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A few months ago, a representative from Cargill travelled to Colonia Berlin, a remote colony in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands in the southernmost reaches of the vast Amazon River basin with an enticing offer. The American agricultural giant wanted to buy soybeans from the Mennonite residents, descendants of European peasants who had been carving settlements out of the thick forest for more than 40 years.
One of those farmers, Heinrich Janzen, was clearing woodland from a 37-acre plot he bought late last year, hustling to get soy in the ground in time for a May harvest. "Cargill wants to buy from us,” said Janzen, 38, as bluish smoke drifted from heaps of smoldering vegetation. His soy is in demand. Cargill is one of several agricultural traders vying to buy from soy farmers in the region, he said. Cargill confirmed the accounts of colony residents, and said the company was still assessing whether it would source from the community.
A decade after the 'Save the Rainforest’ movement forced changes that dramatically slowed deforestation across the Amazon basin, activity is roaring back in some of the biggest expanses of forests in the world. That resurgence, driven by the world’s growing appetite for soy and other agricultural crops, is raising the spectre of a backward slide in efforts to preserve biodiversity and fight climate change. In the Brazilian Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest, deforestation rose in 2015 for the first time in nearly a decade, to nearly two million acres from August 2015 to July 2016. That is a jump from about 1.5 million acres a year earlier and just over 1.2 million acres the year before that, according to estimates by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.
Here across the border in Bolivia, where there are fewer restrictions on land clearance, deforestation appears to be accelerating as well. About 8,65,000 acres of land have been deforested, on an average, annually for agriculture since 2011, according to estimates from the NGO Bolivia Documentation and Information Centre. That figure has risen from about 3,66,000 acres a year, on an average, in the 1990s and 6,67,000 acres a year in the 2000s. Now, a new study by an environmental advocacy group points to fresh indications of large-scale forest-clearing by Bolivian and Brazilian farmers who trade soybeans with Cargill. That organisation, USA-based Mighty Earth, used satellite imaging and supply-chain mapping information from the Stockholm Environment Institute, an environmental think tank, to identify deforestation in Brazil where two US-based food giants, Cargill and Bunge, are the only known agricultural traders.
According to Mighty Earth’s analysis, the Brazilian savanna areas in which Cargill operates, a region called the Cerrado, saw more than 3,21,000 acres of deforestation between 2011 and 2015. Mighty Earth also linked Bunge, the other agricultural giant, to more than 1.4 million acres from 2011 to 2015. In Bolivia, where supply-chain mapping is not available, Mighty Earth sent employees to areas where Cargill operates. The organisation used drones to record the clearing of forests and savannas in areas where Cargill operates silos.
The reports of fresh deforestation come despite a landmark deal signed three years ago by Cargill and other companies that included a target of "eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities like palm oil, soy and beef products by 2020.” Experts at the time said the deadline, laid out in the New York Declaration of Forests, would require companies to start straightaway to make their sourcing more sustainable. The study was funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and a NGO, Rainforest Foundation Norway.
Forest loss is detrimental to the earth’s climate. The clearing of woodlands and the fires that accompany it generate one-tenth of all global warming emissions, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, making the loss of forests one of the biggest single contributors to climate change. Only about 15% of the world’s forest cover remains intact, according to the World Resources Institute. The rest has been cleared, degraded or is in fragments, wiping out ecosystems and displacing indigenous communities, scientists say. Behind the rise in deforestation is a strategy by multinational food companies to source their agricultural commodities from ever more remote areas around the world. These areas tend to be where legal protections of forests are weakest.
The Brazilian Amazon, a poster child for the global forest-conservation movement, has enjoyed increasing protections, like a moratorium announced in 2006 on forest clearing for soy production.
Between that time and 2015, Brazil reduced Amazon deforestation by almost two-thirds, according to estimates by Mongabay, a environmental news site, based on data from the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. The uptick in forest loss since then, however, has raised concerns that the progress is far from secure. Brazil was aware of the challenge of keeping deforestation at bay, Everton Lucero, the secretary of climate change and forests of Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment, said in an interview.
Even before the New York Declaration, Cargill had made significant efforts to buy palm oil sourced only from land not linked to fresh deforestation, according to a supply-chain expert with extensive experience working on Cargill’s global sustainability efforts. Another problem was the resistance from commodities traders, whose incentive was to seek supplies from as many sources as possible in order to drive down costs. Buying only sustainably grown commodities would mean a more limited supply.
Now, environmental groups accuse Cargill of backtracking on its 2020 deadline. In recent statements, Cargill has adopted a 2030 deadline for elimination of deforestation from its supply chain - a separate deadline, mentioned elsewhere in the New York Declaration, that was meant to apply to ending all forms of deforestation, not just those related to agricultural commodities. "They’re willfully misinterpreting the Declaration,” said Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive of Mighty Earth.
Cargill is committed, David said, to eliminating by 2020 deforestation from its production of palm oil, a commodity widely used in food, detergents and cosmetics. But, he said, Cargill had always understood the declaration to give all signatories until 2030 to tackle deforestation. Holly Gibbs, an expert in tropical deforestation and agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, called the 2030 deadline interpretation devastating. "If we were to wait until 2030,” Holly said, "there would be no forest left.”