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14 Years Ago the Amazon Was Being Bulldozed for Soy – Then Everything Changed As Corporations Joined Activists


In the last 14 years, a unique public-private initiative has reduced deforestation of soy cultivation in the Amazon, so much so that almost no soy from the Amazon currently contributes to deforestation.

It began in 2006 when Greenpeace launched a campaign to expose the damage from logging soybeans the previous year – more than 1,600 square kilometers (almost 4 million acres) – and demanded action to reduce the devastation.

In response to public outcry, the region’s major soy companies reached a historic agreement as signatories to the Amazon Soy Moratorium (ASM), committing not to buy any crops grown on recently cleared land, and success has been remarkable

Today, new research shows that 98.6% of all soybeans grown in the region comply with the moratorium.

Assistant Professor Robert Heilmayr from the University of California-Santa Barbara and his colleagues from the University of Wisconsin Madison have now quantified the effects of ASM and documented how it achieved its goals. The researchers found that while the deal prevented millions of acres of deforestation in its first decade, the policy did not appear to hamper agricultural growth or drive deforestation to other sectors or regions.

“Over a decade, ASM saved 18,000 square kilometers of forest (almost 7,000 square miles),” said Heilmayr, an environmental economist in the Environmental Studies Program and UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. “This is an area larger than the state of Connecticut.”

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The Rhea family of birds snacking in a soybean field – Lisa Rausch, study co-author

The authors estimate that between 2006 and 2016, deforestation in portions of the Amazon suitable for soybeans was 35% lower than it would have occurred without ASM.

“The first time, we were able to control for other policies and factors outside of ASM to quantify their unique contribution to forest conservation,” explained co-author Holly Gibbs, associate professor at UW Madison.

Scientists and conservationists were concerned that ASM could prompt soy farmers to start planting in grasslands, which would push ranchers to cut down more forests, essentially passing the buck to a different sector. However, the study suggests that this did not happen. Gibbs explained that it is likely due, at least in part, to similar campaigns aimed at curbing deforestation in the livestock sector. These efforts began in 2008 and resulted in similar zero deforestation deals in the livestock industry. The team also saw little evidence that ASM was pushing deforestation into the nearby Cerrado biome.

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Although some Brazilian legislators are concerned that strict environmental commitments could weaken economic growth, soy production in the Amazon has continued to expand since the adoption of ASM. It increased from 4.9 million tonnes of production in 2006 to 17.2 million tonnes in 2019. Ultimately, the moratorium has shown that soy expansion is possible without deforestation, Gibbs explained.

What contributed to the effectiveness of the moratorium?

“One of the strengths of the Amazon Soy Moratorium is that it was a near unanimous decision among all soy buyers in that sector,” Heilmayr said. The signatories account for around 90% of all soy purchases in the region, and this high market share ensured that the agreement would transform agricultural practice.

If farmers wanted to sell their soybeans, they would have to comply with the policies established by ASM.

Another factor that contributed to the success of ASM was the cooperation of non-profit NGOs and government agencies. The involvement of environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund increased confidence that the deal is not simply a form of greenwashing. The government’s investments in satellite monitoring systems and local property registries provided the backbone for monitoring and enforcing the moratorium.

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Ten years later, the parties involved chose in 2016 to renew the ASM indefinitely. While this represents a major victory for sustainable agriculture, the researchers noted that commercial viability is preserved. The Amazon soy sector maintains access to valuable international markets, according to industry trade groups, and at low cost to Amazon soy producers.

Co-author Lisa Rausch, a researcher at UW Madison, is convinced that ASM also served to reduce any incentive to clear land on non-soy farms, even in areas not registered for future soy production.

Current deforestation rates are double what they were at their lowest point in 2012, although still dramatically lower than in 2003 and 2004, thanks to the benefits of ASM’s unique combination of public and private policy making .

Heilmayr believes that consistent global demand for soybeans without deforestation will continue to discourage further deforestation despite any weakening of public policies.

“ASM is a good example of what is possible when companies take aggressive and transparent steps toward supply chain sustainability,” he said. “It offers hope that private actors can make significant improvements in the way society interacts with our environment.”

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The study, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative, appears in Nature food.

Source: UC Santa Barbara Current

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