Soy production expanded into more than 1600 sqm of cleared Amazon forests in 2005. So in the following year, Greenpeace launched a campaign to expose deforestation because of soy farming.
Consequently, major soy companies reached an agreement as signatories to the Amazon Soy Moratorium (ASM). They all pledged not to purchase crops grown on recently cleared land. Deforestation decreased in the following years, but we didn’t exactly know the impact of this agreement.
Until, Robert Heilmayr and his colleagues have quantified ASM’s effects and documented how it succeeded. The researchers found that this agreement prevented thousands of square kilometers of deforestation in its first decade.
Moreover, the policy didn’t appear to hinder agricultural industry. It also didn’t push deforestation to other regions/sectors, fortunately. “Over one decade the ASM saved 18,000 square kilometers of forest. This is an area bigger than the state of Connecticut,” said Heilmayr.
Around the same time ASM was doing its work, the Brazilian government was expanding regulation against deforestation. Policies covered the Amazon biome and parts of the Cerrado biome. They’re a vast region of tropical forest and savannah in the southwest of the rainforest.
This made it hard for the team to investigate ASM’s impacts.
Fortunately, ASM had three key features the team could use differenciate its effects from government’s regulation. ASM went into effect in May 2006, was only within the Amazon biome, and it applied specifically to land cleared for soy production.
Heilmayr explained, “We compared deforestation across ecological biomes after the adoption of the ASM, and across locations with different suitability for soy production, to isolate the impact of the ASM.”
Reduction in deforestation
After the comparison, the researchers found a reduction in deforestation. It’s impactful and way more than what they could attribute to government policies alone.
Between 2006 and 2016, they estimated that deforestation in soy suitable portions of the Amazon was 35% lower. Without the ASM, the percentage could be higher.
Coauthor Holly Gibbs said, “Our study is important because, for the first time, we were able to control for other policies and factors outside the ASM to quantify its unique contribution to forest conservation.”
Understandably, conservationists were worried that the ASM might make things worse. Soy farmers might begin planting in pastures, pushing ranchers to clear more forests. That would certainly create another problem in different sector.
However, this study suggests that didn’t happen. The researchers said that this could also be due to campaigns wanting to stem deforestation in the cattle sector. These efforts began in 2008, resulting in similar zero-deforestation agreements in the cattle industry.
For now, the team didn’t have much evidence that the ASM was pushing deforestation into the Cerrado biome. This risk, though, remains to be a concern.
Some Brazilian policymakers worry that such environmental commitments could weaken economic growth. However, soy production in the Amazon has continued to expand since the adoption of the ASM. It increased from 4.9 million tons of production in 2006 to 17.2 million tons in 2019.
Gibbs explained that the ASM has demonstrated that it is possible to expand soy production without deforestation.
Effectiveness of the agreement
Understanding how this conservation policy works and applicable elsewhere is important. So, the team tried to pinpoint what contributed to the ASM’s effectiveness.
“One of the strengths of the Amazon Soy Moratorium is that it was a nearly unanimous decision among all the soy buyers in that sector,” said Heilmayr.
The signatories account for about 90% of all soy purchases in the region. This high market share ensured that the agreement would transform agricultural practice. If farmers wanted to sell soy, they’d have to comply with the policies.
The ASM’s success didn’t happen on its own and there’s another factor: cooperation. Private companies, non-profit NGOs, and government agencies worked together to reach the same goal.
Corporate participation gives a direct market penalty that discourages deforestation. Environmental organizations, on the other hand, can boost confidence that this agreement isn’t just a form of greenwashing or an effort to make companies look good.
Also, public investments helped. In this case, satellite monitoring systems and local property registries. They provide the backbone for monitoring and enforcing the moratorium
Therefore, Heilmayr believes that cooperation between businesses, NGOs, and government actors is vital. In this case, it has lent greater credibility to the initiative in the eyes of the global community.
Long, bumpy road
It’s not always easy to keep being sustainable. In 2016, there was a decision to renew ASM indefinitely. It may sound like a great success for sustainable agriculture, but the agreement’s continuing success still faces obstacles.
Some farmer representatives have raised objections to the ASM. They said that requirements that go beyond the country’s forest laws amount to a violation of Brazil’s sovereignty.
According to the researchers, the ASM ensures that the Amazon soy sector maintains access to valuable international markets. It also ensures low cost to Amazon soy farmers.
Lisa Rausch, coauthor, explained, “Very few Amazon soy farmers have land suitable for soy that they could clear in compliance with Brazil’s Forest Code. The ASM really serves to reduce the incentives to clear land on non-soy farms and in unregistered areas for future soy production.”
I’m not a Brazilian, and I have no idea about the current political climate there. But I think that’s usually the case when it comes to sustainable or environment-friendly agriculture initiatives.
There will always be people who are against them. On the surface, it may seem like they just don’t care about the environment. But sometimes, the underlying concerns involve how to feed their children, how to survive, how to pay workers, and other concerns because of such strict regulations.
But, I do agree that education may change that. I’m from a developing country where farmers’ concerns are usually what I mentioned above. If education came first and foremost, they’d probably farm sustainably, and achieve sustainable agriculture.
The ASM’s combination of public and private policymaking is unique. Not only that, it benefits from the current political, economic and environmental zeitgeist as well.
Deforestation rates are now double what they were at their low point in 2012. Although, they’re still dramatically lower than what they were back in 2003 and 2004.
According to the researchers, the small increase may be due to the newest president’s efforts to weaken the country’s environmental protections.
Nonetheless, Heilmayr hoped, “the interplay between private and public policymaking can make environmental gains more resilient — consistent global demand for zero-deforestation soy will continue to discourage new deforestation despite the weakening of public policies.”
There’s a growing number of major companies that pledge to reduce their environmental impacts around the world. But, it’s unknown if these goals can turn into concrete actions.
“The ASM is a nice example of what is possible when companies take aggressive, transparent steps towards supply chain sustainability. It provides hope that private actors can trigger meaningful improvements in the way society interacts with our environment,” said Heilmayr.