RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie.

It would have been unthinkable not so long ago, a corporate giant and a non-profit environmentalist teaming up to save the Amazon. But agro giant Cargill and The Nature Conservancy have been collaborating to reduce the footprint of soy farming on land that has been illegally cleared in the world's largest rainforest.

NPR's Julie McCarthy visited the port city of Santarem and has this story on the daunting task taken on by these strange bedfellows.

JULIE McCARTHY: Deforestation is a significant contributor to global warming and it's occurring at an alarming rate in the Amazon, known as the lungs of the world. Greenpeace estimates that from 2002 to 2005, deforestation claimed an area almost twice the size of Switzerland.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: Officials at Brazil's Agricultural Research Agency confer over satellite images of the land surrounding the river city of Santarem, 600 miles from the mouth of the Amazon. In images from 1975, the deforested area just barely disrupts the deep green mass of primary forest. With each passing decade, gaping holes start to appear in the virgin forest as deforestation deprives the area of carbon-storing trees. The team says in 30 years, deforested land in Santarem has increased from 15 percent to more than 40 percent.

Mr. JOSE BENITO GUERRERO (Agronomist, The Nature Conservancy): The first thing is to restore vegetation cover. Then, after that, the animals, the biodiversity, the dispersal will come back and will restore all, more or less, the same ecological functions.

McCARTHY: The mission of agronomist Jose Benito Guerrero is to conserve the rainforest in Santarem. The Nature Conservancy's man in the field, in tandem with the U.S. agro giant Cargill, is trying to stop farmers from cultivating soy on land that has been illegally cleared. He traverses his sprawling territory in a mud-splashed white pickup.

Mr. GUERRERO: It's very, very good; look at this. Wow, wow. It's very tight.

McCARTHY: You can count on mud and long journeys in the Amazon, a landmass larger than India. Camera in hand, Guerrero jumps out of his truck.

Mr. GUERRERO: (unintelligible)

McCARTHY: He surveys the terrain to determine how to bring this pasture-filled property into compliance with Brazil's Forest Code.

Mr. GUERRERO: This is secondary vegetation - all of this. And that we want to speed up the regeneration in this area and to do the same on the other side of the area.

McCARTHY: Does secondary vegetation, can it return to primary? Is that the idea?

Mr. GUERRERO: First the primary trees create condition for shadow-tolerant trees.

McCARTHY: Under the law, eighty percent of land in the Amazon rainforest must be set aside as legal reserve. Only the remaining twenty percent can be used for cultivation. But over the years, weak enforcement has meant impunity for violators.

Guerrero says Cargill has used its leverage as one of Brazil's biggest soy traders to persuade soy farmers that they have a choice: get legal or go broke. The carrot for farmers, Guerrero says, is market acceptance, and he says increasingly the global market demands environmentally friendly products.

Mr. GUERRERO: Whatever happens outside is going to affect them. If the market decides not to buy any more soy from the Amazon, they will be affected by this reaction of the market. You know, if you lose the market, you lose everything.

Ms. LORI JOHNSON (Assistant Vice President for Corporate Affairs, Cargill): It's clearly our view that there is absolutely no reason that anyone in Brazil needs to cut down a tree to produce soy.

McCARTHY: Cargill Assistant Vice President for Corporate Affairs Lori Johnson says soy farmers now eagerly await visits from The Nature Conservancy's team to learn how to be good stewards of the land.

Ms. JOHNSON: Farmers are very interested in taking advantage of that assistance to help them become in compliance with the law. They don't want to be the international pariahs. We've had tremendous interest.

McCARTHY: Cargill itself joined a two-year moratorium on the purchase of any soy grown on newly deforested areas, a deterrent for farmers to cut down trees. Greenpeace came up with the idea and Lori Johnson says Cargill pushed to make the moratorium industry-wide.

Ms. JOHNSON: So that everyone who buys soy is taking the same stance. And that's ultimately what happened. And I think one of the interesting things that has come out of those discussions is that it has brought together this kind of multi-stakeholder group.

McCARTHY: But not, says Greenpeace, without a fight. The environmental group earlier accused Cargill of being indirectly complicit in deforestation. Its confrontational approach has set it apart from The Nature Conservancy.

(Soundbite of machinery)

McCARTHY: Before Greenpeace and Cargill started cooperating with each other, they clashed over this port terminal that the company built in Santarem. The facility remains tied up in litigation over questions about its impact on the environment.

On a recent Friday, a conveyor, stretching like a gigantic orange arm over the brown Amazon, shoots 36,000 tons of soy from a Cargill warehouse onto a docked freighter bound for Europe.

Greenpeace activist Tatiana G. Carvalho says the Cargill operation attracted soy farmers to the Amazon with its new export terminal. Then, she says, unscrupulous buyers duped farmers who had been here for generations.

Ms. TATIANA G. CARVALHO (Coordinator, Greenpeace Brazil Consumers Campaign): In some areas they just forced the communities out in a violent way. In other ways they were fooling them. So they would tell them, okay, I buy your land for 10,000 reais, about 5,000 U.S. And they say okay, wow, that's a lot of money. I'm going to do great with that in town, and they don't.

Ms. JOHNSON: You know, I would disagree with that. I don't think we provided incentives.

McCARTHY: Cargill's Lori Johnson says the company set up its terminal to ship soy not out of the central Amazon but out of the state of Mato Grosso, the southern frontier of the rainforest. The governor, a soy tycoon, has converted hundreds of thousands of acres into a vast soy field.

Ms. JOHNSON: Ninety five percent of what we ship through the port of Santarem comes from Mato Grosso. It was built to handle grain from Mato Grosso.

McCARTHY: But it's the small farmers in Santarem who are feeling increasing pressure.

(Soundbite of rain)

McCARTHY: Wind rustles the palms on the property of soy farmer Viteu Holzbach. Of his 260 hectares, he's planted on 130 of them. But the law's longstanding 80-20 rule says he's only entitled to grow on 50 hectares. He must either return a big chunk of his farm to its natural state, or pay a big chunk to the government, who would then set aside a legal reserve somewhere else. Holzbach says fellow farmers have already quit.

Mr. VITEU HOLZBACH (Soy Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: We feel oppressed. The NGOs call us criminals. But we don't want to work outside of the law, Holzbach says. We worked our whole lives honestly. And we came here after the forest had been cut down and, he says, just took advantage of what we found.

Ms. JOHNSON: These are not easy issues. If they were, these issues, you know, these problems would have been solved a long time ago.

McCARTHY: Lori Johnson of Cargill says its program with The Nature Conservancy is designed to help farmers like Holzbach.

The Amazon lost 1.3 million hectares last year - 30 percent less than the year before. Analysts say falling soybean prices were behind the slowing destruction. But The Nature Conservancy's Jose Benito Guerrero says so were NGOs.

Mr. GUERRERO: Because we are doing some work here just to put some limits -addressing the problem, confronting the problem and doing something.

McCARTHY: Guerrero expects partnerships like the one with Cargill to multiply as the struggle in the Amazon rages over how to reconcile environmental conservation with economic growth.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Santarem.

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