Soybeans’ product chain begins with creation of agricultural land from the conversion of vast areas of forest in the Amazon, savannah in the Cerrado, or pasture. Hence, deforestation has been by far the most important factor allowing agricultural land to expand to meet the internal and external demand, which is anything but sustainable. Using the Brazilian government deforestation monitoring data from PRODES, an estimated 1.8 million ha of soy in the Amazon in 2016 and 3.5 million ha of soy in the Cerrado in 2015 were under native vegetation in the year 2000.
Of these areas, the hectares dedicated to soy in each biome are respectively 40% and 20%, showing that soy expansion played a major role in land conversion.
Land conversion is caused by a multiplicity of actors with different interests, which are highly influenced by Brazilian policies. Fearsnide (2008) highlights nine main actors having impacts on the areas of Amazonas, Parà, Maranhão, Rondônia, Roraima and Mato Grosso, which are: landless migrants or “sem terras”, colonists, ranchers, drug traffickers and money launderers, goldminers, laborers, capitalized farmers, landgrabbers or “grileiros”, sawmill operators and loggers.
Each of these actors have a principal area where are settled, contributing to deforestation in different ways. Thereafter, the role of these actors in land conversion will be analysed, considering both actors contributing directly to deforestation for soybean production and actors that are indirectly linked to soybean, clearing land for cattle grazing or other purposes but that can be subsequently used for soybean production.
Within the Amazon region, the state of Parà has been highly affected by the migration of poor landless migrants or “Sem Terras”, especially on its borders with the state of Tocantis and Maranhão, from which most of the migrants come from.
This migration has been a phenomenon common to the whole country, involving migration of entire families seeking for free land, unaccompanied men moving to work as laborers, and more organized groups such as the Landless’ Workers Movement. From the 1980’s, new railways such as the Carajàs Railway used to carry the ore from the iron mine in Carjàs to the port near São Luis in Maranhão, as well as the BR-163 highway, made the way to about 100 families per week directed to Marabà. Some of them were living in encampments along the highways, waiting for the opportunity to occupy some unproductive land from the estate owners, which had – and still have – to leave a portion of their land untouched for environmental protection, the so-called Legal Reserve (LR), according to the Forest Code, establishing that from 1964.
As Salgado reports in his project “Terra: Struggle of the landless” and “Migrations” in 1997 and 2000 respectively, this part of migrants -especially people from the Landless Movement- belonged to that poor part of the population who decided not to move to the city, not giving up to the fact that the best arable land was concentrated in the hands of a rich minority: “shielding themselves from the threat of delinquency and prostitution in the large urban centers, they prefer to remain in the encampments along the highways and await the opportunity to occupy the land so long dreamed of, even at the risk of their lives. In fact, their actions resulted in violent and frequent land conflicts, among which is the El Dourado dos Carajàs massacre in April 1996.
Sem Terras’ actions have transformed and degraded the central portion of the state of Parà, including every fragment of forest left in the already deforested landscape. The land acquired has been usually converted into annual crops, including soy, or into pasture. This shows how the Forest Code has failed its implementation due to problems in land allocations and also to inequality and poverty both in the countryside and in the city, which has lead part of the population in grabbing land illegally. A more legal way of land conversion has been driven the establishment of official settlements by colonists or small farmers. Also in this case, infrastructures have been fundamental in facilitating the movements, including the Transamazon Highway and the BR-364 Highway. During the 1970s and 1980s, these two important connections enabled colonists and small farmers to move and settle in the region of Rondônia causing a great explosion of deforestation in this region.
Smaller famers’ lots were subsequently bought and merged in bigger properties, devoted mostly to cattle and pasture. As showed in Figure 1, the same phenomenon has been observed along the Transamazon Highway, and around the area of Novo Repartimento, Parà, which by 2003 has become one of the fastest growing deforestation hotspots in Amazonia. Much soy expansion in Brazil now occurs on land previously used for cattle grazing (WWF, 2014) and this practice is often considered more sustainable not involving direct conversion of forests. However, the risk is that it could indirectly contribute to deforestation, pushing cattle production into the forest.
By far, ranching for beef or milk production has been responsible for most of the clearing. This is mainly due to the huge profits made by ranchers enabled by government subsidies, but also by tax evasion and operations in laundering money from crime. Ranchers’ land speculation related to inflation has also highly influenced deforestation before the 1994 Real Plan, a macroeconomic stabilization program which was able to decrease the 45% inflation in 1996 to only 1% in 1996. A peak of deforestation was registered in 1995 with a subsequent decline in 1997 due to the release of investment capital by the Real Plan. Beef prices are also strongly correlated with deforestation. When prices rise, ranchers usually hold their stocks for reproduction and growth, rather than selling them off, which causes prices to rise even more. An increased number of cattle requires more land, causing more deforestation.
Ranchers are linked to a number of other actors also involved in deforestation, namely landgrabbers or “grileiros”, laborers and debt slaves, sem terras, drug traffickers, money launderers and capitalized farmers. Illegal landgrabbers usually obtain large blocks of land taking advantage of the very confused and inefficient system of land claims in Amazonia, selling it to ranchers or other bigger organizations that can be more or less aware of the illegal origin of the land. Their movements along the BR-163 Highway linking Mato Grosso to Parà, have caused extensive land clearing that run alongside the road.Figure 3 Deforestation along BR 163
High profits of ranchers and “grileiros” are, however, also further increased by the availability “cheap labor”, which can actually be considered full-fledged slavery. Sem terras seeking for employment as laborers, are often hired in deforestation crews. Their slavery is usually a consequence of being dependent on their employers for having food and other supplies. They buy their food on credit at inflated prices, accumulating debts that are impossible to compensate by labor credits. This mechanism make possible for ranchers to “buy” slaves by paying off their debts from another operator. Still in 2006, a number of 25 000 slaves were found just in.