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Home » China and Europe import soybeans from unregistered Brazilian farms

China and Europe import soybeans from unregistered Brazilian farms

There are more than 2.6 million hectares of soy plantations — an area almost the size of Alagoas — on unregistered land in the Amazon and Cerrado, whose main destination is China and the European Union. 

The data are from a report released last week by Trase, an initiative for the transparency of production chains, in partnership with the NGO Imaflora.

Considered one of the main drivers of deforestation in the country, soy is Brazil’s main commodity, with exports valued at more than 33 billion dollars in 2018.

However, behind this number are crops on unregistered land that possibly circumvent laws and environmental issues, according to Luis Fernando Guedes Pinto, collaborating researcher and agricultural engineer at Imaflora.

In the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado, 12% of soy plantations still do not have land registration. 

Even so, the study indicates, two-thirds of the harvest from the municipalities with the highest concentration of these blind spots are exported, mostly to China and Europe, exposing importing countries to a high risk of buying irregular soybeans.

“We saw that 88% of soy plantations in the Amazon and the Cerrado are registered, but 2.6 million hectares are not registered yet,” says André Vasconcelos, a researcher at Trade and Global Canopy and contributor to the report. “It was a surprise, especially, to see that 67% is being exported.”

The findings come amid a major environmental crisis in Brazil, including rising deforestation and the August fires in the Amazon, as President Jair Bolsonaro makes good on promises to weaken environmental protections since he took office in January.

Brazil’s Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) gives landowners access to credit and title deeds but also holds them accountable for conserving portions of their properties.

 Implemented in 2012, the measure requires all rural properties to declare and georeference their land, a primary requirement for compliance with the Forest Code.

At the time, the measure was a step forward towards achieving greater transparency and accountability, provided all landowners were required to register by 2015.

However, the deadline came and, amid multiple delays, a measure passed this year simply overturned any specific deadline for registration.

Soy and deforestation

According to the study, of unregistered Brazilian soybean production, China imports 30%; the European Union, 12%; and the remainder goes to the domestic market, mostly for cattle feed.

“We first calculate the proportion of soy that is exported from each municipality, and apply this proportion to the unregistered area of ​​each municipality”, says Vasconcelos. 

“Many exporters have no idea if they are buying with the CAR or without the CAR.” US-based ADM and China’s COFCO, both among the world’s leading food processors, are at serious risk of shipping soy from unregistered farms to China. 

Bunge and Cargill, two other US commodity companies, as well as Brazil’s Amaggi, the world’s largest privately owned soy producer, are the main exporters of high-risk soy to Europe.

In a statement, Amaggi stated that 95% of its suppliers are registered in the CAR, adding that it has a georeferencing system for evaluating and monitoring the farms responsible for its grain supply. Bunge, Cargill, ADM, and COFCO declined to comment, shifting responsibility to the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (Abiove).

Above contested the report, alleging that the data on soy crops not registered in the CAR is overestimated and that the percentages of unregistered areas in the report are questionable.

 “The most recent CAR data show that by the end of August 2019, there were 498 million hectares registered in the SICAR base. This means an empty area of ​​just 4 million hectares, not 180 million hectares,” Abiove said in a statement.

In addition, Abiove said that deforestation caused by soy represents only 1.4% of the Amazon and 7% in the Cerrado, citing an agribusiness study with data from the National Institute for Space Research.

Adding their research to satellite data on deforestation collected by INPE, the report’s authors also found a strong correlation between the number of unregistered soy farms and deforestation. 

“Almost all of the recent deforestation linked to soy expansion has taken place in the Cerrado and the Amazon,” according to the report.

Amid Bolsonaro’s visit to China last week in pursuit of stronger trade relations, and a free trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur in the works, the study’s authors called for the Rural Environmental Registry to be included as a basic requirement.

for international trade agreements. It would be, according to them, a way to curb illegal deforestation.

“China is the biggest importer of commodities with forest risks and has the enormous power to implement measures for greater compliance in Brazil”, says Vasconcelos. “We see this as a great opportunity to increase transparency in Brazilian agriculture”

For Fabio Feldmann, environmentalist responsible for much of the environmental legislation in the 1988 Federal Constitution, domestic pressure is just as important. 

“On the domestic front, we have a third. But who is buying? We have to demand more from Brazilian society”, he says. This is also important at the political level, he adds, so that the pressure for conservation is not labeled as a commercial conspiracy against Brazilian agribusiness.

On October 17, Bolsonaro sanctioned the removal of the registration deadline and penalties for non-adherence to the CAR. 

The president’s decision comes amid a series of measures that loosen environmental protections, including the expansion of mining in the Amazon, the creation of roads that pass through areas of virgin forest, and the approval of hundreds of pesticides.

The bill’s rapporteur, Senator Irajá Abreu (PSD), defended the measure, saying that many areas of rural Brazil do not have a strong government presence. Soon, farmers are unable to register.

Although land regularization can be difficult for small rural landowners without resources, soy is a commodity that only makes sense for large-scale production, according to Luis Fernando Guedes Pinto, from Imaflora. 

“For soybeans, it is a simple requirement because they are big farmers. Small farmers do not always have access to georeferencing and the internet, which is a barrier. But for soybeans, about the great ruralists, it is the first step, ”he said.

Pinto warns that, without a deadline for registering properties, the Forest Code is no longer binding on unregistered farms. 

“No deadline, no pressure,” he says. “No one is illegal, but it is not within the law.” He compares the situation to driving a car without a license plate, without having to follow any rules.

The report indicates that soy farms are concentrated in municipalities in some specific regions of Brazil, which should facilitate registration. 

In just one municipality, Formosa do Rio Preto, in Bahia, more than 70,000 hectares of unregistered crops and more than 260,000 hectares of deforestation were found.

In response to Mongabay, municipal authorities in Formosa do Rio Preto stated that they had not encountered “situations in which there was the planting of soybeans or another cultivar by large producers without the CAR”.

According to the statement, the local government is working towards sustainable growth and has participated in several environmental registration campaigns, at the state level, aimed at small landowners.

According to Fabio Feldmann, the Cerrado has been used by agribusiness as an exchange currency. “Today, perhaps the most threatened biome is the Cerrado”, he says. “There is a negotiation with ruralists that is as follows: we preserve the Amazon, but use the Cerrado.”

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