Putting soy impacts on the map

Feature story - January 21, 2009
View map as PDFMonitoring the effects of deforestation on the Amazon is a difficult undertaking. The Amazon is so large that it's extremely difficult to keep tabs on what's happening in the remote fringes of the rainforest. News of illegal logging and the spread of soy plantations can take a long time to reach the authorities — assuming it ever reaches them at all. That's why our team in Brazil has been working with local communities to map the impacts of the soy industry in the Santarém region of the forest, the heart of soy production in the Amazon.

Community mapping

This is a collaborative project with the Brazilian organizations Projeto Saude e Alegria (Health and Happiness Project) and the Rural Workers Unions of Santarém and Belterra. The community mapping project focuses on training people to use GPS technology to pinpoint the damage caused by intensive agriculture practices and empowering the local community to defend its land and the rainforest. Even though there's presently a moratorium on forest being cleared for new soy plantations, current farming in these areas is still damaging the environment and the communities who live in the region.

Research collected for the map between May 2007 and June 2008 shows damage has spread along the highways carved through the forest. Soy farming has affected rivers as well: herbicides used on the crops have leeched into the water. Some rivers have even been dammed by farmers, affecting water supplies for those downstream. Others have silted up when wetland forest cover has been removed.

Greenpeace image

A huge area - 4,060 acres - in Gleba do Pacoval, more than 60 miles from Santarem, Amazon, that has been illegally logged to clear land for soy plantations. © Greenpeace/Daniel Beltra.

Local groups take control

As their environment deteriorates, the future of local communities is at stake. Traditional routes through the forest are blocked by expansive soy plantations and people have been forced to sell their land as a result of pollution from agrochemicals.

The information collected for the maps even documents cases where entire communities have disappeared due to the destruction that has made their former way of life impossible.

The communities that continue to exist in spite of the destruction are also on the community map. Many rural communities that have managed to somehow adapt to the destruction are included in this project - for some, this is the first time they have ever been formally identified on a map.

Documentation of the land in this region is an important step in the fight to save the Amazon. By helping local communities document what's happening to the forest and rivers around them, control is finally back in their hands. Ever since US company Cargill announced its plans to build a controversial soy processing and port facility in Santarém, these communities have fought to show the detrimental effect a growing soy industry has on the region. The Cargill facility was built without the environmental impact assessment required by the government. Cargill finally submitted the assessment to the authorities at the end of last year and we are currently awaiting the announcement of the public hearing where further discussions will take place on this issue.

And finally, this mapping project could also provide a model for how the money from global funding mechanisms needed to stop dangerous climate change could be spent. Ensuring that local people are the guardians of their forests will be essential if we are to save the climate and protect forests in the Amazon and around the world in the long term.