Efforts by Greenpeace and European soya-using firms to develop a mechanism to assure businesses the products they buy are not contributing to deforestation of the Amazon appear to be gaining currency.
The Brazilian government has signalled that the approach could be used for other major commodities that may encourage deforestation in the region.
Soya production in Brazil has grown rapidly, now accounting for around 30% of its agricultural income. But alongside this growth comes concern it is destroying the Amazon rainforest.
Fearing a consumer backlash, European businesses that use soya products, including McDonald’s, Marks and Spencer and Asda, told suppliers to stop exports of soya grown in newly deforested areas (ENDS Report 379, p 26 ). Originally a two-year moratorium was agreed, but in June Greenpeace announced it would be extended until July 2009.
But the moratorium is only a stop-gap solution. The ultimate goal is to establish a monitoring system so international consumers can be assured they are not financing deforestation. Such an assurance cannot be guaranteed by the much-maligned "sustainability criteria" developed for a range of crops grown in tropical regions (ENDS Report 400, p 24 ).
Greenpeace said it believes a monitoring approach could be the key to protecting the remaining forest.
During the past two years a soya working group, consisting of soya traders, the Brazilian vegetable oil industry association (ABIOVE), environmental NGOs and civil society groups, has been leading efforts to establish a workable system.
A large part of the group’s focus so far has been to map and monitor soya plantations within the Amazon basin. Using aerial surveillance it is mapping newly deforested areas within the land holding of existing soya farms.
The monitoring has concentrated on three areas- Rondônia, Pará and Mato Grosso - which together account for almost all the soya plantations in the region. Studies are under way to assess whether the focus on these areas means other areas vulnerable to deforestation are being overlooked.
In April 2008 a first evaluation of the progress of the moratorium concluded that none of the soya planted for the current crop season is in newly deforested areas.
Nevertheless after three years of decline, Amazon deforestation began increasing again in the second half of 2007, reaching record rates in November and December. And worrying data released in early June showed deforestation increased from 145 square kilometres in March to 1,423km2 in April 2008. More than 70% of the deforestation occurred in Mato Grosso, Brazil’s largest soya producing state.
A key stumbling block is that the monitoring system cannot identify who is responsible for new forest clearance. Under Brazilian law, farmers must register and map rural properties in the Amazon. But this is widely ignored by farmers and landowners, making it difficult to identify those responsible for illegal deforestation and apply adequate penalties.
For two years the working group has lobbied the Brazilian government to implement these rules robustly. It has argued that only when the perpetrators of deforestation are known will soya traders be able to guarantee customers that the soya they buy is not linked to Amazon deforestation.
It appears the group’s repeated demands are now being heard. In June, the government said it was "committed" to registering and licensing all rural properties in the Amazon basin. And it hinted that the approach could be adopted for other commodities that are encouraging deforestation. Carlos Minc, the new Brazilian environment minister, said the government, "inspired by the success" of the soya initiative, is negotiating similar approaches with the timber and beef industries.
Paulo Adario, director of Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign said if a "deforestation firewall" was created, with a series of moratoria covering soya, timber and beef, this could "buy the necessary time to put in place permanent protection".
However, the scale of the challenge is huge. The soya industry and government have tough commitments to implement. The task of mapping rural properties and ownership is a major undertaking and even if those carrying out the deforestation are identified, soya traders will need to have a transparent system of traceability.
Mr Adario warned that a one-year extension may not be long enough to build the tools needed to ensure that soya production does not cause further deforestation.