Sat, Sep 01, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Soy boom devours Brazil’s tropical savanna

Concerted efforts have been made to protect the Amazon rainforest, pushing the agriculture business and its environmental implications to the cerrado, its neighboring grassland

By Jake Spring  /  Reuters, CAMPOS LINDOS, Brazil

Growers are respectful of legally allowed limits on deforestation, Maggi said, adding that their “rational” occupation of the cerrado has helped Brazil’s economy.

Farmers have emerged as a powerful political force bent on keeping Brazil’s countryside open for business. Lawmakers in the nation’s largely rural, pro-agriculture voting bloc, who comprise more than 40 percent of the nation’s Congress, have led a rollback of environmental laws in recent years.

Those efforts include a 2012 loosening of Brazil’s landmark Forest Code that sets requirements for preserving native vegetation. The change reduced potential penalties for farmers, ranchers and loggers charged with past illegal deforestation, and made it easier for landowners to clear more of their holdings. Annual deforestation in the Amazon last year was up 52 percent from a record low in 2012.

Still, environmental protections there remain the most robust in Brazil. Rainforest farmers are required by law to preserve 80 percent of native vegetation on their plots, and global grain traders in 2006 voluntarily agreed to stop purchasing any soy harvested from newly deforested Amazon jungle areas.

As part of its obligations under the Paris agreement, the government pledged to eliminate illegal Amazon deforestation by 2030.

Brazil has made no similar push to preserve the cerrado, which has long been viewed as a resource to be developed.

Cerrado farmers are required to preserve as little as 20 percent of the natural cover, and up to 35 percent in areas neighboring the Amazon. Those who do not maximize use of their tracts risk having their land declared idle and subject to redistribution under a 1980 federal land-reform initiative aimed at assisting rural, low-income people, said Elvison Nunes Ramos, sustainability coordinator with the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply.

“The message being sent to the farmer is that he should not preserve, he should deforest,” Nunes Ramos said of the policy.

A spokesman for the Brazilian National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform, the government agency that verifies the use of the rural land, said its job is to ensure “the fulfillment of the social function of the property.”


Environmentalists say the cerrado’s wooded grasslands have failed to capture the public’s attention the way the Amazon’s lush jungles have.

People view the cerrado “just as bushes, twisted vegetation and shrubs,” Alencar said.

What many do not see is the connection between the soybean-fed meat on their plates and the steady decline of one of the world’s great carbon sinks, a bulwark against global warming, she said.

Plants here send roots deep into the earth to survive seasonal drought and fires, creating a vast underground network that some have likened to an upside-down forest.

Destruction of surface vegetation, and the resulting die-off of the life below, released 248 million tonnes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere in 2016, according to estimates by the Climate Observatory, a Brazilian conservation group. That is about two-and-a-half times the annual tailpipe emissions from all cars in Brazil.

Watersheds are also hurting.

In Palmeirante, a rural municipality in the state of Tocantins, subsistence farmer Ronivon Matias de Andrade blames expanding mega-farms for damaging a community water source.

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