Financed by huge U.S. agribusiness corporations like Cargill, soybean farming is now one of the primary drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, charge activists from the environmental watchdog group Greenpeace, which is leading an international campaign against unregulated, unsustainable soybean cultivation.
Greenpeace and other green groups oppose the construction of roads, railways and canals for transporting soybeans to ports like Cargill's Santarem on the Amazon River.
The controversy intensified with the Brazilian government's announcement on Jun. 5 that it will pave the Amazon highway BR-163, which, 1,700 km long, will link Santarem with the southern state of Mato Grosso and provide a quick export route for the output of soybean farms.
"The Amazon is one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth and we need it for stabilising the planet's climate, but this company (Cargill) is trashing the rainforest to grow soya to feed Europe's farm animals," said Thomas Henningsen, Greenpeace Amazon campaign coordinator in a statement.
Greenpeace activists shut down Cargill's main European soybeans export facility in the Amazon and blocked Cargill-owned facilities in Britain and France in a series of protests from May 19 to 22 over the company's role in the destruction of 1.2 million hectares of rainforest to grow soybeans.
Much of the money to finance soybean farming comes from outside of Brazil. Cargill and two other agribusiness giants, ADM (Archer Daniels Midland) and Bunge, are responsible for 60 percent of the financial investments in soybean production in Brazil, according to the Greenpeace investigative report "Eating Up the Amazon". Those three companies also control nearly 80 percent of the European Union's soybean processing.
Cargill also owns Sun Valley, a French poultry operation that supplies millions of chickens to supermarkets and fast food restaurants across Europe. The chickens are fed soymeal, illegally grown in the Amazon, according to Greenpeace.
The group also documents a number of large soybean farms supplying Cargill that it says are "linked to the use of slave labour, illegal land grabbing and massive deforestation."
Brazil has become the second largest soybean producer, after the United States, providing more than 30 percent of the world's crop -- an estimated 57.4 million tonnes in the 2005-2006 period alone.
Cargill acknowledges the importance of the Amazon but rejects Greenpeace's demand to prohibit commercial agriculture in the region, said Afonso Champi, Cargill's Public Affairs director in Sao Paulo.
Based in the northern U.S. state of Minnesota, Cargill is one of the world's largest private companies, with 71 billion dollars in sales revenues last year. "Starting with the next crop, we will only purchase soybeans from producers who are in compliance with Brazil's Forest Code," Champi said in a Tierramérica interview. Under that code, 80 percent of the forest must be maintained.
Cargill has formed an alliance with the Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based NGO, to help landowners comply with that rule, he said.
"Brazil has good environmental laws, but very poor enforcement of those laws," Bill Laurance, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution, in Balboa, Panama.
"Deforestation has been the worst ever in the past few years, with 2 to 2.4 million hectares falling annually," Laurance told Tierramérica.
Brazil is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change, mainly due to deforestation in the Amazon, according to Greenpeace. Experts agree there is little doubt that soybean farming is responsible for deforestation in the Amazon
Soybean fields are found mainly in the grassland areas of the Amazon region and on former cattle ranches, says Laurance. After selling their land, cattle ranchers often move on and deforest new areas to continue ranching.
In reaction to the announcement of the construction of new roads, he warned that "huge swaths of unbroken forest will be opened up. It's almost an invitation to logging and land speculation."
But the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva assures that paving the BR-163 Amazon highway will not foment deforestation because a sustainability plan is in place that ensures enforcement of environmental regulations.
According to Adalberto Verissimo, researcher at the Institute of Man and Environment of the Amazon, the so-called "green highway", which will be complete in two or three years at a cost of 450 million dollars, depends on the success of an "economy of standing forests" in obtaining support of a strong portion of the market.
"It's impossible to maintain control only through government inspection," he said.
Laurance says huge foreign debt payments are driving this export of soybeans. "Brazil is desperate for exports to keep its head above water," and that gives the soybean lobby enormous political influence regionally and nationally, he said.
According to Greenpeace, it wouldn't be a surprise if multinational corporations like Cargill provide some of the financing for paving highway BR-163.
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