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Q&A: How a Soybean Boom Threatens the Amazon

June 13, 2016|

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Courtesy Daniel Grossman

Phillip Fearnside. Image by Dan Grossman. Brazil, 2016.

This year, Brazil harvested around 100 million tons of soybeans from 33 million hectares (82 million acres), making it the second-largest soybean producer in the world after the United States. These figures have grown steeply in recent years, partly due to demand from China, Brazil’s largest trading partner and the largest soybean importer in the world.

Philip Fearnside, a biologist who studies the relationship between human activities, such as agriculture, and the protection of tropical forests, has been warning for more than a decade that soy production threatens the Amazon forest. Fearnside is a research professor at the National Institute for Amazonian Research in Manaus, a city of about two million where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon River. FERN contributor Daniel Grossman spoke to him at the institute in his small office, which is lined with shelves of books and journals on Amazonian science.

You’ve written a lot about the impact of soybeans on the Amazon. Are they the major force behind deforestation today?

It depends where you are. The Amazon is nearly the size of Western Europe and all sorts of different things are going on in different places. If you’re in the state of Mato Grosso, on the southern edge of the Amazon, east of Bolivia, it’s soybeans as far as the eye can see. Now, in a lot of the Amazon, you don’t have soybeans. Most of the deforestation that occurs results from the expansion of cattle ranches. Brazil is now the largest exporter of beef in the world. And a lot of that export activity is the result of moving into the Amazon. But that doesn’t mean that soybeans aren’t important.

How so?

Soybeans have been a problem for quite a while. They’ve been responsible for the destruction of the Cerrado, the huge central Brazilian savanna, and then they moved into the rainforest part of the Amazon in northern Mato Grosso. There is another area of soybeans that’s also been growing — a diagonal dry area that cuts across the Amazon River at the big port of Santarém, 500 miles upstream from the Atlantic. Soy production has been advancing into rainforest areas within this strip as well.

You’ve written that part of the problem with opening up new areas for soybeans is the infrastructure needed to ship them. Can you explain how that works?

Right now, a lot of infrastructure is being built to carry the soybeans to Amazon ports from Mato Grosso. For instance, the BR-163 highway from Mato Grosso’s capital city Cuiabá to the port at Santarém on the Amazon is degraded and not up to carrying trucks full of soybeans on a large scale. Rebuilding the road is right up there on the list of projects in Brazil’s “Plan for the Acceleration of Growth.” But that would unleash a lot of additional impacts. With the increase in land values, deforestation could claim land for speculative purposes. It would also make livestock farming and logging more profitable over greater distances.

Then there is the proposed waterway on the Tapajós River, a major tributary of the Amazon with a confluence at Santarém. This project is also a high priority for Brazil’s growth plans. The waterway would open up another part of Northern Mato Grosso to soybeans. Locks are planned at all of the Tapajós’ rapids so that barges can go travel on the river. Hydroelectric dams would be built at each of these sites. All this construction would have terrible environmental impacts, like destroying the aquatic environments, rapids, the gallery forests along the rivers. It would create more opportunities for deforestation, in the places along the river where new soybean plots are opened up. The impact on indigenous people would also be terrible.

Soy growers and their allies often say that little rainforest is actually cut down for soybean production.

Soy production often causes deforestation indirectly. Soybeans are frequently planted in abandoned pastures. Right now it’s more profitable to grow soybeans than raise cattle in many areas. But ranchers don’t all of a sudden become soybean growers just because the economics change. What happens is that the ranchers sell their land to soybean farmers. Then they use the money to buy bigger pieces of land in the rainforest. It’s a secondary impact of the soybean advance.

How did the Chinese become such large buyers of Brazilian soybeans?

It used to be that most of Brazil’s soy harvest went to Europe. There was a switch back in 2007-2008 when Brazil began to permit genetically modified soybeans. Before that, the Europeans would pay a higher price for non-GM soybeans. But the difference between the two decreased until it was no longer profitable to be raising the non-GM ones. China stepped in as a big buyer and they’re not concerned at all about GMO crops. There isn’t any limitation in sight in terms of the area that Brazil could plant.

Don’t all the policies that promote soybeans go against Brazil’s stated policy of keeping deforestation in check?

Well, a lot of the Brazilian government’s actions are inconsistent. There is a government policy to control deforestation and limit emissions of greenhouse gases. They want credit for the carbon that’s not emitted. The Ministry of Environment is the main actor in that; but you also have the ministries of Transportation, Commerce, Agriculture and Mines, and Energy. These other ministries have other priorities, and most of what they do is exactly the opposite. They want more roads, more dams and more subsidies for agriculture. It all leads to more deforestation. The more powerful parts of the government are the ones on the side of more deforestation.