Friday, May 8, 2009

Rainforest soy moratorium shows success in the Brazilian Amazon

April 15, 2009

An industry-led moratorium on soy plantings on recently deforested rainforest land continues to show success in the Brazilian Amazon, reports a study released Tuesday by environmental groups and Abiove, the soy industry group that formed the initiative and represents about 90 percent of Brazil's soy crush.

The satellite-based study showed that only 12 of 630 sample areas (1,389 of 157,896 hectares) deforested since July 2006 — the date the moratorium took effect — were planted with soy. Clearing for cattle pasture remains a much bigger driver of deforestation — accounting for over 80 percent of forest conversion in the legal Amazon.

soybean expansion in the legal amazon of brazil, 1990-2005
Soy expansion in the Legal Amazon (Amazônia). Enlarge image.
While the sample was small — covering 157,896 hectares in a region where individual soy farms can extend over thousands of hectares — it provided a hopeful sign that soy producers are abiding by the moratorium, which was established as a response to environmentalists who said that soy was driving Amazon rainforest destruction. Producers feared they would lose access to international markets.

Better capitalized and dependent on exports, soy producers in the Brazilian Amazon proved an easier target for environmentalists than cattle ranchers. Cattle ranching is as much a vehicle for land speculation as it is for beef production across much of the Amazon — cleared land can be worth more than four times standing forest. Nevertheless responsible cattle ranchers have turned to the soy ban as a means to legitimize their own industry. Aliança da Terra, an NGO formed by Texas rancher John Cain Carter, is now working with hundreds of properties to promote environmental stewardship in return for access to lucrative overseas markets.

Soy in the Amazon

soybean field and transition forest in the brazilian amazon
Soy fields and transition forest in Mato Grosso, Brazil
Soy production in the Amazon exploded in the early 1990s following the development of a new variety of soybean suitable to the soils and climate of the region. Most expansion occurred in the cerrado, a wooded grassland ecosystem, and the transition forests in the southern fringes in the Amazon basin, especially in states of Mato Grosso and Pará — direct conversion of rainforests for soy has been relatively limited. Instead, the impact of soy on rainforests is general seen by environmentalists to be indirect. Soy expansion has driven up land prices, created impetus for infrastructure improvements that promote forest clearing, and displaced cattle ranchers to frontier areas, spurring deforestation.

The Brazilian soy industry argues that it receives an unfair share of the blame for Amazon forest loss. It notes that producers in the legal Amazon face some of the most stringent environmental laws in the world, with landowners required to maintain 80 percent forest cover on their holdings. By comparison there are no legal forest reserve requirements for U.S. farmers. 

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