Miles of slashed, burned and bulldozed trees cover scorched earth: a mass arboreal grave in front of the ever-shrinking Amazon forest. Smoke thickens the air. June through October is the burning season in Brazil. Emitting two hundred million tons of carbon dioxide each year, the burning of the Amazon rainforest is a major source of greenhouse gases contributing to global warming.
Slash and burn farming destroys rainforests. Source: NASA - EarthObservatory
While logging and cattle ranches have historically been the major cause
of deforestation, increasing appetites and altered diets have created a
new force for destruction of the rainforest as Brazilian farmers tap
into the world’s rising demand for soy.
Global Appetite for Soybeans Fuels Rainforest Destruction
The path of deforestation cuts through the South and Western regions of the Amazon, chopping down trees in Para, Tocantins, Maranhao, Rondonia and Mato Grosso states. Mato Grosso, the top soy- producing state in Brazil, translates ironically to “Thick Jungle.” According to NASA researchers over 20 percent of the forests of Mato Grosso were converted to cropland in 2003 alone. (1) Today only half of Mato Grosso’s forest remains – perhaps it is time to rename the state to Soya Grosso.
Soy is not native to Brazil. It is a market-driven commodity that mushroomed in the ‘90s after a hardy, tropical variety of soybean was produced. (4) “The magic bean” is a high-protein, high yield crop that can be consumed by humans and livestock or used for consumer products like biofuel. However, the increasing global demand for soy products has stimulated an aggressive expansion of soy farming into the Amazon Basin from other parts of Brazil aided by government-backed programs offering cheap land and an inexpensive labor force. Over the past decade Brazil’s soybean production has doubled, reaching 53 million tons in 2006 (3). This upward trend has been stimulated by the EU’s demand for soy-fed cattle, fish, chicken and pigs in response to the Mad Cow epidemic. In addition, growing markets in China and India are clamoring for soy meal and oil.
Clearcut rainforest for soy cultivation. Greenpeace
The Amazon is beginning to look like Kansas. Between 2001 and 2004 Amazonian agricultural areas spread an additional 13,900 square miles. While some soy fields were created from previously cleared pasture in the savanna grasslands, known as cerrado, a good percentage was from newly-cleared forest land. The soy agriculture boom has thrust Brazil into the number two position for world soy production, right behind the United States. Within the next few years, Brazil will surpass the U.S. to become the largest producer and exporter of soybeans.
To many Brazilians who profit from farming, the soy business is their salvation. The soy industry provides 5.5 million jobs (2003), an impetus for international trade, and soy products that are used by Brazilians. Pushed ahead by multinational agribusinesses, government subsidies, land programs and new roads, soy has become an important export for Brazil. In 2003 soy made up 6% of Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP). A major impetus to the Amazon soy explosion is the governor of Mato Grosso, Blairo Maggi, who coincidentally is the owner of Groupo Andre Maggi – the largest privately-held soy corporation in the world. It is no surprise that soy production in his state has grown exponentially, without much regard for forest preservation.
Soy farming in Brazil. Photo courtesy of TNC/ Benito Guerrero.
"To me, a 40 percent increase in deforestation doesn't mean anything at all, and I don't feel the slightest guilt over what we are doing here," stated Maggi in a NYTimes interview in 2003.(8)
Most of the soybean profit goes to a few large agribusiness companies -- ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Maggi. While small soybean farmers still exist, their margins are comparatively thin since they are dependent on major corporations and the government for seed, financing and transportation.
To other Brazilians and environmentalists, soy agribusiness is destroying their forests, land, culture and health. Father Edilberto Senna, a member of the Amazon Defense Front, said in a Nov. 29, 2006 CNN interview:
“Soy is planted just to make profits, just to feed the first world, feed the cows, the chicken and the pigs. The profit grows and we stay with the destruction.” (2)
The Expansion of Brazil's Agricultural Frontier into the Amazon Basin
Fifty years ago the Brazilian Amazon rainforest covered an area larger than two thirds of the continental United States – approximately 1.6 million square miles. It was mostly untouched. Since that time, the population in the Amazon has exploded from 7.5 million in 1970 to 22 million. Driven by logging, mining, cattle ranching and agriculture interests, a fifth of the vast rainforest considered “The Lungs of the World’ has been cut down. While the world market for lumber and meat was the initial impetus for the massive destruction of over 270,000 square miles of forest, soybean crops are now the preferred way to make a fast buck. (4) Former cattle ranches, carved out of the Amazon rainforest over the past four decades, account for 60 to 70 percent of the cleared land used by soy farmers, but many small farms continue to use the slash and burn method of clearing new land. (10)
The Amazon: Brazil's Final Soybean Frontier. Courtesy of Michael Shean.
Even with a slowdown in soybean agriculture expansion in 2005 and 2006 due to soybean rust, low international prices and an unfavorable exchange rate for exporting goods, the rainforest has continued to shrink by over 12,000 square miles. Since soy prices are rebounding in 2007, even more soybean crops will be planted. The USDA Foreign Agriculture Service in “The Amazon: Brazil’s Final Soy Frontier” asserts that soy or other biofuel crops could increase by as much as 190,000 square miles on non-forested land – by using existing pasture and savanna. (4) That estimate does not include the crops that will be planted on newly cleared jungle, either legally or illegally.
Experts predict that over 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest will be gone by 2030 if the current pace of farming, cattle and logging expansion continues. (4) Since the Amazon rainforest contains one third of the world’s animal, plant and insect species, this will greatly reduce the world’s biodiversity. To date, thousands of species have been lost, many of them are now extinct, never to be identified, named or studied. This is an immeasurable loss, as rainforests provide the source for one fourth of our medicine, including anti-cancer agents. (11)
BR-163, Brazil's Soy Highway is Nearly Complete
BR-163 Brazil's Soy Highway. TNC/ Benito Guerrero.
Soy farming creates a domino effect of forest destruction – while some soy farmers continue slash and burn deforestation, the majority of them purchase land cleared by cattle ranchers, who in turn cut new paths into the forest to replace their lost land.
In order to lower transportation costs, the soy agribusiness is funding and lobbying for improved roads, waterways and rail into the heart of the Amazon. One highway, BR-163, ‘the soy highway’, received government funding in November 2006 to pave over 600 miles of dirt road leading from soy farms to the port of Santarem. (9) The newly paved highway will not only make it easier to distribute soy, but also provide easy access to loggers, squatters and others who want to exploit the Amazon.
Soybean fields are not only replacing jungle and savanna land along the Eastern and Southern borders of the Amazon rainforest but also around cities that have sprung up deep within the rainforest such as Santerem and Boa Vista. Once towns and roads are built, an inevitable migration of homesteaders and other opportunists will occur. More jungle will be cleared for new towns and cities. Suburban sprawl, ranches and farms will cover the area where Brazil nut, mahogany, samauma and capirona trees once stood. Jaguars and spider monkeys will live in zoos, not jungles.
Soy's Contribution to Global Warming
BR-163 will speed up deforestation. Source ESRI.
Worldwide deforestation causes nearly 30 percent of the world’s global warming (5), filling the earth’s atmosphere with 1.6 billion tons of emissions a year. The clear cutting and burning of the Amazon generates 80 percent of Brazil’s carbon emissions. When soy farmers prepare soil for planting, they remove everything – tree stumps and trunks, roots, often with repeated burnings. Since trees are fifty percent carbon, when cut or burned, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as methane, ozone and nitrous oxide are released into the air. Brazil is one of the ten worst emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, mostly due to the fires in the Amazon. (12)
Our global climate relies on the Amazon rainforest for atmospheric circulation, clean water and fresh air. Rainfall in the Amazon not only feeds the region, but supplies 20 percent of all fresh water that flows into the world’s oceans. Through photosynthesis, forests absorb greenhouse gases and release oxygen. The Amazon’s cycle of rain and evaporation baked under the equatorial sun generates a massive amount of heat. A NASA study stated that rainforests give off 75 percent of the energy that drive atmospheric circulation. (6) Once an area is deforested the rainfall decreases and temperatures rise – as much as 3 degrees Fahrenheit in regions bulldozed down to bare earth. This will eventually turn the Amazon Basin into grassland. According to some experts, if the entire Amazon rainforest was destroyed, Brazil would see a 50 percent reduction in rainfall, disrupting weather patterns in South America and as far away as the United States and Western Europe (7).
As more and more businesses and people migrate to the Amazon searching for their soy, timber, beef or biofuel ‘pot of gold’, the rainforest will inevitably shrink. Brazil and other parts of the world will witness some degree of climate change. The extent of the climactic disruption depends on forest policy, policy enforcement and creation of new forest preserves. The current forest policy allows 20 percent of rainforest land to be converted to ranch or farmland, with 80 percent left as forest. Despite this policy, as much as 80 percent of the recent deforestation (of over 12,000 square miles over the past 2 years) has been done illegally. With the arrests of more than 100 corrupt IBAMA Brazilian forest service workers who participated in various illegal logging schemes since 2003, there appears to be a slowdown in tree cutting. Through diligent forest conservation, elimination of slash and burn methods, sustainable farming and logging practices, and careful monitoring of the Amazon, a portion of the rainforest may still remain by the end of this century. Temperatures will be higher and rainfall decreased, but the Amazon will continue to shelter thousands of species of plants and animals, provide fresh water to the oceans, and regulate our climate and the air we breathe. (7) If, on the other hand, soy farming, logging and ranching businesses continue to flatten the world’s largest rainforest, then greenhouse gas emissions will choke the air, the world’s climate will be hotter and drier, and the once dense emerald forest will only be a memory.
Soy fields transform the Amazon. Greenpeace.
6 Ways You Can Prevent the Destruction of the Amazon Rainforest
If you want to help prevent the destruction of the Amazon rainforest:
1. Join or contribute to one of these organizations:
2. Stop or reduce soy product consumption, especially if not organic. Many processed foods contain soy – listed as soya flour, lecithin, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, soy protein isolate, protein concentrate, textured vegetable protein, vegetable oil (simple, fully, or partially hydrogenated), or plant sterols.
3. Avoid meat or chicken which are fed soy products from the Amazon. This pertains to EU meat and chicken only.
4. Avoid meat from the Amazon region.
5. Write to your local Congressional representative. Let them know that you are concerned about the impact of soy and deforestation on the world. Ask them what they can do to influence Brazil’s policies for the rainforest.
6. Avoid purchasing wood from Brazil unless certified that it was removed sustainably. Look for a forest certification, FSC, on mahogany and other hardwoods from Brazil. Click here for more information on Forest Certification.
Part 1 Footnotes
(1) “Cropland Expansion changes deforestation dynamics in the southern Brazilian Amazon”
(2) “Deforestation in the Amazon”
(3) “Brazil claims that soy and beef not responsible for Amazon deforestation”
(4) “The Amazon: Brazil’s Soybean Final Frontier”
(5) “Deforestation Causes Global Warming”
(6) “Growth in Amazon Cropland May impact Climate and Deforestation Patterns."
(7) “Researchers: Warming May Change Amazon”
(8) “Relentless Foe of the Amazon Jungle: Soybeans” NYTimes Sept 17, 2003
(9) “Brazil Gov’t to Fund Paved Soy Export Road”
(10) “Deforestation in the Amazon”
(11) “Rainforest Facts”
(12) “Brazil in top ten greenhouse gas emissions” and
“Amazon Fires raise CO2 Threat”