Brazil’s soy moratorium dramatically reduced Amazon deforestation

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The moratorium on forest conversion established by Brazilian soy giants in 2006 dramatically reduce deforestation for soy expansion in the Amazon, and have been more effective in cutting forest destruction than the government’s land use policy in the region, finds a study published today in the journal Science.

Brazil’s soy moratorium dramatically reduced Amazon deforestation



Deforestation for soy in the Brazilian Amazon and cerrado. Data from Gibbs et al 2015, photo by Rhett A. Butler. Click image to enlarge.

The moratorium on forest conversion established by Brazilian soy giants in 2006 dramatically reduce deforestation for soy expansion in the Amazon, and have been more effective in cutting forest destruction than the government’s land use policy in the region, finds a study published today in the journal Science.

The paper, led by Holly Gibbs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is based on spatial analysis across thousands of farm in the Brazilian Amazon and cerrado, a woody grassland. The researchers compared forest loss before and after the moratorium was established.

Like other research, they found that the moratorium was highly effective in reducing deforestation for soy production in the Amazon rainforest.

“Before the moratorium, 30 percent of soy expansion occurred through deforestation, and after the moratorium, almost none did; only about 1 percent of the new soy expansion came at the expense of forest,” said Gibbs in a statement.

But despite the drop in soy’s role as a driver of rainforest conversion, the crop more than doubled in extent across the region since 2006 as a farmers planted already deforested lands. In other words, food production increased even as deforestation decreased.


Click image to enlarge. Courtesy of Gibbs et al 2015.

More notably however, the study found that the soy moratorium — a private sector initiative established in response to a damaging Greenpeace campaign that linked soy used in chicken feed to deforestation — outperformed the country’s forest code — established and enforced by the government — in terms of compliance by farmers.

“We really wanted to understand if the Soy Moratorium mattered,” said Gibbs. “There was a lot of discussion about ending the moratorium in 2014 and we wanted to know what the agreement meant on the ground and how it compared with governmental policy, which is the proposed replacement.”

“Only 115 people out of several thousand soy farmers have violated the Soy Moratorium since 2006, but over 600 of them have violated the Forest Code. So, this same group of farmers is five times more likely to violate the governmental policy than they are to violate the private sector agreement.”

Those results suggest that the private sector will play a critical role in driving future reductions in Brazil’s deforestation rate, which in the Amazon has plunged 80 percent on an annual basis since 2004.

“It reinforces the idea that private sector interventions will be needed in the long term to maintain the deforestation-free production of soy,” says Gibbs.


Legal forest reserves and soy fields in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Gibbs and her co-authors also found there remain considerable opportunities to further expand soy production without harming forests.

“What we found is that there are large areas of already cleared land suitable for soy production both in the Amazon and Cerrado, and that these areas were often cleared many years ago and would be enough to triple the current soy production,” said co-author Praveen Noojipady of the National Wildlife Federation.

However not all the results for positive for Brazil’s native ecosystems. The study found that the cerrado continues to experience a high rate of conversion for soy: an estimated 20 percent of new soy fields came as the expense of the savanna during the period.

The researchers said that extending the moratorium to the cerrado would be an effective mechanism for protecting it from further losses.




Deforestation for soy in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The soy moratorium has had impacts well beyond the Amazon soy industry, serving as a blueprint for the so-called “Cattle Agreement”, where major Brazilian meat producers established safeguards for cattle sourcing, and the zero deforestation policies increasingly being adopted by palm oil producers predominantly in Asia. These initiatives are important because industrial commodity production for export and trade is today the largest driver of tropical deforestation, outpacing forest clearance for local consumption by subsistence farmers.

CITATION: Holly Gibbs et al (2015). Brazil’s Soy Moratorium. Science 23 JANUARY 2015. VOL 347 ISSUE 6220

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