Soybean Trade Drives Forest Destruction in Brazil In Brazil, a fast-growing soybean industry is fueled by demand from Europe and China. But foreign consumers are also pressuring Brazilian farmers to stop clearing tropical forests, a major storehouse of the carbon that contributes to global warming.
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Soybean Trade Drives Forest Destruction in Brazil

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Soybean Trade Drives Forest Destruction in Brazil

Soybean Trade Drives Forest Destruction in Brazil

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One of the big worries among scientists talking about climate change is the fate of the world's tropical forests. They're among the biggest storehouses of carbon on the planet. And when the forests are cleared, that carbon goes up into the atmosphere where it warms the climate.

NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that in Brazil's Amazon Forest, some of that clearing is driven by the world soybean trade.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Any modern-day epic of life in the Amazon would have to feature the sound of chainsaws as its theme song.

(Soundbite of chainsaw buzzing)

JOYCE: They're as common here in the state of Mato Grosso as dust devils and pickup trucks.

(Soundbite of tractor engine)

JOYCE: But the chainsaw is giving way to new invaders, tractors and combines, the instruments of the soybean revolution. Brazil is on track to become the world's leading soy exporter. Among the biggest growers is a Brazilian company called Grupo Maggi. The company has a reputation. Greenpeace awarded it a golden chainsaw recently for cutting down so much forest.

The company's environmental director, Josemir de Vela(ph) says they got the message.

Mr. JOSEMIR DE VELA (Environmental Director, Grupo Maggi): (Speaking in foreign language)

JOYCE: Grupo Maggi is a family-owned company and we really know how to raise soybeans. But if we don't worry about the future quality of the climate and the water and environmental sustainability, we won't be able to produce soy in the future.

In fact, the company now observes a temporary moratorium on cutting down more forest. And here's why. De Vela says foreign consumers don't like deforestation.

Mr. DE VELA: (Speaking in foreign language)

JOYCE: World consumers, especially from Europe, are paying the premium for our products so long as they know those products are from agriculture that conserve the environment and provides a fair social system.

And Brazil has worked hard to cater to those foreign consumers. For example, in the European Union, buyers prefer Brazilian soy because it's not genetically modified. And Brazil has cultivated the Chinese market, too. Wealthier consumers there want more pork and poultry grown on feed from Amazonian soybeans.

Conservation scientist Claudia Stickler of the University of Florida calls this international influence over the Amazon, teleconnections.

Dr. CLAUDIA STICKLER (Conservation Scientist, University of Florida): China and the E.U. and a number of other emerging industrializing countries have basically adopted Brazil as their bread basket. They don't have the capacity for a number of reasons to produce that kind of volume of food on their own, and so they're looking to countries like Brazil to do it for them.

JOYCE: Conservation scientists say to protect the climate, Brazil must protect the Amazon from these teleconnections. Here in Mato Grosso, Dan Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts visits forests owned by soy growers and advises them to cut less by getting more out of land that's already been cleared. But he agrees that the world economy has numerous tentacles. Take the ethanol-fuel boom in the U.S. that's driving up the price of North American corn.

Dr. DAN NEPSTAD (Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center): The price of corn affects this forest right here. Because as we put a premium on ethanol, what we're doing is driving up the price for corn, displacing soybean in the United States. And that translates into changes in the way farmers in South America think.

JOYCE: As North American farmers plant less soy, South American farmers clear more of the Amazon to fill the demand.

Dr. NEPSTAD: We're moving into a world where there's growing demand for that land in the Earth's surface that can be mechanically cultivated, that can be plowed and put into crops.

JOYCE: Brazil has had some success lately reducing the rate of deforestation. Brazilian officials say they've locked up a lot of illegal loggers and land grabbers who burn land. But conservationists say the demands and requirements of consumers worldwide are what may determine the fate of the Amazon's forests.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

NORRIS: And you can see a photo essay on Amazon Forest and get the latest Climate Connection stories from National Geographic magazine at our Web site,

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