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Soy moratorium averted New Jersey-size loss of Amazon rainforest: Study

The Amazon near Manaus, Brazil. Image by Neil Palmer/CIAT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Amazon near Manaus, Brazil. Image by Neil Palmer/CIAT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

  • A new study sought to quantify the impact of the Amazon soy moratorium, signed in 2006 by companies accounting for around 90% of the soy sourced from the Brazilian Amazon.
  • The companies agreed that they would not purchase soy grown on plots that were recently deforested.
  • The research demonstrates that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon between 2006 and 2016 was 35% lower than it would have been without the moratorium, likely keeping 18,000 square kilometers (6,950 square miles) of the Amazon standing.
  • Despite the success, observers question whether the ban on soy from deforested areas of the Amazon will prevent the loss of rainforest over the long term.

The advent of the Amazon soy moratorium in 2006 seemed to usher in a new era of hope for ending deforestation for food production in the world’s largest rainforest. From the time that the participating companies agreed to cut deforestation-linked soy from their supply chains, Brazil lopped off a significant amount of its deforestation.

But how much of that decrease resulted from the moratorium and not some other factor, like governmental conservation efforts? That’s the question environmental economist Robert Heilmayr and his colleagues tried to answer in research published Dec. 11 in the journal Nature Food. Their calculations suggest that deforestation between 2006 and 2016 was 35% lower than it would have been without the moratorium, likely keeping some 18,000 square kilometers (6,950 square miles) of the Amazon standing.

“The goal of this research was really to pin down what the impact specifically of the moratorium was, and how it interacted with some of the government policies that were adopted,” said Heilmayr, an assistant professor of environmental and ecological economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Land newly tilled for soy in the southern Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Perhaps the most visible “zero-deforestation commitment” to date, the Amazon soy moratorium’s aim was to break the link between growing global demand for soybeans, mostly used to feed livestock, and the clearing of forest in the Brazilian Amazon to meet that demand. By signing onto the moratorium, soy-trading companies, including Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Cargill, agreed not to buy soybeans that had been grown on recently deforested land — a principle known as “market exclusion.” Together, the group accounted for about 90% of the soy coming from the Brazilian Amazon.

At the same time, the policies of the Brazilian government helped drive a broader decrease in deforestation across the region. The convergence of the moratorium and public support for stamping out forest loss led to an 84% drop in total deforestation and a downward trajectory that held through 2012 (though the researchers’ analysis revealed that the decline was more substantial in “soy-suitable” areas).

The research “describes how political will, transparency, and complementary policies determine whether or not conservation agreements succeed,” Daniel Brindis, forests campaign director with Greenpeace, said in an email. A Greenpeace report in 2006 revealed the connections between major soy traders and deforestation in the Amazon, helping to spur the inception of the moratorium.

A chart showing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon between 1988 and 2020. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Shifting paradigms — or deforestation?

While proponents of the moratorium have cheered it as a success and argued for the application of similar private-sector commitments elsewhere, skeptics have voiced concerns that preventing soy production in the Amazon shifted it into other unique and species-rich landscapes like Brazil’s Cerrado, a tropical savanna. They say that some companies may have been complying with the agreed-upon ban on purchasing soy from deforested areas in the Amazon, using that as a smokescreen to buy from farms on recently deforested land found elsewhere.

What’s more, it’s been difficult to say definitively how much forest was spared directly as a result of the moratorium, though earlier research has probed the question.

To tease apart the various factors, Heilmayr and his colleagues built a mathematical model around three comparisons using data from MapBiomas, a mapping initiative led by Brazil’s Climate Observatory that aggregates and analyzes satellite imagery. They looked at the amount of deforestation before and after 2006, when the moratorium was signed. They compared the deforestation between the Amazon biome, the rainforest where the soy moratorium applied, and the broader “Legal Amazon,” a government-delineated region extending to parts of the Cerrado and a wetland known as the Pantanal. Finally, they incorporated a comparison of deforestation on areas deemed suitable for soy production with those more apt to be converted into pasture.

The analysis allowed them to identify the areas that were being deforested specifically for soy and “parse out” the impacts of the moratorium, Heilmayr said.

Part of the Amazon deforested for farming. Image by Leonard G. via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

In the years after it was signed, the Brazilian space agency, known as INPE, stepped up its satellite monitoring efforts to track forest loss. At the same time, the government began a push to create a record of land ownership in the Amazon.

“What we find is that the only places where we’re really seeing the dramatic reduction in deforestation are the places that were being monitored and that had registration,” Heilmayr said.

The team analyzed changes to parts of the Cerrado bordering the Amazon biome, where soy farmers might have tried to set up shop to avoid the constraints of the moratorium. They also looked for spikes in deforestation for cattle pasture, which might later be converted into soy fields. The team found that these types of what economists call “leakage” due to the moratorium didn’t appear to be as prevalent as critics have claimed, Heilmayr said.

“Nowhere could we find the same strength of a signal [demonstrating] there’s this dramatic shift in land use as the soy moratorium gets adopted,” he said. That said, he acknowledged that leakage across the country was not something that they could have identified.

Heilmayr also said that establishing a moratorium on soy from deforested land in places such as the Cerrado or for other crops could further diminish the chances of leakage.

“If you can expand to the most likely places, then it’s all that much harder for that leakage to kind of travel through the market,” he said.

Greenpeace’s Brindis agreed, saying that private companies could do more to prevent deforestation in places like the Cerrado.

“The technology and the tools are there,” he said. “[I]t is just a matter of governments requiring them and making them available.”

Riparian forest and soy. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Antonio Ioris, a reader at the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University in the U.K., praised the team for tackling “the challenging and very important question of sustained deforestation trends” in the Brazilian Amazon. But, he said, “Despite the apparent positive results, [such] as the temporary decrease of deforestation for a few years, there is very limited consideration in the text of the politico-economic context and the incentives for the adoption of soy moratorium.”

He said that agricultural companies used the moratorium to greenwash their activities while shoring up gains in production. In his view, what’s needed is a ban on all farming in the Amazon.

“Ultimately, the soy moratorium was a little and fleeting compromise that fundamentally benefited the main agribusiness players and produced only marginal ecological and social improvements,” Ioris said in an email. “Effective socio-ecological alternatives require the meaningful involvement of the much wider contingent of family farmers and indigenous populations in the region.”

A 2015 study led by Holly Gibbs, an associate professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of Heilmayr’s co-authors, found that the area covered by soy within the Amazon region had more than doubled since 2006, even as deforestation fell.

Heilmayr agreed that there are “broader questions of power and social justice that also need to be addressed in this landscape.” But, he said, “If you can increase the amount of soy you’re getting per hectare of farmland, while avoiding a bunch of deforestation, that to me feels like a win-win.”

Outline map of the Amazon biome (white outline) and Amazon basin (light blue outline). Image by Aymatth2 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Unintended consequences

Daniel Nepstad, a forest ecologist and the founder and director of the Earth Innovation Institute, noted the difficulty in measuring the moratorium’s impacts, but he questioned the conclusion.

“Despite the article’s claims, I am quite certain that we do not yet know if the effect of the [soy moratorium] on deforestation was positive or negative,” Nepstad said.

The moratorium touched off a ripple of complicated and, in many cases, as-yet-undocumented consequences, he said. For example, prices for cattle pasture, which could later be planted with soy, soared after the moratorium was signed because pastures that had been cleared before 2008 were open to soy farmers under the terms of the moratorium.

“And with sky-rocketing land-prices, soy expansion injected a lot of capital into the frontier, with still unknown and unquantified consequences,” Nepstad said in an email. “To see a current example of this, take a look at [the Amazonian city of] Alta Floresta, where paving of the [highway] BR163 is feeding a soy-driven land speculation frenzy.”

He also said that the soy farming community argued that Brazil’s forest code, requiring that 80% of a farm in the Amazon should be left as forest, should be the standard, not the moratorium signed by private companies. While most soy producers in the Amazon don’t have land that’s 80% covered by forest, Nepstad said, “the farmers rejected the [soy moratorium] on principle. And I don’t blame them.”

“[T]here is an urgent need to move beyond the ‘market exclusion’ thinking that is at the core of the [soy moratorium] for one simple reason: we still don’t know if it works,” he added. “And there are many reasons to suggest that it doesn’t.”

A family of rhea pick at the soy fields, a strip of woodland visible in the background. Image courtesy of Lisa Rausch/University of California, Santa Barbara.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, has thrown his government’s weight behind opening up the Amazon to agribusiness, energy production and mining, representing a stark reversal in the government support for conservation of the mid-2000s. With that policy swing has come a surge in forest loss, despite the indefinite renewal of the soy moratorium in 2016. While still below the peaks of the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, the Brazilian Amazon lost more than 11,000 km2 (4,250 mi2) of forest in 2020 for the first time since 2008.

Heilmayr said that private commitments like the soy moratorium might help places like the Amazon weather the vagaries of politics. Still, he added, the team’s research is evidence of the importance of supporting conservation-focused policies in addition to zero-deforestation pledges.

“It was really exciting to look at the trajectory of Brazil’s deforestation rates, and that they had seen this dramatic, 84% reduction in deforestation from the high in 2004” through 2012, he said. “The real test right now is that there’s unprecedented new pressure on forest clearing. Can the soy moratorium continue to prevent new deforestation?”

Banner image of the Amazon near Manaus, Brazil, by Neil Palmer/CIAT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Editor’s note: Mongabay receives funding from the Norwegian government’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI). Heilmayr et al. also received funding from NICFI, but the initiative has no editorial influence on Mongabay content.

Citations:

Gibbs, H. K., Rausch, L., Munger, J., Schelly, I., Morton, D. C., Noojipady, P., … Walker, N. F. (2015). Brazil’s soy moratorium. Science, 347(6220), 377-378. doi:10.1126/science.aaa0181

Heilmayr, R., Rausch, L. L., Munger, J., & Gibbs, H. K. (2020). Brazil’s Amazon soy moratorium reduced deforestation. Nature Food, 1(12), 801-810. doi:10.1038/s43016-020-00194-5

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