INTERVIEW: The soy/wetlands connection: Daniel Blanco and Jan Heinrich, Wetlands International



Posted on 21 August 2013  | 
Daniel Blanco and Jan Heinrich
© Daniel Blanco and Jan HeinrichEnlarge
Wetlands are often overlooked when discussing the impacts of soy expansion. In this interview, Daniel Blanco (Executive Director, Fundacion Humedales / Wetlands International Argentina) and Jan Heinrich (Soy and Wetlands Program Officer, Fundacion Humedales / Wetlands International Argentina) describe the impacts of the expanding soy frontier on wetlands, and their views on how the RTRS can mitigate the damage.

Daniel Blanco is the Executive Director of Fundacion Humedales / Wetlands International Argentina. He is a biologist from the University of Buenos Aires, a wetland and waterbirds expert, and has directed and coordinated more than 50 projects on migratory waterbirds (specially shorebirds), carried out wetlands inventories, wetland restoration and conservation, and waterbird conservation in rice fields, Patagonian peatlands, climate change and biofuels.

Jan Heinrich coordinates the “Soy and Wetlands Program” at Fundación Humedales / Wetlands International. He is a Business Administration (Univ. San Andres) graduate and has a post-graduate degree as a Specialist in Environmental Management (ITBA). Jan is also a consultant on environmental sustainability, both for NGOs and the private sector, with a specialization on the agriculture and food and financial sectors.

Please tell us about Wetlands International and Fundación Humedales Argentina

Fundación Humedales (FH) is a non-profit organization based in Argentina. FH is part of the global network of Wetlands International—the only global not-for-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and restoration of wetlands. We are deeply concerned about the loss and deterioration of wetlands such as lakes, marshes and rivers.

Our mission is to sustain and restore wetlands, their resources and biodiversity for a world where wetlands are treasured and nurtured for their beauty, the life they support and the resources they provide. Our goal for 2020 is: Wetlands are wisely used and restored for the role they play in improving human well-being and local livelihoods; conserving biodiversity; sustaining the water cycle and reducing climate change and its impacts. We work through our network of offices, our partners and experts to achieve our goals.

Why did WI/FH become a member of RTRS?

FH became a member of RTRS in May 2012 to contribute its knowledge of, and experience in, wetland ecosystems, particularly through participation in the RTRS technical bodies and working groups.

The enormous growth of soy production in the region in the last 15 years has led to the intrusion of monoculture to areas that were previously used for other purposes (e.g. livestock) or to natural ecosystems (forests, wetlands or grasslands).

Driven by strong international demand, growing prices, new technologies on transgenic seeds, agrochemicals and production techniques (no till), the expansion of soy in Argentina was done without any kind of planning or regulation.

This expansion of soy was accompanied by strong impacts on natural ecosystems. As it is common in this kind of situation, the focus has been on the impacts of soy production in forests and deforestation. This approach has driven us to a partial view of the problem and the way to approach it.

Our work is to raise awareness about the impacts of this production model on the wetlands and water, and to influence the decision makers of the soy trade chain.

What are the solutions proposed by WI/FH and what role can RTRS play in them?

Solutions must come from different sectors. Governments must promulgate and, especially, enforce land planning laws. The lack of capacity of the different governmental organisations (national, provinces and local) makes it very difficult to implement the laws that already exist.

Additionally, it is necessary to create new laws for land planning and sustainable management of wetlands. In Argentina, a Forest Law was passed in 2007 but its application is very weak, because of the lack of capacity of, and enforcement by, the organisations that must implement this law. Wetlands International is promoting a Minimum Standards Law for wetlands conservation in Argentina (already presented to the Congress), which could be a first step towards conserving the goods and services that wetlands provide.

Companies along the entire value chain and financial institutions must commit to apply responsible and sustainable practices. Those who buy the soy to process it or to commercialise it must require their suppliers to follow responsible production standards. In this sense, RTRS has become a legitimate platform for dialogue between the different stakeholders (producers, industry, NGOs) with the purpose of finding the best solutions in this complex reality.

The development of a consensus-based standard that seriously tackles the problems and proposes realistic solutions has a high value. But the application of this standard remains greatly challenging. At this stage we can (and should) already evaluate the affectivity of the standard within concrete cases.

What role do you see for others such as government, companies, NGOs?

It is necessary that responsible soy production becomes the common rule, and not the exception. We have to make it mainstream. To reach that objective, we need to increase demand for soy from responsible suppliers. The market must recognize those producers that do things correctly in order to transform the system and make that the common denominator.

For this reason, and in a context of dialogue and negotiation, all players must contribute the best available research and knowledge to understand the size of the problem and offer solutions. All need to be willing to hear and consider the position of others and accept the evidences that the others show through strong and serious research. The financial sector deserves special attention as it has a huge capacity to influence the rest of the chain through responsible investments.

What are the conclusions of your study “Biofuels in Argentina: Impacts of soybean production on wetlands and water?”

Soy expansion is having a strong impact on the presence and abundance of wetlands in Argentina. The drainage of lagoons inside the farms is a common practice and has driven the disappearance of an enormous amount of wetlands and the loss of it important role in ecological connectivity. This has caused the loss of ecosystem services and the associated biodiversity. The objective of draining a lagoon is not other than to gain more space to grow soy. The producer prioritises the economic equation and tries to produce more that he or she can, using up to the last space available.

There is no doubt that governments, through land planning and other actions, have a key role to play in preserving wetland ecosystems, including those where soy should be banned, like the Paraná Delta or Esteros del Iberá in Argentina.

Additionally, the inadequate (which is very common) use of agrochemicals and fertilizers brings a high risk of water contamination with direct and indirect impacts on the biodiversity associated with wetlands. To reduce that risk, it is very important to promote environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, and the responsible use of agrochemicals in soybean cultivation.

This report presents concrete evidence of these impacts and proposes some recommendations to improve the environmental performance of this crop. For more information, you can download the report here.

What can the soy value chain do about this?

There must be political willingness to move towards sustainable practices on the production side. The private sector must assume its role and take the opportunity to develop sustainable practices.

It is also necessary to support independent research that evaluates the short, medium and long term impacts of the actual agricultural production model. There is a major lack of information about the consequences of what it is being done in Argentina and the other countries of the region.

What is the main message towards the market?

There has been significant advance with the definition of RTRS standards and now it is necessary to move toward their complete implementation and, in parallel, the evaluation of their effectiveness.

We must see major growth in demand for responsible soy, in order to stop the loss and degradation of natural ecosystems. This requires major efforts and capacity from all actors. In the end, what is needed is a compromise in favour of protecting the natural resources and wetlands and water in particular, taking into account that they are fundamental for food production.

Can you mention other projects/activities of WI/FH regarding soy?

WI / FH is participating in a Socio-Environmental Observatory for Soy with other organizations from Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. The objective is to develop solid information regarding the impacts of this commodity and reach key decision makers in the region and the rest of the world. As mentioned before, we are also working on the promotion of a Minimum Standards Law for Wetlands conservation in Argentina.


Daniel Blanco and Jan Heinrich
© Daniel Blanco and Jan Heinrich Enlarge

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