Talk of ecological diversity or saving rare species does not fly very far in Mato Grosso.
The state is Brazil’s top soy producer, churning out an annual harvest of about 18 million tonnes. Fields of emerald green line the highways, stretching out to horizons so flat they look drawn with a ruler.
The crops have helped fuel Brazil’s economic boom of recent years but they come at a price — the clearing of more than 130,000km2 of Amazon rain forest in the state from 1988 through 2008, to the widespread condemnation of environmental groups.
Years of acrimony have built up. When a visitor mentions environmentalists, the faces of Mato Grosso farmers often cloud with hostility.
So, with “save the world” emotional appeals not working, environmentalists are turning to economic arguments, stressing how preserving the world’s largest forest can mean bigger profits for farmers.
“We have to define what’s in it for the farmer,” senior director for agricultural markets at the Conservation International group John Buchanan said. “The private sector is too important a stakeholder not to have on board.”
His group has worked with Brazilian farmers since 2001, helping them comply with confusing environment laws, negotiate government bureaucracy and identify environmentally important land, such as parcels housing rare species.
“We started very small, very simple,” Buchanan said, adding that about 132,000 hectares of preserves in several states have been or are being legalized.
“Some in the environmental community have unrealistic expectations of what farmers can do,” he said. “We know we need to preserve important places. We also need to be producing the food, fiber and fuel that we need for a growing world.”
The Amazon rain forest in Brazil has lost nearly 20 percent of its area since the 1970s, largely because of ranchers and farmers seeking new land for their cattle and crops.
But better policing has helped reduce the destruction to around 7,000km2 nationally last year, the lowest in more than two decades and less than one-quarter of the record rate in 1995, according to the National Institute of Space Studies’ satellite data.
Environmentalists are trying to bring the figures down even further, emphasizing the long-term economic losses springing from deforestation.
“We see the conventional economy as an instrument,” says Maria Amelia Enriquez, president of the Sociedade Brasileira de Economia Ecologica, which studies the economics of environmental policies. “Science can’t just live in its own world anymore.”
Perhaps no one embodies this shift like “soy king” Blairo Maggi.
Maggi’s family are among the world’s biggest soy producers, and, after a successful run at Mato Grosso’s governorship in 2002, deforestation accelerated as his influence over environmental policy became even bigger.
In 2003, Maggi told the New York Times that he didn’t feel “the slightest guilt” over deforestation. Two years later, Greenpeace gave him its “Golden Chainsaw” award to protest his role in the destruction.
But Maggi has recently adopted a much more moderate tone, calling for a balance between agriculture and the environment.
“We agree farmers need to preserve forest, but they need the financial incentive to do so,” he told Forbes last year.
He backs the carbon-financing mechanisms known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, under which rich countries can offset their carbon emissions by paying for avoided deforestation in countries like Brazil.
Those sorts of programs can make a clearer case for the financial benefits of conservation.
Consumer pressure for “greener” products also has an impact. Recent international campaigns by Greenpeace on the destructive effects of soy and cattle have forced farmers to become more environmentally aware or risk losing customers.
Environmentalists say the more efficient land use that resulted in many cases helped farmers make more profit and limited some environmentally-unfriendly practices.
“If you can make good economic arguments, it’s hard not to make progress,” says Marcos Amend, the executive director of Conservacao Estrategica, a Brazilian offshoot of the Conservation Strategy Fund.
Amend’s group runs a nine-day class teaching conservationists how to couch their arguments in financial terms. About 350 people have cycled through the Brazilian version of the course, which includes microeconomics and valuing natural resources, among other topics.
“Conservation is basically putting order to economic activities,” Amend said. “But if you don’t understand the economics behind it all, it’s a tough sell.”
Farmers can be convinced, but the arguments need to be well-grounded with demonstrable results.
In Sorriso, for example, farmers have embraced a farming technique called zero tillage, in which they leave organic matter such as leaves, stalks, roots and stems from previous harvests on the soil to provide a natural fertilizer and barrier against erosion for the next crop.
The fields in and around town are covered with old stalks and leaves of crops, such as corn, planted between seasons of soy, the plant most ubiquitous in this city of about 55,000 people.
Zero tillage can increase profits through labor and energy savings, conserve soil, increase tolerance to drought, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the World Bank says.
“For us, the farmers, as well as the environment, zero tillage has been the best thing,” Sorriso farmer Argino Bedin said.
Brazilian farmers point out that they’re feeding the nation — and boosting the economy. Brazil is the world’s top exporter of beef, poultry, coffee, sugar and orange juice.
Ultimately, numbers drive the bottom line, said Egidio Raul Vuaden, a farmer in nearby Lucas do Rio Verde. “If there’s demand in the market, man will go in search of money.”
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