Soybean and oil palm expansion threatens natural environments in South America
Mainly associated with global markets for human food, animal feed and biofuel markets, the expansion of soybean and oil palm in South America is a major threat to rainforests.
A recent report by CIFOR (Centre for International Forestry Research) scientist, Dr Pacheco, has taken a close look at the economic, social and environmental implications of expanding soybean and oil palm in South America. The paper assesses two cases in detail: expansion of soybean production in Brazil and oil palm expansion in Colombia.
The report shows that while these crops generate economic benefits and invoke economic multiplier effects for the broader economies in the two countries, there are many other considerations that need to be remembered.
In Brazil’s Mato Grosso, which lies immediately south of the Amazon Basin, enormous soybean growers have been steadily destroying the cerrado (scrub forest) environment and creating monoculture farms that, in many places, literally stretch to every horizon. The cerrado environment has also been found to contain significant carbon, mostly sequestered in the roots of stubby trees as they seek moisture deep in the ground. In recent months, Brazil has recognised the need to focus some of its climate change mitigation activities on the cerrado, rather than focus exclusively on the Amazon rainforest.
Satellite images show that almost 30% of the Rio Xingu catchment is now dedicated to soybean monoculture. Interestingly,soy production also pushes cattle ranching into new areas and so indirectly creates a second wave of deforestation.
Multiple factors drive the expansion of soybean and oil palm and their socio-economic and environmental effects, including policy incentives, market conditions, improved technologies, expansion of roads and changes in tenure.
Together, these factors have led to a vigorous expansion of the agribusiness in South America, the outcomes of which are still under debate. In some cases, it has contributed to increase economic incomes in production zones, and generated additional earnings for local and national economies through the development processing industries down the value chain. In other cases, it has contributed to land concentration and favoured traders and industry owners at the expense of smallholders.
Soybean and oil palm cultivation have also contributed to the creation of more homogeneous landscapes linked to adoption of large-scale mechanised and capital-intensive agriculture. This is usually bad for biodiversity and the report claims that it is difficult to argue that economic gains have outweighed environmental and social costs.
Source: CIFOR and Greenpeace