Amazon farmers grow grain and save the forest
McDonald's, Cargill, and The Nature Conservancy create a 'responsible' soy program.
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McDonald's reacted almost immediately, telling Cargill that continued cooperation would depend on stricter environmental foresight. Cargill agreed to discuss the issue and the two parties called on the Nature Conservancy to help them decide what to do.Skip to next paragraph
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The resulting pilot program, funded by Cargill, takes place in the municipalities of Santarem and Belterra. Santarem borders the southern bank of the Amazon River, and its neighbor, Belterra, is a beautiful but denuded area of land made famous as the place where Henry Ford built a company town and vast rubber plantations in the 1930s.
The municipalities are far from the huge plantations that produce the overwhelming majority of Brazil's soy exports. But their links to Cargill – between 80 and 90 percent of producers in the area bring their soy to the port built and run by the company in Santarem – made it the ideal place to sow the first seeds of change. Cargill agreed to only buy soy from farmers who are complying with the 80/20 law or have agreed to take steps to come into compliance.
The new dictum angers many farmers. It forces them to undertake a laborious and costly reforesting exercise or Cargill will no longer do business with them.
"If Cargill stops buying my soy, then what can I do?" asks small landowner Omar Friss. "But they are also giving us a way to help us out. If we have to reforest then we will, little by little."
The Nature Conservancy helped the more than 200 participating farmers plot their land, using satellite photographs, and then drew up charts showing how much each farmer needed to reforest to meet the 80/20 code.
But the vast majority of the farmers work less than 200 hectares and setting aside 80 percent of it means they would not have enough land left to produce a profitable crop.
One idea being discussed by Nature Conservancy and Brazilian state authorities is having the farmers pool their money, and buy a large chunk of forested land elsewhere in the state and designate it protected. That solution would bring them into compliance with the 80/20 law.
"That land could be used as an agricultural frontier, or to create biodiversity corridors or as fire breaks," says Ana Cristina Barros, The Nature Conservancy's country representative in the capital, Brasilia. "The compensatory forest could even be given over as reserves to indigenous communities."
However they work out the details, the idea is solid enough that other businesses in Brazil are expressing an interest in adopting similar sustainability measures. The Nature Conservancy has already had talks with other soy producers and now ethanol firms here are asking for their advice.
That desire to do things the right way encourages David Cleary, the Rio de Janeiro-based director of conservancy programs for South America at Nature Conservancy. He confirms they are making progress towards the grander scheme of the program – bringing farms and other businesses into line with Brazil's Forest Code.
"We've always said to businesses, 'You wouldn't ignore environmental laws in Iowa, so why do you ignore them here?'" Mr. Cleary says. "If Cargill accepts this in Santarem, then they become vulnerable and we can ask the question, 'Why only in Santarem?' It sets a precedent."