Amazon farmers grow grain and save the forest

McDonald's, Cargill, and The Nature Conservancy create a 'responsible' soy program.

You might call it the greening of Chicken McNuggets.

At first glance, there seems little common ground between fast-food giant McDonald's, US commodities multinational Cargill, and The Nature Conservancy, an environmental group.

But here in the Brazilian Amazon, all three are working together to help soy farmers produce grains without cutting down the forest.

In fact, under the Responsible Soy Project, farmers in two municipalities in the northern Amazon can only sell soy to Cargill if they promise to plant trees on denuded land. McDonald's, which buys chicken fed with Brazilian soy, set that condition after pressure from environmental groups and consumers. The Nature Conservancy, with $390,000 from Cargill, assists all sides and oversees compliance.

It is, conservationists say, a potential model for sustainable development not just in the Amazon but all over Brazil, home to the world's largest rain forest.

"This is an important step in the sense that it is initiating actions to stop the deforestation of new areas," said Valmir Ortega, a senior environmental official with the Para state government. "This is being done only in a small region as of yet but it has stopped the expansion of soy [farms] in that region. We are seeing similar pressures to open other areas for other products like ethanol and palm oil and so this experience can be very illustrative."

The Responsible Soy Project is based around compliance of Brazil's Forest Code. The code dictates that Amazonian landowners must keep natural vegetation on 80 percent of their territory and farm only 20 percent.

But, like many laws in Brazil, it is largely ignored. Around 17 percent of the Amazon has disappeared, withmuch of the recent deforestation coming to make way for massive soy plantations on the southern edges of the jungle. Brazil is now the world's largest exporter of soybeans.

This project attempts to help farmers in the northern Amazon meet those legal requirements. It began three years ago after Greenpeace launched a Europe-wide campaign targeting McDonald's and Cargill as advocates of deforestation.

A two-year Greenpeace study said Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and the Bunge Corporation were actively encouraging farmers to deforest the Amazon and plant soy, which is a vital component in animal feed and one of Brazil's most lucrative exports.

"By providing everything from seeds and fertilizers to the transport and storage infrastructure needed to access global markets, these companies act as magnets drawing farmers into the Amazon," the report, "Eating Up the Amazon," stated. "They are not simply the drivers of soy agriculture, however, but key links in the chain of illegal construction, land theft, and forced labor that make Amazon soy so cheap for European consumers and so costly for everyone else."

Cargill was the worst offender of the three, the report stated, and so Greenpeace targeted them and McDonald's, who buy soy from Cargill to fatten chickens that became McNuggets.

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.

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."

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