Paving the Amazon with Soy

by Sasha Lilley

December 21, 2004

The sprawling state of Mato Grosso, in central west Brazil, could be thought a paradise of sorts, at least from a distance. The lush rainforest of the Amazon basin, often called the "lungs of the world," straddles the state, as does the grassy Brazilian savanna or cerrado. Parrots, jaguars and pumas are just a few of the abundant species found in the savanna, considered one of the most biodiverse in the world, along with endangered species like the maned wolf, anteater and river-dwelling giant otter.

The landscape, however, is rapidly being altered as vast fields of soybeans and cattle ranches replace grasslands and forests. Soy rules Mato Grosso and it's not the soy that much of the world associates with the ostensibly eco-friendly, vegetarian diet, either.

In the wake of the Mad Cow disease scare, soy producers have benefited from increased demand in affluent countries for meat from cows that are fed soy meal, rather than animal-based feed. This is only the latest in a series of factors that have allowed a company named the André Maggi Group to spearhead, along with the Brazilian government, the expansion of soy in Mato Grosso and adjacent states over the last two decades, with disturbing consequences.

"Soy – at this moment – is the most important driver for deforestation, directly and indirectly," says environmental analyst Jan Maarten Dros. "Directly because the cerrado is being converted from natural vegetation into soy fields. But indirectly, because in this region a lot of cattle farms are being replaced by soy farmers buying or renting land from cattle farmers." This means, according to Dros' 2003 WWF study on the impacts of soybean cultivation in Brazil, that the "cattle farmers tend to advance into new forest area, causing more deforestation."

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