New report documents soy-linked deforestation in Argentina and Paraguay

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© J Wickens, Ecostorm
© J Wickens, Ecostorm
Large commodity traders, Bunge and Cargill, are displaying “intentional ignorance” about purchasing deforestation-linked soy from the Gran Chaco region in South America, alleges Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of US based not-for-profit group, Mighty Earth.

His comment follows the release of a report, The Avoidable Crisis​, documenting the findings of an investigation, carried out by Mighty Earth along with Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) and Fern. It claims soy raised for European animal feed is behind deforestation in Argentina and Paraguay, and that Cargill and Bunge have failed to put in place meaningful mechanisms to ensure that they are not driving these harmful practices.

Mighty Earth also ran an investigation last year​, looking at deforestation in Brazil’s Cerrado and the Bolivian Amazon, again linked to those soy traders.

"The need for conservation is as acute in the Gran Chaco regions as it is in the Cerrado and the Bolivian Amazon,"​ said Hurowitz. The region has not had the spotlight shine on it to the same extent as the Cerrado or Amazon though. “We are trying to change that," ​he added.

Satellite mapping of destruction 

In this latest Mighty Earth scrutiny of commodity led deforestation, the field team said, using satellite mapping, they identified large areas of the Chaco biome being cleared and burned for soy production. They visited 20 sites in the Chaco undergoing deforestation for soy, tracking the destruction by aerial drone, and interviewed farmers and local community members. 

Gran Chaco, a 110-million hectare region spanning Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. The dry woodlands of the Chaco are one of the largest remaining continuous tracts of native vegetation in South America, second in size only to the great Amazon rainforest. The region is highly biodiverse and home to many endemic species, and the forests of the Gran Chaco are home to a vibrant community of indigenous peoples.  

anteater road
© J Wickens, Ecostorm

Attempts to, actually, talk to the titleholders of those soy farms, who tend to be absentee owners, based in Buenos Aires, were not successful, said Hurowitz.

He said, though, the researchers, speaking with employees on each of the farms​, found almost all of the deforestation soy is exported through the port of Rosario and adjacent ports. The farm managers and employees told the Mighty Earth team their soy is sold to the big traders; they cited Cargill and Bunge as major customers. 

Due to the relative remoteness of the Chaco region, the farmers sell to transport companies that bring the soy to Rosario and adjacent ports, where the major agribusiness traders have their siloes and port facilities.

Bunge operates a large silo in Argentina’s Chaco Province, and Cargill has two siloes nearby. In Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest region, Cargill and Bunge operate siloes in San Pedro and Canindeyu Departments, said Mighty Earth.

“Both Cargill and Bunge have public sustainability policies, but when we contacted them about our report findings, they failed to provide any information about the level of traceability in their supply chain. Without sufficient traceability, these companies cannot know the true origin of the soy they purchase."

Reaction from Bunge and Cargill

FeedNavigator asked Bunge and Cargill for their responses to these current allegations.

Stewart Lindsay, vice president global sustainability, Bunge, told us: 

smoke from fire on land argentina
Photo from the Mighty Earth report - The Avoidable Crisis - showing smoke from fire on cleared land in Argentina © J Wickens, Ecostorm

“Today, we can track 100% of our direct purchases in Paraguay and in the focus provinces of Salta and Tucuman in Argentina to the farm. We began monitoring purchases for Argentina and Paraguay in 2017, and have no record of commercial transactions related to the cases recently cited by the NGO.

“We communicate our expectations to all our suppliers, and have certifications in place that include deforestation-free products for specific markets when commercially requested.”

Ultimately, he said, deforestation is a complex problem and depends on a multi-stakeholder effort. Controlling it will require government, industry, farmers, local communities and civil society to develop new systems. “Bunge will continue to be an active participant in these efforts.”

He said Bunge’s goal is to build sustainable supply chains free of deforestation.

“Our commitment is public and so is our plan, which is based on traceability, supporting tools for sustainable agriculture and developing incentives for farmers that engage in deforestation free cropping.”

The agribusiness group’s efforts include working with a coalition of companies, NGOs and government agencies to develop online, open source tools to help identify areas for the sustainable expansion of agriculture. “We are also participating in multi-stakeholder discussions to develop broader approaches to avoid land use change," ​said Lindsay.

Chris Schraeder, communications director, sustainability, at Cargill, sent us a prepared statement.

The company said its policy on forests and supplier code of conduct show its expectations for working responsibly across the value chain.

“We take any allegations seriously and conducted our own investigation into claims that we are sourcing from deforested land in Argentina and Paraguay.

“Based on the information available, we have no evidence to support claims that we source from farms linked to deforestation, and we are delivering on our promise to protect forests.”

European meat and retailer sector urged to act

Hurowitz, however, said that as long as the soy traders do not take immediate action to end deforestation, it becomes the responsibility of companies within the meat industry, retailers and investors to demand that the soy traders guarantee deforestation-free soy.

Many European supermarkets have issued calls for an end to deforestation, but few have shifted their suppliers, said Mighty Earth.

Investors including the Norwegian Pension Fund Global should take strong action towards portfolio company Bunge because of “their repeated failure to address deforestation,”​ argued RFN’s policy advisor, Ida Breckan Claudi. 

cut trees argentina
Photo from the Mighty Earth report - The Avoidable Crisis © J Wickens, Ecostorm

The Mighty Earth report noted that there are more than 650 million hectares of previously cleared land across Latin America alone where soy and cattle can be raised without threatening native ecosystems. While not all of these degraded lands may be available for commodity agriculture, even a small percentage would easily meet projected soybean expansion years into the future, said the campaigners.

Moreover, added Hurowitz, it is more economical to cultivate soy on degraded land than clearing native forest as infrastructure like road and rail is already established. 

“The most common way to extend soy production in Brazil, for example, is on former pasture land, so this is standard practice, even if there may be a need, sometimes, for nutrient enrichment.”

However, in terms of why native forest, instead, ends up being cleared for soy production, he said there are different answers in the different areas, but that it can come down to the fact that large soy producers gravitate towards cheap or free land, and cheap labor through corrupt means or the use of unscrupulous business practices like land grabbing. 

bulldozers rip up forest paraguay
Photo from the Mighty Earth report - The Avoidable Crisis - Bulldozers rip up forest in Paraguay © J Wickens, Ecostorm

Hurowitz said Mighty Earth field researchers, repeatedly, come across a complete lack of awareness of the more sustainable approaches to soy cultivation from government and officials in these regions. He also cites the power of the agricultural lobby in South America to push against environmental protection measures.

The Mighty Earth report cited findings by Greenpeace in relation to Argentina that licenses issued by the Salta provincial government authorized the deforestation of almost 150,000 hectares of protected forest, in violation of national law. “In many cases, soy agribusinesses have illegally cleared land with impunity. However, they would not have an incentive to do so if European companies were unwilling to buy deforestation-based soy in the first place.”

Soy moratorium extension 

In Brazil, the soy industry, including Cargill and Bunge, implemented the Brazilian Soy Moratorium more than a decade ago. "This system shifts new production to already cleared lands and has been extremely successful in almost entirely eliminating deforestation for soy in the Brazilian Amazon. Unfortunately, this initiative has been confined just to the Brazilian Amazon."

Ultimately, the campaigners, Mighty Earth, RFN, Fern, along with a coalition of other organizations, are calling on soy companies to immediately extend the successful Brazilian Amazon soy moratorium to other soy-growing regions in Latin America, including the Gran Chaco, the Bolivian Amazon and Brazilian Cerrado. 

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