came into effect.

End note: The extent to which large-scale commercial farming is a factor driving deforestation in different regions is explored in G. Kissinger et al.’s 2012 paper, ‘Drivers of Deforestation and Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers.’

About the Author

Tony Juniper is a writer, sustainability adviser, and long-serving environmentalist. He has published several successful and award-winning books, including the bestseller What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? and Saving Planet Earth. He has worked on efforts to conserve tropical forests for more than 30 years, including with BirdLife International, Friends of the Earth, and as an Advisor to The Prince’s Rainforests Project. He is currently the chair of Natural England, the country’s official government conservation agency.

Feature image: soybean fields in the Atlantic rainforest, Adobe Stock

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