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Private sector could play outsized role in Cerrado conservation: study

  • A recent study estimates the impacts of implementing a soy moratorium in the Cerrado savanna, Brazil’s second largest biome, which has already lost half of its native vegetation to agribusiness, much of it due to soy and cattle expansion.
  • The Amazon Soy Moratorium, seen as one of the most successful voluntary corporate conservation agreements ever, was implemented in the Amazon biome in 2006, and helped greatly reduce deforestation from soy there.
  • Now environmental NGOs and international retailers have called for a similar moratorium in the Cerrado, the biodiverse tropical savanna that borders the Amazon on its south and east.
  • Full participation by the private sector in a Cerrado Soy Moratorium starting in 2021 — including resistant companies such a Cargill — could prevent 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) of native vegetation being lost due to soy expansion, an area larger than Belgium, researchers found.
Brazil’s Cerrado savvanna is being rapidly converted to soy and other crops. Many environmentalists think one solution would be a soy moratorium like the one put in place in the Amazon in 2006. Image courtesy of

By 2006, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon due to expanding soy production had raised a loud alarm among the public and with environmental groups. Led by Greenpeace, NGOs joined with retailers such as McDonalds, and soy traders like Cargill and Bunge, along with farmers and the Brazilian government, to create the Amazon Soy Moratorium, whereby traders agreed not to buy from producers who were newly deforesting land to grow soy. The resulting agreement is considered by many to be one of the most successful corporate voluntary conservation initiatives ever.

Today, concern is again on the rise over soy deforestation, but this time it is directed at a biome neighboring the Amazon known as the Cerrado, a uniquely biodiverse tropical savanna where many of Brazil’s soy producing states are located.

This concern has led environmental NGOs and international retailers like Wal-Mart and McDonalds to propose the Cerrado Manifesto, modeled after the successful Amazon Soy Moratorium. But implementing this new soy agreement hinges on cooperation from transnational soy traders like Cargill — who have signaled their reluctance to sign on, even as they acknowledge the precariousness of the savanna’s survival

Now a new study, the first of its kind — conducted by an international group of researchers led by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), and published in Science Advances — has used modeling to put a number on exactly how much native vegetation conversion could be averted by expanding the Amazon Soy Moratorium into Brazil’s species-rich savanna.

Avoided direct conversion from native vegetation to soy under A) a scenario where just the Brazilian Forest Code is applied, and B) with a soy moratorium expanded to the Cerrado. Matopiba region is in green and color bar values are in thousands of hectares per cell. Republished from Science advances with permission.

Quantifying native vegetation conversion

“The soy moratorium was effective for the Amazon. We wanted to know what the impacts would be of expanding this [agreement] to the Cerrado, both because the Cerrado is an important biodiversity hotspot and important for food production, but also because the Cerrado is under threat of extinction,” Aline Soterroni, one of the study lead authors told Mongabay.

Currently less than 20 percent of undisturbed Cerrado vegetation remains. The new research modeled the impact of extending the moratorium to the savanna by looking at future soy expansion in Brazil under scenarios with and without a moratorium. The researchers also estimated which of the six major soy traders and world markets are expected to contribute most to future native vegetation conversion in the Cerrado.

The team found that an area the size of Mississippi could ultimately be converted to soy in Brazil by 2050. Less than 10 percent of that conversion would likely happen in the Amazon, while the Cerrado would be burdened by most of the growth, with 10.8 million hectares (26.7 million acres) of new soy fields created.

However, if a soy moratorium were extended to the Cerrado starting in 2021, the researchers suggest that it could prevent 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) of native vegetation loss due to soy expansion — an area larger than Belgium.

A conservation achievement of that size would do more than preserve a globally unique biodiversity hotspot. The Cerrado is also home to some of Brazil’s most important watersheds, and stores a significant amount of carbon in its complex underground savanna root system, helping curb climate change.

Soybean expansion by land use class. FC scenario considers full implementation of the Brazilian Forest Code, and the SoyM scenario considers expansion of the soy moratorium to the Cerrado. Republished from Science advances with permission.

Saving the last of the Cerrado

Carlos Antonio Da Silva Junior, a Professor of Remote Sensing at the State University of Mato Grosso who wasn’t involved with the research, told Mongabay that the alarming deforestation data highlighted by the new study touches on critical points related to biodiversity conservation in the Cerrado.

Estimates suggest that around half of the Cerrado biome has already been converted to agriculture. Of the remaining savanna that hasn’t been converted, less than 20 percent is still undisturbed — the conversion of which to soy would be a major threat to the more than 4,800 plant and vertebrate species that could go extinct.

A large portion of the remaining intact native vegetation is located in Matopiba — a region consisting of 337 municipalities spanning four savanna states, including MAranhão, TOcantins, PIauí and BAhia. Between 2000 and 2014, land conversion to soy in Matopiba increased 253 percent. And according to the study, this rapid rate of native vegetation-to-soy conversion isn’t likely to slow anytime soon. Without a soy moratorium, 86 percent of soy expansion in the Cerrado is projected to come from the Matopiba region.

The researchers also found that, even though China is the largest market for soy in the world, the relative risk of future native vegetation conversion driven by either China or the European Union (EU) are pretty much the same. “That is because the EU sources more from the Matopiba region, whereas China buys from everywhere.” says Sotteroni. “With the EU / MERCOSUR trade deal on the table, this point becomes especially relevant.” MERCOSUR is the Latin American trade bloc, of which Brazil is the largest member; the EU / MERCOSUR trade deal agreed to this summer has yet to be ratified, and could be threatened by Brazil’s rising levels of deforestation.

Tractors clearing the Cerrado. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Soy moratorium only part of the solution

The study authors point out that even though a soy moratorium would conserve a significant amount of native vegetation, it would not stop deforestation and the conversion of native vegetation on its own.

“The expansion of the [moratorium] to the Cerrado is necessary, but it is not, by itself, sufficient to protect the biodiversity and ecosystem services of this biome,” the scientists wrote.  Compliance with Brazil’s Forest Code, which determines how much native vegetation must legally be conserved — along with implementation of other public policies that govern crops along with cattle pasture — are extremely relevant to conservation success. However, under the agribusiness friendly, and environmentally hostile, administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, the possibility of currently carrying out ecologically sound policies seems remote.

Experts like Da Silva agree, and previous studies have shown, that there is enough degraded pasture in Brazil to absorb the demand for soy expansion, without harming native vegetation. “Grain production areas in Brazil should be expanded into areas that are [already] degraded with pastures,“ he writes, adding that innovative techniques such as Crop-Livestock-Forest Integration already exist and can create sustainable and profitable production.

For the paper’s authors, the biggest takeaway from their study is the outsized role that the private sector could play in protecting the last undisturbed intact remnants of the Cerrado, should transnational commodities companies commit to a moratorium.

“When governance is weak, supply chains and voluntary agreements become more important,” says Sotteroni. “We have an effective soy moratorium in the Amazon that is already developed and working. Given the [current] political situation, expanding the soy moratorium is the right action now to conserve the Cerrado.”


Soterroni, Aline C., et al. “Expanding the Soy Moratorium to Brazil’s Cerrado.” Science advances 5.7 (2019): eaav7336.

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Aerial view of a recently cleared section of the Brazilian Cerrado savanna. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
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