Every year, fires creep across parts of the Amazon, the unmistakable mark of advancing agriculture (especially soy) and cattle-ranching, both significant economic activities.
Visible from space, these fires reduce everything in their paths to cinder, including rainforests. But unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Agriculture is the second main cause of forest conversion in the Amazon. In addition to deforestation, agricultural practices tend to cause significant soil erosion and river siltation, as well as aquatic contamination with agrochemicals.
Agriculture in the Amazon is extremely diverse. While small-scale agriculture can have significant cumulative impact in some Amazonian ecosystems, it is the largescale agro-industrial sectors, with trends of rapid expansion in the Amazon, that are of most concern.
Brazil has 67% of the crop area of the Amazon, followed by Peru (14%) and Bolivia (9%) (Nepstad et al. 2008). Soy production in the Brazilian Amazon tripled from 1990 to 2006. Other crops such as sugar cane and palm oil for biofuels, as well as cotton and rice, are expanding as well.
The livestock and agriculture sectors do not exist in isolation from each other. Rather, they are linked in two primary ways: they act as mutual enablers to access land within the Amazon, and they support each other through integrated value chains.
Brazil has most of the crop area of the Amazon, followed by Peru and Bolivia
There are several reasons why soy cultivation is expanding:4
Growing global demand, which has propelled soy to the single most important agricultural export commodity of Brazil and Bolivia. For the latter, this accounted for more than one-fourth of total export revenues in 2004.5
Poor law enforcement, facilitating illegal or irregular acquisition of (public) land.
'Perverse incentives' that favour the production of raw materials (such as soy) over processed products.
Global trade arrangements and trade barriers.
Cheap international credit that allow soy traders to offer financially attractive ‘technology packages’ to producers - even where soy is not the most suitable crop from an ecological or food security perspective. With their new gains, producers expand their cultivated areas without depending on expensive domestic loans.6
According to the Brazilian Forest Code, 50% of a property under transition forest can be cleared, while for rainforests, only 20% is allowed for clearance.7
The soy basics
Highest yielding source of vegetable protein globally.
Most important protein in animal feed.
Soy oil is the most consumed vegetable oil in the world.
Soy (Glycine max) provides more than one-fourth of the world’s vegetable oil. In its meal form, it is the preferred food for domesticated animals as it is high in protein - and this demand is growing rapidly
The global demand for soy and its derivatives (vegetable oil, animal feed) is expected to remain strong. Demand for soy will probably increase by 60% to over 300 million tons per year in 2020.
As China and the US have limited spaces of arable land, future expansion will take place primarily in South American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.
The completion of the highway BR-163 in Brazil is likely to promote the expansion of soy cultivation further into the Amazon forests in the western Pará State.
It is expected that 22,000 to 49,000 km2 of rainforest will be cleared to make way for pasture and agriculture development - if spatial planning and environmental enforcement measures are not adopted.15
Looking at the ‘footprint’ of soy cultivation
Loss of natural areas: The expansion of soy cultivation is a powerful agent of rainforest loss. But this is not limited to rainforests. Bush savannah biomes are also threatened.8
Transition forest is naturally subject to longer dry seasons than rainforests and its soils are more suitable for agriculture.9 In Bolivia, 24,000 km2 of forest were converted between 1978 and 2001.10
Because soybean production is an intensive activity, between 1961 and 2002, the area under soybean production in Brazil has increased 57 times, while production volume has increased 138 times.11
Erosion and subsequent siltation of rivers and wetlands, caused by the indiscriminate clearing of vegetation along waterways.
Pollution of surface water with pesticides threatens human populations and aquatic life.12 There is concern that agrochemicals such as herbicides will contaminate lakes, lagoons, people and fish in the Brazilian Amazon River floodplains.13
Social impacts: Labour conditions during land preparation are generally poor. In the 1970s, 2.5 million people were displaced by soybean production in Paraná state and 0.3 million in Rio Grande do Sul, both in Brazil. Many of these people moved to the Amazon Basin where they cleared pristine forests.14