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The green wave of Brazilian soy

by Peri Dias

On the banks of the Tapajós River in Pará, the city of Santarém has become a starting point for a wave that since 2004 has spread throughout a good part of the State. It has not been a “river tsunami,” but a green wave in Amazon farmlands and pastures.  

Thanks to a partnership between TNC and the worldwide giant Cargill, Santarém has received a pioneer program supporting environmental legalization for soy producers, known as Produção Responsável (Responsible Production). The initiative had the goal of guaranteeing that all of the company’s suppliers in that area of the Amazon were compliant with their environmental obligations.

The actions adopted in Santarém brought such good results that they served as a reference for another municipality in Pará, Paragominas, where they were expanded to cattle ranches and various other crops. Once again, the model drew the attention of farmers, ranchers and governments, and was disseminated, until it became the official policy of almost one hundred municipalities in Pará.

Now, a new agreement between TNC and Cargill will provide momentum for expanding the Responsible Production program, not only in Santarém but in other points around the country. As was the case with the first wave, the objective is to reconcile production with preservation, so as to create responsible business models with the potential to “sweep” other regions along the extensive Amazon agricultural frontier.

Multimillion dollar investment

The financial fuel for this expansion will come from Cargill. The company announced, in August 2011, a 3 million dollar donation to TNC, to support actions that protect the Amazon and the Cerrado, while at the same time they help soy producers to grow in a responsible manner. With the contribution, TNC will be able to: 

1) Combat deforestation and advance in environmental adjustment for properties on a much larger scale

History: The first phase of Responsible Soy consisted of including 383 soy-producing properties Santarém and Belterra in the Rural Environmental Registry (Cadastro Ambiental Rural - CAR). This is the first step towards environmental legalization for a rural property. Using information provided through CAR, TNC and Cargill could then monitor illegal deforestation via satellites.

Results already obtained: With the work of monitoring and technical support together with producers, illegal deforestation on the properties included in the project fell to practically zero.

What will advance: Besides maintaining monitoring on the properties included in the first phase of the project, TNC will be able to develop pilot projects for recuperating and restoring APPs (permanent protection areas) and RLs (legal reserves). Those projects will help the organization create models for environmental adjustment for the entire region, helping rural properties in the area to obtain their Rural Environmental License (Licenciamento Ambiental Rural - LAR). Additionally, in a complementary action to the agreement with Cargill, TNC will work with other partners to expand the rural area in Santarém and Belterra included in CAR. That way, the conservation work will begin to reach the scale of “productive landscape,” in other words, an entire region.

2) Guarantee responsible production of soy in other regions

History: In the first phase of the program, Cargill committed itself to buying soy only from producers who were current in meeting their environmental obligations in Santarém. That is a way to guarantee a responsible supply of soy, so that expansion of that crop will not cause deforestation.

Results already obtained: By adopting responsible buying, Cargill created a palpable and immediate incentive for respecting legislation - those who follow the law gain markets. The measure strengthened the culture of environmental responsibility, from the beginning to the final point on the chain, for one of the most important crops in Brazilian agribusiness.

What will advance: The new agreement will allow Cargill and TNC to extend the responsible buying initiative to the northern state of Mato Grosso. The project seeks to get ahead of paving of the BR-163 highway that links Cuiabá to Santarém, and which will certainly create additional pressure on those areas. Historically, when a road is paved or expanded in Brazil, that elevates the risk of deforestation in the entire surround area. This means that in the area included in the program, Cargill will buy soy only from whoever is up to date with their environmental obligations, generating a “vaccine” against the tendency to destroy the forest.

3) Stimulate the rational use of water and soil

History: To begin the Responsible Production program, TNC and Cargill chose controlling deforestation in cultivated areas as a priority in order to strengthen environmental legislation and public policies for reducing the impact of soy crops on the environment. Keeping vegetation standing, however, is only one of the criteria for assuring the responsible supply of soy to the market.

Results already obtained: By enrolling producers in CAR and showing the benefits of responsible production, the program has opened the door for other good agricultural practices.

What will advance: This is one of the main innovations. TNC will coordinate a pilot project that over the next three years will test new indicators of sustainability in 25 properties in the Santarém region. Among the impacts evaluated will be pesticide use and water quality. 

The forests of the region should also provide a new path for restoring degraded areas in southern Pará. TNC and Cargill are studying how to encourage use of cacao in areas of the municipalities of Tucumã and São Félix do Xingu.
Native to the Amazon, cacao represents a good "restorer," because it grows even in the forest shade, and thus makes it possible to maintain the vegetation standing, and at the same time provides a source of income for small-scale farmers. After all, a green wave only expands if it can count on the strength of those who best know the rivers and lands of the region, the inhabitants of the Amazon.

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