A decade ago, the expansion of soybeans posed an enormous risk to the Amazon rainforest. Today, this commitment proves zero deforestation is possible.
When civil society, private enterprise and governments come together to develop environmental solutions, the results can be remarkable. Practical proof of this is the Soy Moratorium, which was adopted ten years ago this week in Brazil.
This industry agreement is the result of one of Greenpeace's most successful campaigns in Brazil and marked a turning point in the protection of the Amazon – showing that an end to deforestation is not only possible, but also extremely beneficial to the market.
Before 2006, soy was replacing Amazon rainforest at an astonishing speed.
Ten years ago, the rapid expansion of the soybean crop in the Amazon posed a serious threat to the world’s largest tropical forest and its inhabitants.
Although this grain has been cultivated in Asia for over 2000 years, commercial scale harvesting of soybeans began only in the West – first in the United States – at the turn of the twentieth century. Soybeans were first commercially grown in Brazil in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in 1914. Well adapted to the acid soils of the Cerrado, soybeans expanded in the 1980s and invaded the Amazon through the state of Mato Grosso at the start of the 1990s. Soy continued to push the agricultural frontier toward the heart of the Amazon forest while leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
Between 70 percent and 90 percent of world soybean production is used to feed animals. The growing global demand for soybeans – which has led to enormous growth in Brazilian agriculture – had become the nemesis of the forest, its peoples and global climate stability.
At the turn of the millennium, the construction of a soybean terminal by the multinational Cargill in Santarém – where the Tapajós and Amazonas Rivers meet – resulted in a run on land in the region. Farmers from the south and Mato Grosso purchased cheap land from small farmers. Entire communities were displaced as a result of the land-buying "fever" and, in some cases, corruption and violence were used to remove those who did not want to sell their land. These carpetbaggers brought with them more deforestation.
In 2004 and 2005, the situation in the Brazilian Amazon was cause for great concern, with the second highest rate of annual deforestation on record. Although the greatest enemy of the forest is cattle ranching (which today occupies 65 percent of the deforested areas), soybeans – grown for export and much more profitable than beef – leapt to the forefront of destruction. This crop needed to be contained before it was too late. To do so, it was important to identify who was responsible, who benefitted and who had the power to stop the destruction of the forest.
Taking action to stop deforestation from soy
In April 2006, Greenpeace released Eating up the Amazon, a report detailing the extent to which the soybean supply chain from the Amazon was contaminated by deforestation. Greenpeace also exposed consumer companies like McDonald's; the chicken that McDonald's and many fast food companies served was fed soybeans grown to the detriment of the Amazon rainforest.
Greenpeace’s proposal to address this problem was as simple as drawing a line in the sand: a moratorium on the purchase of soy that came from deforested areas, was associated with slave labour or encroached on Indigenous Lands – as of the date the moratorium was signed. This commitment would cut off market access for soy farmers who were linked to forest destruction or other abuses.
As McDonald's – the largest buyer of soybeans from Cargill in Brazil at the time – became the focus of protests by activists around the world, the campaign gathered strength. After analyzing the evidence and demands presented by Greenpeace, McDonald’s preferred to move out of the line of fire and become part of the solution.
Led by McDonald’s, other large European companies that imported soybeans from Brazil established the European Soy Consumers Group and began to pressure their suppliers in Brazil. They did not want to purchase soybeans tainted by deforestation, encroachment on Indigenous Lands or slave labour.
A few months later, on 24 July, 2006, the Soy Moratorium was signed by members of ABIOVE (Brazilian Vegetable Oil Industry Association) and ANEC (National Association of Cereal Exporters), which control 92 percent of soybean production in Brazil. Around the same time, civil society organisations joined the initiative and formed the Soy Working Group (SWG). The moratorium, a voluntary agreement designed to ensure that traders do not buy soy grown in the Amazon on land deforested after 2006 was initially proposed to last two years. (NOTE: In 2013 the cutoff date was changed to 2008 in line with the new Brazilian Forest Code.)
The commitment was renewed in 2008 with the participation of the Brazilian government, and since then has been renewed annually. In May of this year, the agreement was renewed indefinitely or “until it is no longer necessary,” according to the terms of the renewal.
A game changer for the Amazon
What was originally seen as an affront to the industry has been converted into a major commercial triumph. In the end, producing deforestation-free soybeans opened the doors to more markets for the Brazilian product. From the Soy Moratorium’s inception in 2006 until today, deforestation has fallen 86 percent in the 76 municipalities covered by the moratorium, and these municipalities produce 98 percent of the soybeans in the Amazon biome.
In 2004, up to 30 percent of the soybeans planted in the Amazon came from recent deforestation. Today, this figure is no higher than 1.25 percent.
A study published in 2015 in the journal Science by Dr. Holly Gibbs, from the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin shows that the Soy Moratorium was five times more effective in reducing deforestation than the Brazilian Forest Code. The success of the Moratorium is a business case that captured the attention of the world.
Ending deforestation is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, signed by many countries, including Brazil and also the will of over 1.4 million Brazilians who signed the Zero Deforestation Bill – submitted to Brazil’s Congress last year. The Soy Moratorium is one of the best examples of how zero deforestation can be put into practice and proof that ending the destruction of the Amazon is beneficial for everyone, including industry.
Brazil does not need more deforestation. On the contrary, for the security of producers and the public, the country needs to protect its forests and rivers for the long road ahead. Initiatives like the Soy Moratorium need to be replicated for other crops and regions. We need to learn from our successes.
Paulo Adario is Senior Forests Strategy Advisor at Greenpeace International and a coordinator of the Soy Working Group.
A version of this blog was originally posted by Greenpeace Brazil (Portuguese).