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Corn+Soybean Digest

Blame Beans?

Are soybeans destroying the Amazon? Well, no. Okay, yes. Sort of. Indirectly. It depends on who you listen to. Soybean prices, even when they're good, are probably not good enough to pay the cost of knocking down dense tracts of jungle trees, tearing up the stumps and putting down large amounts of micronutrients.

However, it's fair to say that a lot of Brazilians knock down the trees to run cattle (there are more cattle than people in Brazil) and then sell the cleared land to soybean producers. The environmentalists' argument is that since cattle ranchers know they can make money in a couple of years selling land to soybean farmers, soybeans are to blame for rainforest devastation.

And it's true that rainforest destruction is at record highs. According to the Brazilian government, an area larger than the entire state of New Jersey was cleared from the Brazilian Amazon last year. Since 1990, more than 54 million acres of rainforest have been cleared, according to the activist group — more than the total area of Belgium, Denmark, Holland and Portugal put together.

But are soybeans to blame? Cloves Vettorato, Director of Strategic Projects for Brazil's Mato Grosso state (a big soybean producer) says no. He points out that Brazil (unlike the U.S.) has a law in place to mandate that at least 20%, if not more, of any given property keep 20% untouched set-aside, and that, further, his state plans to “correct past environmental errors” by re-instituting environmental protection for degraded pastures and “marginal areas” (read creek basins and the like.) “For this reason,” he says, “soybeans should be “found innocent as the villain in this story of deforesting the Amazon, and others should be found guilty.”

The Amazon is enormous, the size of Western Europe with room to spare. There is also some question as to what is meant by the term Amazon Rain Forest.

There is jungle and then there is a large amount of savannah land that lies within what is bureaucratically designated as the Amazon Basin, but that nobody would call rain forest. I'm talking about areas where you can pull up the few trees with two tractors and a chain. To be serious, such areas really aren't the Amazon as in, well, a rain forest. Are they, even if they lie within the area designated by government functionaries as lying within the Amazon?

Meanwhile, there is an argument that a new road — BR163 from Cuiabá to Santarém, where Cargill has a port on the Amazon — could increase deforestation. Or to be more specific, the paving of that road — it already exists but takes days to traverse because it is a dirt road — will reduce trucking times, lower transport costs and, some say, induce soybean planting along its margins.

Here environmentalists have a better case: There is little question that soybean farmers will plant more around the area of the road to take advantage of relatively lower transportation costs in a country where transportation costs make a very big difference in planting decisions, and where new varieties of soybeans are constantly being developed for tropical lengths-of-day.

It makes economic (if not ethical) sense to clear the Amazon for logging. A pirate logger can make up to $350/tree for illegal stripping of mahogany trees. In a country where the average annual income floats around US$3,500, that's nothing to sniff at. But few would clear dense forest in order to plant soybeans.

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