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Story Publication logo May 18, 2022

Soybean Farming in Brazil: From the Rainforest to the Trough (German)

A birds eye view of the stark contrast between the forest and agricultural landscapes near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Image by Kate Evans/CIFOR.

The appetite of one of Germany's richest industries is threatening the planet's most valuable...


This story was translated from German. To read the original story in full, visit Zeit Online. Our Rainforest Journalism Fund website is available in English, Spanish, bahasa Indonesia, French, and Portuguese.

The remnants of the rainforest lie on the ground, pushed together in neat lines. Huge trunks, some of them centuries old, charred black on the pale brown earth. There are no shrubs or grass to be seen. The explanation: This section of the rainforest is to become a soybean field, 475 hectares, four times the size of the Hamburg old town.

Josenildo dos Santos Munduruku is standing at the edge of the field. This morning he has drawn red stripes across his eyelids, down the bridge of his nose and across his cheeks and chin using his finger. He is wearing a chain of açai beads and a headdress of red feathers. "Anyone who buys soy from the Amazon, or who eats animals who have been fed with it, is destroying our lives here," he says.

The 34-year-old is the unofficial mayor of the village of Açaizal, located in northern Brazil. Dos Santos wants to protect his community, the Munduruku, from the farmers who are clearing the rainforest. In the past year alone, over 200 hectares in this field have been razed. He looks out over the piles of ash that used to be his forest. Just a few trunks remain standing.

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Much of the soy that is shipped to Europe from Brazil comes from Central Brazil, but also increasingly from areas in the northern part of the country, regions like the homeland of dos Santos. From here, large ships sail down the Amazon to the coast, before then setting off across the Atlantic to Europe. And thus, the village of Munduruku in the rainforest has a direct link to the schnitzel that ends up on plates in Hannover or Hamburg. No country in the European Union produces as much meat as Germany, and no country in the world produces as much soy as Brazil. Soy, used as feed for chickens, pigs and cattle, is a key element in meat production – and to farm soybeans, the rainforest in Brazil is being cut down.

We have long known just how dangerous this is. Researchers have been warning for years that the Amazon rainforest is one of the most important stabilizers of the global climate. If the forest dies, it will emit more greenhouse gases than it absorbs, which could change the global climate so significantly that the livelihoods of millions of people around the world would be destroyed.

And yet this forest continues to burn every year. Layer by layer, loggers, livestock farmers and soybean producers continue to destroy the dense flora that stores vast quantities of greenhouse gases. They then use most of the exposed land to raise cattle; where possible, though, they plant soybeans. The amount of land in Brazil covered by soy has risen to more than 350,000 square kilometers.

Marinated pork tenderloin costs 2.82 euros in a German supermarket. Seven- hundred grams of pork cutlet will set you back 4.29 euros. An eight-pack of poultry sausage costs 2.79 euros. Supermarkets Netto, Lidl and Aldi sell their meat products under brand names such as "Gut Ponholz", "Grillmeister" or "Meine Metzgerei". Rewe sells turkey schnitzel from "Wilhelm Brandenburg", while Kaufland’s offering is from "K-Pur-Land". The packaging is crowded with food quality labels, animal welfare insignia and promises of quality from Germany. The message for consumers seems loud and clear: This product is clean.

But could it be that these products are produced using soy farmed on areas of deforested rainforest? There is no established label for deforestation-free supply chains. On their websites, the supermarket chains and producers make a note of the ongoing deforestation of the rainforest and claim they want to do something about it. But even after contacting the companies directly, it isn’t clear how they hope to determine if soybeans from Brazil – perhaps even from illegally-logged plots of land – ultimately end up in their supply chains.

Wilhelm Windisch, a professor of animal nutrition at the Technical University of Munich, estimates that a pig eats around 250 kilograms of feed before it is ready for slaughter, mostly cereals and corn. But the deciding factor is the small amount of protein in the pigfeed, because this is what makes the pigs grow rapidly. To achieve that growth, German meat producers buy millions of tons of soybeans each year, with the largest share coming from Brazil. Last year, Germany imported a total of 5.6 million tons of soy, of which 2.6 million tons came from Brazil.

The largest grain traders in the world are sprawling companies with names like ADM, Bunge, Louis Dreyfus or Cargill, a major trader from the U.S. In 2006, these companies issued a pledge, claiming they intended to put a stop to rainforest destruction for the farming of soybeans. In the agreement, called the Soy Moratorium, they pledged to stop selling soybeans produced on fields in the Amazon that had been cleared after 2008. The agreement remains in force today. And, initially, less rainforest was actually burned down.

By now, though, it has become clear that the pledge exists primarily on paper. It is good for marketing but has done little to help the rainforest. Two years ago, a team of researchers found that at least a fifth of the Brazilian soybeans that ended up in Europe were grown on illegally deforested fields – and they arrived here via the supply chains run by the world’s largest grain traders, since they are the ones with the necessary silos and ports.

Cargill, the wholesaler from the U.S., is one of them. The company operates the soybean terminal in Santarém on the Amazon River – close to the home of Josenildo dos Santos from the village of Açaizal.

Cargill said in a statement that they buy no soy farmed on rainforest land that was deforested after 2008.

In October 2021, Tim Boekhout van Solinge, a 2-meter Dutchman, is standing with Josenildo dos Santos, the unofficial mayor of Açaizal, on a cleared piece of land near the village. Van Solinge has a goal: He wants to save the forest. To do so, he has become something of a forestry criminologist. Together with dos Santos, he peers at a small camera, on which a video can be seen of the most recent deforestations.

Van Solinge began providing GPS cameras to Indigenous communities in the Amazon back in 2015 to document clearcutting and fires. He also provides support to the Munduruku when it comes to alerting the police and public prosecutors to the violations. In the Brazilian state that the Munduruku call home, the murder rate by firearm is extremely high, says van Solinge. "More people are shot here than in Rio," he says. And many of the conflicts, he adds, are linked to the fight over the forest, with property rights being a frequent sticking point.

The Munduruku have also been affected, now faced with the prospect of having to defend the village, in which they have lived for generations, from outsiders. Dos Santos reports that farmers and landgrabbers regularly drive their heavy Jeeps among the corrugated metal huts telling women and children to clear out.

A Farmer Has Clearcut Right to the Edge of the Village

It has been around 20 years since the soy traders from Cargill built the new terminal near dos Santos’ village. It was an investment that brought along new infrastructure to the area and made it an interesting prospect for real estate speculators, wholesalers and soybean farmers. These days, the soybean fields begin right behind the homes of the Munduruku, with one farmer having clearcut so close to the village that the pesticides he uses are washed by the rain directly into the river running through the village. They used to fish in the river and drink water from it, says dos Santos. At some point, though, children began developing rashes after swimming.

After examining the videos taken by the camera, dos Santos and van Solinge climb into a car and lurch through the rainforest for 15 minutes to a house where the heads of the Munduruku villages in the area have gathered. Van Solinge is eager to learn how the community is doing. Dos Santos reports that the man who farms the neighboring fields has once again come to the village and threatened him and his son. "If something happens to you, it would be advantageous for me," he said.

The mood at the meeting is somber. Participants complain that nothing has helped slow down the deforestation – neither documenting the fires with their cameras nor the letters they have been sending to the president.

Since Cargill built the soybean terminal at the port, the Munduruku have lost around 18 percent of their territory. And most recently, deforestation has apparently increased even more. Whereas the land conflicts in southern areas of the country are slowly coming to a stop, since the rainforest there has already been razed and transformed into farms, in the north there are still plenty of opportunities for landgrabbers.

Meanwhile, policymakers agree that deforestation should end – not just in the Amazon rainforest, but in all forests worldwide. At the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, more than 100 heads of state and government agreed to put a stop to the deforestation of forests by 2030. Even then-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro acquiesced. Yet he also stated that the Amazon has immense economic potential – and that Brazilians have a right to use their forest in whichever way they see fit.

It is almost impossible to monitor the rainforest – it is simply too big. When there is a forest fire in the Amazon, it burns in so many places at the same time that the police, firefighters and military (temporarily deployed to help) are overwhelmed. The situation is monitored from space; Brazil operates one of the world’s most advanced satellite systems for locating forest fires. When the program identifies a blaze, the Brazilian Space Agency reports it to the police, who are then supposed to track down the culprits. But the area of the Amazon rainforest is 1.5 times the size of the entire European Union, extending across the borders of nine countries, with huge portions of it only reachable by airplane or after a journey of several days by boat. Meanwhile, the people burning down the forest are growing ever more imaginative. To evade the satellites, soybean farmers, property speculators and loggers often start fires when the cloud cover is so thick that the smoke cannot be seen.

On top of that is the fact that the country’s president often simply denies the existence of these fires. Bolsonaro has alleged that space agency reports about the ongoing destruction of the forest are false; he had one agency head fired. He has also cut the budget of the environmental police force, which has led to fewer fines being levied. Bolsonaro became the most powerful opponent of those who want to protect the rainforest. And there has been a significant increase in the number of forest fires since he rose to power in 2019.

Bolsonaro has been particularly ruthless when it comes to Indigenous communities. He accuses them of laying claim to too much territory, and has denied some cases of murder of Indigenous people. Brazil’s largest organization of Indigenous peoples accuses him of having been responsible for the deaths of over a thousand people and has filed a complaint for genocide with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

It's just before noon on a Sunday back in October 2021 and three soybean farmers are sitting at a snack bar drinking their first beer of the day. Santarém, the city of 300,000 where Cargill’s soybean terminal is located, lies just up the road. As the men sit waiting for their next job, they talk about how much they work and how little they earn. Almost every day finds them driving along the BR-163, the most important soybean route in the world – a track littered with potholes. One man is wearing flipflops, his toes a reddish-brown color from the dust. His name is Fernando Hildo Meyer and he came here 20 years ago as a truck driver. Now, he employs five drivers and has his own small soybean farm.

The soybean system also owes its success to the fact that the Brazilian state promises people like Hildo Meyer that the soy trade will make them rich. "Nobody who is poor wants to stay poor," says Hildo Meyer. For people like him, it is beneficial when the rainforest is razed for soybean fields. The Indigenous people, he believes, lay claim to too much space, which they then don’t use to produce anything.

Satellite data shows that a lot of the rainforest surrounding Santarém has disappeared and numerous soybean fields have been established since Cargill arrived in the area. The Soy Moratorium of 15 years ago was designed to prevent precisely that from happening. Instead it set a disastrous chain reaction in motion. After the deal was signed, farmers began moving from the southern part of the country to the north, many of them taking over land from cattle farmers who had already clearcut sections of the rainforest for grazing.

If the rainforest is destroyed for grazing land and only later used for soybean farming, it doesn’t fall under the Soy Moratorium, since it only bans deforestation for the immediate purpose of soy cultivation.

As a result, the rainforest first got turned into pastureland, then a soybean field.

No company says how much soy from which country lies in their supply chain

The cattle ranchers, meanwhile, moved on, looking for nearby areas where they could cut down the rainforest for new rangeland. From 2001 to 2019, the area of just the Brazilian section of the Amazon used for soybean farming increased more than tenfold, from 0.4 million hectares to 4.6 million hectares – a larger growth rate than anywhere else in South America.

In Brazil there is a law that is intended to protect the rainforest: the Código Florestal. The problem, though, is that there are too few people monitoring compliance and punishing violations.

In order to keep track of who owns which piece of forest in the first place and which parts of it need to be protected, the Brazilian government introduced the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR). But farmers and foresters simply enter their land in this registry themselves. With these entries, they prove to traders that they do, in fact, own the land they are farming. Yet the information entered is not verified during the registration process.

In fact, many of the entries are clearly incorrect. For the territory of the Munduruku, CAR data indicates that 17 percent more land is registered as individual properties than is even available in reality. Nine percent of the fields are registered on forest lands, which are under protection as areas of natural vegetation.

Studies indicate that the situation is similar in other regions of the Amazon. They show that the CAR registry has even made it easier for soybean farmers to officially claim Indigenous lands. In cases of competing
claims, farmers can point to the fact that they have already officially registered their property in CAR. And farmers say that soybean traders like Cargill recognize a CAR certificate as proof of legal land ownership.

German supermarkets also rely on organizations like the Swiss-based Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS), which also certifies soy that is used for animal feed. But RTRS doesn't perform spot checks itself, instead hiring subcontractors to do the job. These certification bodies then make annual visits to farms in the program. During those visits, they evaluate labor conditions for field workers, the types of pesticides that are used, whether there are property ownership disputes and whether clearcutting has taken place.

It is doubtful, however, whether property disputes can be resolved in this way. Because such programs are voluntary, it is likely that a farmer involved in a land ownership conflict with an Indigenous community would not apply for certification. Indeed, only a tiny share of all soy is certified at all, mostly the small amount intended for direct human consumption, in the form of tofu, for example, or soy milk. Of the 350 million tons of soy that were harvested around the world in 2021, RTRS only certified 4.6 million tons, slightly over 1 percent of the total.

In Germany, the QS certification is considered a kind of mark of quality and can be found on the packaging of almost all meat products in German supermarkets. It supposedly guarantees that animal feed, livestock wellbeing, slaughter methods and packaging all meet German standards. In the future, the certification could also cover deforestation, addressing whether soybeans used for feed come from forestland clearcut for that purpose. A recently established working group is set to explore the issue.

Thus far, however, there has been no effective certification system for approving deforestation-free soy in any significant amount. That, though, has not stopped supermarket chains from claiming that they are in the process of increasing the quantity of certified soy in their products. Many of their websites include a declaration of intent, mostly with no specific timeframe for implementation. Deadlines for making supply chains completely free of illegal deforestation in the Amazon have been pushed back repeatedly. The guidelines for the use of soy as animal feed posted on the website for the Rewe supermarket chain are from 2013; since then, apparently, not much has happened.

When questioned, large supermarket chains like Rewe, Edeka, Lidl or Metro point to colorful flyers or to company websites with vivid green color schemes, where they take a stance against deforestation. Shortly before the publication of this article, the German supermarket Aldi referred DIE ZEIT to a recently published international position paper in which the company pledges to eliminate deforestation along its supply chains with high priority by the end of 2030.

The problem is that it is currently impossible to determine if soy imported from Brazil comes from deforested farmland or not. To get around the problem, many supermarkets have said they intend to mostly or entirely eliminate the presence of Brazilian soy from their supply chains. But none of these companies are willing to answer the question of how much soy in their supply chains comes from which countries.

And German foreign trade statistics indicate that imports of Brazilian soy to Germany have not appreciably dropped in recent years. Each year, countless bulk carrier cargo ships full of soybeans arrive in Germany – ships over 200 meters long designed specifically to haul loose bulk in holds the size of a cathedral nave. Many shipments reach Germany via the Netherlands.

The environmental groups Mighty Earth and Robin Wood have determined that traders like Cargill transfer the soy to smaller ships in Rotterdam or Amsterdam so it can be brought all the way to the northern German town of Haren an der Ems, where Rothkötter, one of the largest meat producers in Germany, has its own port for animal feed. This detour through the Netherlands makes it possible for German retailers and large grain suppliers like Cargill to continue claiming that they do not import any soy to Germany.

The question of who officially receives the Brazilian soy grown on deforested rainforest land is one that the companies involved, including Cargill, leave unanswered. And the supermarkets want nothing to do with it. When contacted, neither they nor the wholesalers made anyone available for an interview. Nobody, it would seem, wants anything to do with Brazilian soy.

In October of last year, another fire was burning on the Munduruku lands. A soy farmer was making a grab for another section of the area where the Indigenous community has been living for generations. Once again, somebody has started an illegal fire. And again, Josenildo dos Santos, the unofficial mayor of the village, was forced to stand by helplessly, with his shoulders slumped.

Dos Santos is determined to put a stop to the deforestation. This is why he is working together with activists, this is why he is speaking with the reporter from DIE ZEIT. He wants the world to know of the wrongs taking place in the area surrounding his village. And as he stands looking out at the scorched patch of land, the neighboring farmer’s Jeep appears a few kilometers away on the other side of the uncultivated field. It will take a few minutes before he reaches dos Santos, but dos Santos already removes his headdress. His tribe is on the warpath; this is what he wants the world to know. Though perhaps not the farmer next door.

With contributions by Flavio Gortana and Claudia Vallentin

Translator: Charles Hawley

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. The reporter traveled to Brazil and interviewed researchers and those affected in the Amazon region. She spent several days in the Munduruku area and visited soybean farms in the region. Access to the Cargill port, from where the soy is transported to Europe, was denied. The analysis of ship routes, trade statistics and satellite data were supported by Flavio Gortana and Claudia Vallentin.