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Cerrado: can the empire of soy coexist with savannah conservation?

  • With new deforestation due to soy production markedly reduced in recent years by Brazilian laws and by the 2006 Amazon Soy Moratorium, agribusiness, transnational commodities companies like Bunge and Cargill, and investors have shifted their attention to the Cerrado, savannah.
  • Four Cerrado states, Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia, known collectively as Matopiba, are seeing a rapid reduction in native vegetation as soy, cotton, corn and cattle production rises. Over half of the Cerrado’s 2 million square kilometers has already been converted to croplands, with large-scale agribusiness owning most land.
  • One reason for the focus on the Cerrado: Brazil’s Forest Code requires that inside Legal Amazonia 80 percent of forests on privately held lands be conserved as Legal Reserves. But in a large portion of the Cerrado, property owners are only required to protect 20 to 35 percent of native vegetation.
  • With little help coming currently from government, conservationists are responding with creative approaches for protection – developing partnerships with local communities, seeking signers for the Cerrado Manifesto to curb new deforestation due to soy, and restoring degraded lands to market the Cerrado’s unique fruits and other produce.
Driving deep into the Cerrado, Bahia state, Brazil. Photo by Alicia Prager

This is the second of six stories in a series by journalists Alicia Prager and Flávia Milhorance who travelled to the Cerrado in February for Mongabay to assess the impacts of agribusiness on the region’s environment and people.

Soybeans, corn, cotton – seemingly never-ending crops – stretch to the horizon, interrupted often by patches of native vegetation. That’s all there is to see, other than agribusiness signs and big trucks laden with produce as we tool along the arrow-straight asphalt of BR-020 on our 600-kilometer (372 miles) drive northeast from Brasília to Barreiras in Bahia state.

That’s the same direction in which Brazil’s agribusiness is expanding as it marches farther and farther, deeper and deeper, into the Cerrado savannah.

Over the past half-century technology investment, government subsidies, and cheap, available land have helped Brazil achieve one of the highest agricultural productivity rates in the world. From the 1970s onward, agribusiness grew exponentially in Central and South Brazil. More recently, the commodity sector hotspot has shifted northward into mostly unexploited territory – with predictable deforestation impacts.

“It is estimated that the [greatest agricultural] land expansion occurs in areas with great productive potential, such as those of the Cerrado in the region known as Matopiba,” reads a recent Ministry of Agriculture report highlighting optimistic ten-year projections for the country’s agribusiness sector: “Despite its infrastructure shortcomings, [Matopiba] land prices are attractive, the [mild] climate corresponds to that of the Cerrado, and the [topographical] relief is favorable [for industrial cultivation],” says a glowing description in the report.

Cerrado soy feeds a booming global soy protein market. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

Inside the Matopiba soy empire

Matopiba is an acronym for Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia states. It isn’t a familiar place name to most Brazilians, but is well known to large-scale farmers, as it refers succinctly to the nation’s latest agricultural frontier.

In Matopiba, the soybean – due to its inexhaustible global market demand – stands head-and-shoulders above every other crop in importance. Soy experienced an astounding increase of 15 percent in occupied farmland in Matopiba between 2016/2017, with soy acreage likely to top 8.4 million hectares (32,432 square miles) by 2026/2027, says the ministry report.

Crop monoculture, hampered by environmental laws in the Amazon, has been expanding rapidly into the Cerrado, the biodiversity-rich Brazilian tropical savannah which once covered two million square kilometres (772,204 square miles), an area bigger than Great Britain, France and Germany combined.

More than half of the Cerrado’s native vegetation has been lost already to soy, corn, cotton and cattle, and the pace of deforestation here is far faster than in the Amazon today.

The Cerrado biome, east and south of the Amazon, is largely made up of flat plateaus, ideal for the heavy machinery used in industrial agribusiness. Photo by Flávia Milhorance
Croplands make heavy demands on Cerrado water. Pictured here is a large-scale irrigation system. Conservationists are concerned about the draining of aquifers due to rapid agribusiness expansion. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

Data that we compiled exclusively from Brazil’s Environment Ministry reveals that 65 percent of the Cerrado’s forest loss between 2013 and 2015 occurred inside Matopiba’s four states. Agribusiness-dominated Matopiba municipalities named in the government’s report are top deforestors. They includes Balsas, in Maranhão; Uruçuí and Baixa Grande do Ribeiro, in Piauí; and Formosa do Rio Preto, São Desidério, Correntina and Barreiras, in Bahia. Those localities account for 1,500 square kilometers (nearly 10 percent) of the 17,000 square kilometers deforested in the Cerrado over the 2013-15 period.

During our February trip there, we drove more than 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), exploring those Western Bahia municipalities and observing that the protection of the Cerrado’s environment and wellbeing of its people sometimes seems to stand at odds with the interests of the agribusiness sector. We witnessed ongoing deforestation, land conflicts and negative impacts on water resources, all which we will report about in upcoming stories in this series.

The big question to be investigated here: can the Cerrado’s rapid ongoing growth in agricultural productivity coexist alongside the biome’s need for conservation?

A gate and lane leading into a Cerrado farm. The region is predominantly occupied by large scale farms, but includes small scale farms as well. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

Brazil’s economic strength built on agribusiness

Agribusiness accounted for 23 percent of Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 44 percent of exports in 2017. And while the country is still in the grip of an ongoing economic crisis, the small recovery the nation has celebrated – a 1 percent increase in GDP last year – is largely credited to the agribusiness boom.

The huge boost that the sector provides annually to the Brazilian economy has also allowed it to gain tremendous political clout in the National Congress and the Executive branch, Today, the bancada ruralista, the agribusiness lobby, includes around 200 (40 percent) of congressional deputies. The ruralists have worked consistently to weaken environmental policies and laws.

“Their influence is so strong, nothing can be done without their consent in Congress,” says Tiago Reis from the NGO Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).

In Matopiba specifically, the conversion of native vegetation to farmland started slowly, as early as the 1980s, but intensified in the 2000s. Agronomist Deosdete Santiago arrived in Barreiras almost forty years ago, and witnessed the early land rush in Western Bahia. He was brought there by a government project job but soon was “seduced,” he says, by the lure of agribusiness.

For years, he sold Monsanto pesticides and witnessed a dramatic growth in the size of farms. “I used to work with small farmers, but today I see the region taking the course of Mato Grosso state, Brazil’s greater agribusiness producer,” Santiago explains. Matopiba’s expansion was driven by large-scale, often absentee landowners. Today, just ten Matopiba firms control an area of one million hectares (3,861 square miles) of farmland. Also, many small producers are tied to larger ones via financing and the selling of their crops, writes economist Julliana Ramos Santiago, whose Masters thesis documented agribusiness expansion in Western Bahia.

The Cerrado, the second largest biome in Brazil after the Amazon, possesses perfect soils and climate for growing soy, cotton and corn. However, these crops are fed by chemical fertilizers and protected by chemical pesticides, which can pollute rivers and aquifers. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

Forest losses in the Cerrado biome, 2000 to 2014. Please click the map for the interactive version. Credit: Willie Shubert  / Map for Environment

The state’s support for the industry in the Cerrado has been intermittent over the years. But in 2015, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a plan to address the lack of infrastructure there and give a boost to farming. Katia Abreu, a politician and cattle breeder from Tocantins state, (as well as the agriculture minister under the Rousseff administration at the time), was put in charge of the infrastructure project. Abreu spread the word to international investors that the Cerrado was open for agricultural expansion.

But Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 changed regional priorities. When Michel Temer took over as president, he extinguished the Matopiba infrastructure program and appointed a new agriculture minister, Blairo Maggi, a politician and large-scale soy grower from Mato Grosso state. Maggi quickly shifted the new administration’s attention to his home state, and sought an increase of investments there. During our travels, we saw partially built railroad and thermoelectric government projects abandoned in São Desidério, Bahia. The Ministry of Agriculture was contacted by Mongabay about this issue, and about the challenges in Matopiba in general, but it didn’t reply to questions.

Despite Brasília’s pivot away from the Matopiba region, the expansion northward spurred by Agriculture Minister Abreu has continued, driven by the agribusiness elite, investors, and transnational commodities companies.

Farmland investors have rushed to buy land in Matopiba, where soybean production alone has grown by 250 percent in the last decade. And Congress has taken notice: a law currently being reviewed by the legislature (279/16) could give the sector a boost. If approved, it would create the Matopiba Agency, with the goal of strengthening the region’s agribusiness position.

A small farm close to Correntina, Bahia state. While soy is king in the Cerrado, cattle ranching also plays a significant role. Photo by Alicia Prager

Cerrado’s weak protections, growing weaker

The bancada ruralista, operating from a position of power in the Congress and within the Temer administration, currently is winning in its effort to boost agribusiness profits while reducing environmental protections, according to conservationists questioned on the matter.

The most recent of those battles was won in the courts this year, when the constitutionality of the New Forest Code, legislated in 2012 with the help of the bancada ruralista, was upheld by Brazil’s Supreme Court. The 2012 code, far weaker than the original 1965 forest code, requires that 80 percent of forests on privately held lands be conserved as Legal Reserves, inside Legal Amazonia. However, in a large portion of the Cerrado, property owners are only required to protect 20-35 percent of native vegetation on their lands. This lower ratio of protected-to-cultivated land is a huge reason why the Cerrado has been drawing so much agribusiness attention since 2012.

“It is dramatic what is happening,” says Edegar de Oliveira, coordinator of the agriculture and food program at WWF-Brazil, an NGO. “The Cerrado is not being protected by conservation parks nor by the Forest Code.”

While environmentalists lament the weak legal protections given the Cerrado, agronomist Fernando Sampaio complains of the law’s stringency. He believes that the New Forest Code represents “one of the most strict conservationists’ laws on the planet” because environmental laws in other nations do not force landowners to set aside portions of their priavate property as Legal Reserves for the preservation of native vegetation, as Brazil does.

“Imagine telling a Texan or Australian farmer he can’t use 20, 50 or 80 percent of [his or her] private land! This is unthinkable,” says Sampaio, who is executive-director of the Mato Grosso state project, “Strategy of Producing, Conserving and Embracing.”

“The problem,” says Sampaio, is that Brazil is putting “on the shoulders of one part of society, the farmers, all the cost for [protecting] the climate, water and biodiversity, [responsibilities] which belong to everyone.”

Sampaio suggests that instead the government should give compensation to farmers who don’t deforest lands which they could legally otherwise convert to crops. He also urges that the government create new protected areas with available but unused public land. Currently, a mere 7.5 percent of the Cerrado has officially been conserved, while nearly 50 percent of the Amazon is under some form of protection, either as government administered conservation units or as indigenous preserves.

Importantly, illegal deforestation in both the Amazon and Cerrado remain a very serious problem, a crisis made worse by waning enforcement efforts due to deep budget cuts at IBAMA, and other Brazilian agencies charged with forest protection.

A forested area surrounded by pasture and cropland. Most Cerrado property owners are required to protect 20-35 percent of native vegetation on their lands. While some environmentalists would like to see that percentage increased, farmers point out that the U.S. and other countries do not have similarly restrictive laws regulating private property use. Photo by Alicia Prager

Saving Matopiba’s natural landscape

As the agriculture frontier expands, and legal protections remain weak, a host of international, national and regional environmental NGOs have stepped up to try and protect the Cerrado. One strategy is to establish close relationships with local players in order to better surveil and safeguard the forest landscape.

Edegar de Oliveira travelled with a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) expedition to Matopiba last year, which resulted in a WWF-Brazil report containing recommendations for responsible investments by companies producing or acquiring commodities. Oliveira believes that, properly encouraged, there is a possibility of achieving the dual goals of Cerrado agribusiness and conservationists, but only through careful attention. The WWF expedition witnessed some environmentally responsible soy producers, he says, but also some “very traumatic ones.”

Researchers say that Brazil’s agricultural productivity could easily be increased, while at the same time conserving the Cerrado and not expanding deforestation. For example, cattle sector productivity in the Matopiba region is very low, according to a report by the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. An increase in cattle farm productivity could allow unused pasture to be converted to soy. Agribusiness could also generate more growth by avoiding new deforestation and utilizing already degraded lands for soy, corn, cotton and other crops.

“The pieces of the puzzle are already on the table,” says Bernardo Strassburg, founder of the International Institute for Sustainability in Rio de Janeiro. Key policies just need to be enforced and readjusted here and there, he urges.

Among suggested changes are better enforcement of the New Forest Code, as well as an expansion of the already successful Amazon Soy Moratorium (ASM) to the Cerrado. The ASM, achieved in 2006 via a coalition of environmental groups and commodities companies, has been a key factor in reducing deforestation due to new Amazon soy farms. The Cerrado Manifesto, a similar voluntary agreement, was recently proposed, but it has so far received support mostly from international food retailers and fast food chains. Critically, to date it has failed to gain backing from the big transnational commodities companies such as Bunge or Cargill.

Environmentalists like Strassburg and de Oliveira say that there are numerous other policies on the table, whose implementation will be crucial to save the savannah biome.

While in the Cerrado, we reached out to the Association of Farmers and Irrigators of Bahia (AIBA), based in Barreiras and representing 1,300 producers in the region. AIBA didn’t receive us, nor did they reply to our emailed questions.

Already degraded Cerrado lands could offer an opportunity for agribusiness expansion without causing further deforestation. Photo by Alicia Prager

Home grown Cerrado solutions

Deosdete Santiago told us that he gave up his work with Monsanto in the 1990s, after he realized that the sale of agribusiness pesticides, used in very large amounts on soy, was a “heavy game” and a “harming dazzle” that was “full of contradictions.”

“I decided to change to simpler things,” Santiago explains. We met him at his family-owned business, a farming tool store in Barreiras. He was most eager to show us a small cafe and food market tucked in one corner of his store. There he serves food produced by traditional communities and made from the Cerrado’s native plants – more than 10,000 species grow there, including fruits and other produce known nowhere else in the world. Santiago thinks these foods could be cultivated instead of so much soy. The native foods cafe is part of Santiago’s latest endeavor, what he calls, the Mundo Lindo (Beautiful World) Foundation.

But building public awareness of the savannah’s natural worth is a slow process, he says. “We try hard, but probably you won’t see anybody coming in here today.” A main goal of Santiago’s foundation is to restore deforested areas surrounding the Cerrado’s natural springs. Water, he explains, is one of the region’s most valuable resources, and one in great danger of harm from agribusiness. “The math of economic growth cannot disregard this liability, which is only increasing through the years.”

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Deosdete Santiago operates a cafe and food shop that sells sustainably grown regional products. He thinks that if farmers actively grew and marketed the Cerrado’s native fruits and produce, they could diversify their agricultural production, which would help protect both the local economy and the environment. Photo by Alicia Prager
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