Turning up the heat on the drivers of deforestation in Brazil’s Cerrado

Arnaldo Carneiro Filho

Deforestation in the Cerrado is increasing, photo: Todd Southgate

Deforestation levels in Brazil’s Cerrado increased once again in 2017 — up nine percent on the previous year according to the latest satellite data released by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The figures are depressing and reflect a collective failure by governments, business and our wider societies to address the problems caused by agricultural expansion in one of the world’s most biodiverse savannah regions.

We know the root of the problem. Growing global demand for meat and for soy (used to feed livestock), is driving entrepreneurs to clear new land for agriculture. The Cerrado, and in particular the Matopiba region, is seen as suitable land — and much of it is not protected by Brazil’s forest protection laws. In some areas, soy is being encouraged by local governments, keen to see “development”.

We also know the environmental cost. As well as providing important habitat for a vast number of plant, animal and bird species, the Cerrado is a major source for Brazil’s water resources. Half of this habitat has already been cleared, and if the destruction continues at current rates, some 500 plant and animal species could be lost.

And there is a human cost. Communities are being displaced to make way for soy plantations and cattle farms. They are losing access to the land and natural resources they depend upon. And water sources are becoming contaminated with the agricultural pesticides used in large-scale soy production.

Demanding action

Last year, WWF Brazil launched the Cerrado Manifesto — Global Canopy is one of the signatories — demanding that deforestation and native vegetation conversion must be stopped. The call to action highlights the role of the private sector — “the future of the Cerrado in the hands of the market” — and the manifesto urges all those involved in the production and supply of these forest risk commodities to take responsibility for the problem.

Companies were urged to sign a Statement of Support — and 23 initially did so. That number has now risen to 62. But these companies — many of which do their business a long way from the deforestation frontiers in Brazil — have not as yet turned their statement of support into concrete action by demanding deforestation-free soy from their suppliers.

The soy producers and traders operating in Matopiba do not appear on the list of supporting companies.

The tide could be turning

Last week, one of the big five soy traders, Louis Dreyfus announced a new soy policy. It committed to “Eliminate engagement in, or financing of deforestation throughout our supply chain, and conserve biomes proven to be of high ecological value, such as the Cerrado, Brazil, with the intent to discourage and eliminate conversion of native vegetation”.

In the UK, the supermarket giant Tesco also announced that it was to step up action on sustainable soy.

These policies are welcome — if a little late in the day. But they will only make a difference to deforestation levels in the Cerrado when they are implemented — across all of their activities.

Because anyone familiar with Louis Dreyfus’ operations in Brazil will realise that the company is currently sourcing very little soy from the deforestation frontier. But as the Trase Yearbook highlighted, its joint-venture with Amaggi and the Japanese trader Zen-Noh was set up with the prime purpose of exploiting the opportunities offered by Matopiba.

If the new policy is to be meaningful, it must apply to those operations as well.

It takes action at all levels

Of course, it is perhaps too easy to focus on the companies operating on the frontline — too easy to paint them as the bad guys who are responsible for felling the trees. In reality responsibility stretches right along the supply chain — from the financial investors, to the growers, the traders, the retailers, the consumers and the governments who regulate and permit… many of whom are oblivious to the role they play.

That is why it will take a concerted effort from all parties to address the problem of deforestation in the Cerrado — and one of the starting points is in recognising the problem and the part we all play.

Arnaldo Carneiro Filho is director of the Sustainable Supply Chains programme at Global Canopy

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