Soy and the Cerrado: Exports, Ecology Collide in Brazil’s Savanna

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By Michael Kepp

Soybean cultivation cutting deep into the Cerrado is turning Brazil’s vast wooded savanna into farmland, a transformation so swift that endemic species are being pushed to extinction and even the country’s water supply could be affected, scientists and environmental groups warn.

Rapid changes in the region are fueled by Chinese demand for soybeans, a cash crop easily grown in Brazil; the country’s staggering economy, which embraces these expanded agricultural exports; and land-protection measures in the neighboring Amazon rainforest, which have driven soy farmers south and east into Brazil’s second-largest biome, environmental groups said.

“The Cerrado, whose little-known biodiversity could yield products that benefit humanity, suffers from Brazil’s highest deforestation rate, one whose magnitude and velocity are without historic precedent,” the country’s two leading scientific associations said in April in an unusual joint plea for federal protection of at least 20 percent of the ecosystem.

The Cerrado is larger than Alaska and California combined, yet only 8 percent of the biome is off-limits to agriculture or development. By contrast, 46 percent of Brazil’s iconic Amazon is now protected by the government.

Agricultural giants including Bunge, Cargill, and the Amaggi Group tell Bloomberg BNA that they’re committed to sustainable soy production in the Cerrado. But the companies—and the Brazilian government—also acknowledge that the soy frontier will continue to expand.

‘No Restrictions or Quotas’

The country’s soy production has tripled in the past 20 years, and Brazil is now the second-largest soy producer worldwide, after the U.S.

Protein-rich soybeans are used extensively worldwide to feed livestock and for foods ranging from tofu to soy sauce. Today, 75 percent of Brazil’s soybeans are exported to China, according to the Brazilian Vegetable Oil Industry Association (Abiove), a group of soy traders and processors.

“The Agriculture Ministry has prioritized expanding soy and other grain production in the Cerrado and elsewhere in Brazil to supply both domestic and foreign markets,” Edson Leite, an Agriculture Ministry agronomist, told Bloomberg BNA. “The ministry also promotes the expansion of the soy frontier through the legal clearing of new land and places no restrictions or quotas on how much soy Brazil should produce.”

Amazon Moratorium

Under intense international pressure, multinational grain traders and processors nine years ago declared a moratorium on new soy production in the Amazon rainforest, vowing not to buy soy grown in Amazon areas deforested after July 2008. That immediately drove many soy producers into the Cerrado, environmentalists and scientists contend.

While post-moratorium deforestation rates immediately dropped in the Amazon, “a very different scenario has been playing out in neighboring savanna-woodland areas known as Brazil’s Cerrado,” NASA scientists in the U.S. said in a 2015 study using satellite maps.

With its acidic soil and gnarled vegetation, the Cerrado was once considered a poor fit for farming. But experiments with fertilizers and lime slowly began to change that in the 1960s.

That transformation has accelerated rapidly in recent decades, and the Cerrado region has lost 46 percent of its native vegetation cover, according to a study published in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution this year.

Extinction of ‘Global Significance’

Without changes, the Cerrado will lose a third of its remaining vegetation cover by 2050, a loss “set to trigger an extinction episode of global significance,” Bernardo Strassburg, professor of sustainability science at the Pontific Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro, wrote in the Nature Ecology & Evolution report.

But Edson Sano, who heads the remote-sensing data department at IBAMA, the enforcement arm of Brazil’s Environment Ministry, said his agency lacks the staffing and resources to do much to help.

“It’s hard to curb illegal Cerrado deforestation because 90 percent of our field agents patrol the Amazon,” Sano said. “And because Cerrado vegetation is much less dense than Amazon vegetation, it can be cleared more quickly, making enforcement against illegal clearing harder.”

The Matopiba

The Cerrado’s most rapidly changing region is a vast plateau whose western frontier borders the eastern Amazon. It’s called the Matopiba because it intersects the states of Maranhao, Tocantins, Piaui, and Bahia.

“Even though the Matopiba’s soil quality, undependable rainfall, and rugged topography do not make it ideal for growing soy, its cultivation there is booming, mainly because of cheap land and growing international demand for soy,” Rodrigo Medeiros, vice president of Conservation International Brazil, told Bloomberg BNA.From 2000 to 2014, the soy-occupied area of the Matopiba increased by 253 percent, said Arnaldo Carneiro, an ecological and geographic researcher at the government’s National Institute for Amazonian Research.

Maned Wolf, Giant Anteater

In appearance, the Cerrado could be Brazil’s answer to the Serengeti: grassland with sporadic trees and brush spreading across relatively flat plateau. South and southeast of the Amazon rainforest at around 6,000 feet above sea level, the Cerrado’s climate is subtropical, except for a tropical zone where it hugs the periphery of the Amazon.

As with most of Brazil, the Cerrado experiences only two seasons—dry and rainy. It’s home to about 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity, including more than 800 bird species, according to environmental organization WWF. “Giant anteaters and armadillos are among its 60 vulnerable animal species, 12 of which are critically endangered. Of its more than 11,000 plant species, nearly one-half are found nowhere else on Earth, and many are used for food, medicine, and handicrafts,” the WWF said..Other endemic mammals include the bush dog and the maned wolf, South America’s largest canine, whose pointed snout gives it the appearance of a huge fox with a mane.

Endemic plants in danger include the pequi tree, with an oily, edible commercial fruit; hardwood courbaril, or Brazilian cherry wood tree; and the cagaita tree. Much of the vegetation is actually underground, in massive subterranean root systems that evolved to help the trees survive drought and fires, according to scientists.

Spanning parts of nine states, the Cerrado is home to a few major cities, including the capital of Brasilia. But much of it remains sparsely populated.

Brazil’s Sponge

The Cerrado contains three main watersheds and contributes 43 percent of Brazil’s surface water outside the Amazon, making it the country’s most important water-collection ecosystem.

The savanna’s water supply depends in part on deep-rooted native vegetation cover that inhibits runoff while allowing underground aquifers to be replenished. Extensive farming could interrupt that process.

“Over 70 percent of the Cerrado’s water is being used for irrigation, mainly by agribusiness, water needed to revitalize Brazilian watersheds that power big dams,” Isabel Figueiredo, a coordinator of the National Cerrado Defense Campaign, a network of 40 environmental and human rights groups, told Bloomberg BNA. “So its further deforestation could diminish rainwater supply to its aquifers and the watersheds they replenish, threatening future water and energy security for the whole country.”

Strassburg’s Nature Ecology & Evolution study argues that soy production and conservation in the Cerrado are not mutually exclusive if sustainable farming and ranching practices are adopted.

Nelson Ananias Filho, sustainability coordinator at the National Farming & Ranching Confederation, agrees that making better use of the land where soybeans are farmed—rather than continuing to use more and more land for soy production—could help slow deforestation.

“The government can’t afford to buy and protect more of the Cerrado, so it makes more sense to sustainably ranch and farm on it to boost rural prosperity,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

‘Sustainable Supply Chains’

Several companies involved in soy production and trade said they are working to mitigate any environmental issues arising from their business.

“Our goal is to build sustainable supply chains free of deforestation,” Stewart Lindsay, vice president of corporate affairs at Bunge Ltd., told Bloomberg BNA. “Ultimately, deforestation is a complex problem related to global market demand, economic development, property rights, and a lack of sufficient compensation for landowners—from the marketplace or from governments—that would provide incentives to conserve the environment.”

Cargill said: “Global demand for soybeans is growing and this presents an opportunity for Cargill and our supply-chain partners to advance sustainable agricultural practices that will protect the planet, improve farmer livelihoods, and promote economic development.”

Brazil-based Amaggi, the world’s biggest soy producer, told Bloomberg BNA that it “adopts standards of excellence to guarantee the sustainability of its businesses independent of the biome in which they are developed because the preservation of natural resources is a company priority and cultivated value.”

‘We Have Other Options’

While the government has allowed and even encouraged agricultural expansion in the Cerrado, it has taken some steps to promote more sustainable farming.

In 2010, Brazil announced the first phase of a Cerrado protection program to promote sustainable activities, control deforestation, and forest fires, and settle land-claims disputes. But the program got very little money—what amounts to about $4 million today.

In 2017, 8 percent of the Cerrado is protected—the same as in 2010. Brazil said it wants to increase that to 17 percent by 2021.

“The government hasn’t safeguarded more of the Cerrado since the biome’s protection program began, in part because of the high cost of buying private Cerrado land and because removing and relocating illegal Cerrado settlers from public land that we want to protect is a long and complicated process,” Gabriel Lui, deputy director at the Environment Ministry’s department of forests, told Bloomberg BNA. “But we have other options in our Cerrado-protection portfolio, one of which involves asking states to transfer unprotected Cerrado land they own to the federal government to protect, and vice versa.”

Satellite Data

While the Environment Ministry’s priority has been to combat Amazon deforestation, “we have a now-on-schedule commitment to make sure IBAMA gets real-time satellite-image analyses needed to combat Cerrado deforestation by early 2018,” said Lui. “This will make the Cerrado the first Brazilian biome outside the Amazon for which such analyses are done and used.”

The government’s National Space Research Institute recently used satellite images for the first time to analyze year-over-year Cerrado deforestation. That analysis showed that the Cerrado lost 9,483 square kilometers (3,661 square miles) of forest in 2015, an area the size of the U.S. states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

Seven years ago, the Agriculture Ministry began a nationwide low-carbon agriculture and livestock (ABC) plan backed by federal bank financing. By the end of 2016, the banks had provided farmers and ranchers who adopt sustainable land-use practices $4.4 billion in below-market loans.

So far, 7.5 million hectares of pasture have been restored nationwide, 33 percent of it in the Cerrado, said Leite, the Agriculture Ministry agronomist who helped implement the plan. “The ABC plan’s financing to increase productivity on the same amount of land have curbed the need to clear more native Cerrado vegetation, especially for pastures,” Leite said.

Deforestation Skeptics

One group involved in Brazil’s soy trade rejects a connection between Amazon protection and Cerrado deforestation.

“The [Amazon] moratorium appears to have no significance in explaining soy expansion in the Cerrado,” said Bernardo Pires, sustainability manager of Abiove, which spearheaded the Amazon moratorium. “What’s more, most of the soy planted in the Cerrado has been consolidating since the 1990s and the moratorium, which started in July 2008, is much more recent.”

And Marcelo Vieira, president of the Brazilian Rural Society (SRB), a century-old industry group representing farmers, said fears of further soy expansion are exaggerated.

“Matopiba areas not yet occupied by soy are not good for growing the grain, which limits further expansion of its frontier into this region,” Vieira told Bloomberg BNA. “So worries that soy will cause a further loss of vegetation and biodiversity are overblown.”

Trains Are Coming

One thing that inarguably has been a relative brake on the amount of Cerrado soy produced is the difficulty in getting soybeans and their byproducts to port. Most of that is now done by trucks going over highways and dirt roads.

Two cargo railway lines in the works would greatly lower transport costs.

When completed, the 4,828-kilometer (3,000-mile) North-South Railway will run through the Matopiba, connecting it to Atlantic ports in both northern and southern Brazil. While the government has built 2,253 kilometers (1,400 miles) of the track, the final 2,575 kilometers (1,600 miles) still must be completed at the railway’s northern and southern extremities. Brazil has yet to award contracts for completion of those sections.

But the government plans this year to auction the concession to build and operate a second railway: the 576-mile, $4-billion Grain Railway. By 2022, this railway could carry soy from the northern Cerrado to a port on the Tapajos River in Para state. From there, it will be barged to two northern Atlantic ports for export, mainly to Asia.

A consortium of multinational soy processors and traders—ADM, Amaggi, Bunge, Cargill, Dreyfus, and EDLP, a logistics company—has presented the government with an investment project, hoping to win a bid to develop the Grain Railway.

“Soy production is forecast to increase due to strong demand from consumers around the world,” said Bunge’s Lindsay. “How and where production increases occur will depend on many factors, including government policies, private investment, and the agronomic potential of the land.”

‘Long-Term Demand’

Today, 3 million to 5 million tons of soy each season is trucked along the BR-163, a 1,173-kilometer (729-mile) stretch of highway. But the soy-giant consortium hoping to win a concession to develop the Grain Railway, which would run alongside the highway, initially could haul 13 million tons a season by train—and potentially 37 million tons a season by 2050—according to government Environment and Transport ministry estimates.

“Railways that haul soy out of the Cerrado far more cheaply than trucks will reduce its transport costs, boost foreign demand for the commodity, and will undeniably drive more clearing of that savanna by agribusiness,” Ian Thompson, vice president of the Brazilian arm of the Nature Conservancy, told Bloomberg BNA. “China’s inherent dependence on Brazil to supply its soy needs, fueled by its growing middle class, guarantees its long-term demand for its soy.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Kepp in Rio de Janeiro at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

For More Information

The manifesto from the Brazilian Society for Scientific Progress and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences on protecting the Cerrado is available, in Portuguese, at http://bit.ly/2opfIFi.

NASA's satellite images on the Cerrado are available at https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=85364.

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