The social impact of soy

The growth of the soy industry has brought mixed blessings for farmers and local communities in South America and the rest of the world.

Growing conflict

Opening up new agricultural land to grow soybeans has often led to violent, sometimes fatal, conflicts with local communities and indigenous people.

In Maranhão, Brazil, where soy cultivation has expanded rapidly, the number of conflicts rose by 424% over a few years, culminating in 89 land conflicts in 2005.

Meanwhile, in the Argentinean Chaco, there were at least 153 land conflicts from 2007 to 2010, affecting 98,000 people across around 1,720,000 hectares.

Easy targets

When plantations encroach on nature reserves, or reserves for indigenous people, locals often find it hard to stand up for their rights – regardless of whether they have formal land ownership papers.

Falsification of property contracts, sometimes with the complicity of local authorities, is common practice to “steal” land for agricultural purposes.

Expansion of agricultural and grazing land threatens 650,000 Brazilian Indians in over 200 tribes, according to Survival International.

Local food supply under stress

Moreover, a growing number of family farmers rent or sell their farmland to soy producers, jeopardizing the local food supply.

In Argentina, the area where soy is grown increased by 141% between 1995 and 2004, while the area covered by corn, rice, oats and beans decreased by 16%, 19%, 27% and 52% respectively.

Economic imbalance

Recently-expanded soy plantations also affect rural employment and the local economy.

Large-scale soy growers usually come from other regions, with their own suppliers and services contractors. They also process their soy far away from where it’s produced—creating no local added value.

In the case of Chaco in Argentina, the expansion of soybean plantations has replaced the cotton economy, which is much more labour intensive, adapted to smallholders, and relies on a strong local value chain.

A heavy price to pay for soybean agriculture

The use of chemicals in soy fields is another major source of social conflict. Aerial and terrestrial spraying with glyphosate, 2-4 D, endosulfan and other pesticides very often adversely affects villages and water sources.

There is increasing evidence of birth malformations and cases of cancer in areas affected by the expansion of soy in Argentina and Paraguay.

A more positive perspective

On the other hand, in some places soy farmers, labourers and non-soy farmers are positive about the social impacts of soy.

In Sorriso, Brazil (in the Cerrado) there has been a major increase in soy production, and incomes are 4.6 times higher than those in Guarantã do Norte (the transitional zone between the Cerrado and the Amazon biome), which is still dominated by cattle rearing.
 / ©: Nigel Dickinson / WWF-Canon
Capones, peasant farmers live in extreme poverty on the edges of tropical rainforest, just surviving to feed themselves.
© Nigel Dickinson / WWF-Canon

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