Cerrado Manifesto could curb deforestation, but needs support: experts

  • The Cerrado Manifesto, issued in 2017, calls for a voluntary pledge by companies to help halt deforestation and native vegetation loss in the Cerrado. The Brazilian savannah’s native vegetation once covered 2 million square kilometers that has been reduced by soy, corn, cotton, and cattle production by more than half.
  • A Manifesto Statement of Support (SoS) has been signed mostly by supermarkets and fast food chains, including McDonalds, Walmart, Marks & Spencer and Unilever. However, commodities firms such as Cargill, Bunge, and ADM, all active in the Cerrado, have yet to sign the SoS. Experts say big traders must join in to make the initiative effective.
  • The Cerrado Manifesto is a call to action, and is somewhat akin to the 2006 Amazon Soy Moratorium, which some say was effective in cutting deforestation due to the direct conversion of forests to soy plantations. Critics of the Manifesto say that its top down approach should also include major incentives to farmers to not clear native vegetation.
  • One concern is that the Manifesto and other deforestation mechanisms could force good actors out of the Cerrado, creating a vacuum into which entities unsupportive of environmental reform might enter. Among entities of concern is China, which already buys a third of Cerrado soy. China has not signed the Manifesto.
A single tree is all that remains of native vegetation cleared for soy production in the Cerrado. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth

In October 2017, global companies, especially supermarkets and fast food chains including McDonalds, Walmart, Marks & Spencer, METRO, Tesco, Nando’s and Unilever introduced a Statement of Support (SoS) for the Cerrado Manifesto. In that document they called for action to halt deforestation and native vegetation loss in Brazil’s Cerrado.

Seen as the uncharismatic sister to the Amazon, the Cerrado biome has been under-appreciated by conservationists, and significantly under-protected by government, for decades. Once seen as mostly worthless savannah east and south of the Amazon, the Cerrado is now known to support significant biodiversity including 10,400 species of plants, nearly half of which are endemic; 935 species of birds; 780 freshwater fish; 113 amphibians; 180 reptiles; and nearly 300 mammal species. Known as an “upside-down forest” for its small but very deeply rooted trees, shrubs and grasses, the region also has an enormous carbon storage capacity, which acts as a buffer against climate change.

But the biome, originally covering more than 2 million square kilometers (772,204 square miles), has been reduced by more than half, as soy and cattle production rapidly replaces native vegetation and wildlife.

In 2016, researchers found that cropland within 450,000 square kilometers (173,745 square miles) of the Cerrado had doubled over a decade, increasing from 13,000 square kilometers (5,019 square miles) in 2003, to 25,000 square kilometers (9,652 square miles) in 2013. Land conversion has intensified since then.

The Cerrado Manifesto is being hailed by some environmentalists as a remarkable advance toward getting the Cerrado the environmental recognition and conservation it deserves. “The Manifesto represents a significant breakthrough in civil society consensus that there’s no need to destroy native ecosystems for soy,” said Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of Mighty Earth, an environmental NGO.

But others say the declaration lacks teeth. It doesn’t spell out specific actions to be taken to conserve the region, or to curb new deforestation due to agriculture. Nor has the SoS so far been signed by large-scale industrial agribusiness, or by transnational commodity companies like ADM, Cargill, and Bunge, or Brazilian firms like Amaggi.

Signs of the times: Bunge and Cargill logos planted in the Cerrado soil. The support of the big commodities companies for the Cerrado Manifesto is crucial to its success, but hasn’t come yet. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth

The need for the Manifesto

The Cerrado Manifesto does not clearly set out any rules that must be followed by agribusiness in the region. It is a call to action whose parameters are yet to be defined. The Manifesto is aimed at “companies that purchase soy and meat from within the biome, as well as investors active in these sectors.” These entities are asked to adopt “effective policies and commitments to eliminate deforestation and conversion of native vegetation and disassociate their supply chains from recently converted areas.” Since its creation, the Cerrado Manifesto has amassed 62 signatories, mostly in the consumer and retail sectors.

Many conservationists arguing in favor of the Manifesto say that new public policies and legislation to protect the Cerrado are not likely to be created or implemented in time to curb the biome’s wholesale destruction. With that in mind, they say that markets and supply chains must play a leading role, which is where the Manifesto comes in.

Some supporting the Manifesto believe that its application needs to be modeled on the Soy Moratorium (ASM) implemented in the Amazon in 2006. That agreement is reported to have significantly reduced direct deforestation caused by new soy plantations. Spporters argue that there is a huge amount of already degraded land in the Cerrado that farmers could use to grow crops, allowing the soy market and profits to continue expanding, while drastically reducing new deforestation.

They also say that the best way forward is to get commodities companies to make a voluntary pledge to stop buying soy grown on newly deforested land. That would put pressure on growers to make a rapid shift away from forest conversion.

A tractor tears up the last of the tree roots resisting crop cultivation. Deep-rooted Cerrado native vegetation helps to improve carbon storage, which curbs global warming. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth
Cargill silo and sign in the Cerrado. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth

Commodity companies key to the agreement

Hurowitz believes that for the Cerrado Manifesto to be a success it needs to be adopted by the region’s two major commodities traders – Cargill and Bunge – who have been mostly silent on the initiative, and have resisted it, to date.

In a statement, Cargill said: “We applaud the NGO Cerrado Manifesto signatories and the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) for taking a stand on deforestation and addressing issues in the Cerrado.” Beyond that, the transnational firm has made no movement.

Asked why Cargill has not signed, the company replied: “the terms of the statement of support remain very high level and we await more clarity on the full weight of the expectations from such a manifesto. We recognize it will take all of us working together, especially with local governments and farmers, to develop and implement workable solutions.” While Cargill waits, say analysts, more native Cerrado is being plowed under.

In a statement, Bunge said: “Bunge already has a clear commitment to eliminate deforestation in our supply chains, we are collaborating with NGOs, peers and other companies to build and use tools and approaches that drive conservation on the ground, and we are creating incentive programs that benefit farmers willing to engage beyond legal compliance.”

Hurowitz expressed his frustration with another major Brazilian soy trader, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). It has refused to back the Manifesto, even though the company is reportedly producing soy in a relatively deforestation-free way.

Jackie Anderson, spokesperson for ADM, said: “In the complex ecosystem and economic environment of the Cerrado, ADM believes that solutions to address deforestation and land use issues must be developed in consultation with, and buy-in from, all relevant stakeholders including local farmers, government, industry and civil society.” Moves by the company to help achieve this umbrella of cooperation were not enumerated.

So far, the majority of Manifesto backing has come from consumer and retail food companies, with just one supporter from the agribusiness sector, Nutreco NV, a Dutch fish food production company. The initiative’s supporters to date also include 43 retail companies, 9 consumer goods companies, 3 food service firms, and four food processing and personal care companies.

A tractor ploughs up newly deforested land. Experts say that there is plenty of degraded land in the Cerrado that could be brought into cultivation, without further deforestation. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth

The perils of delay

Tiago Reis from IPAM (The Institute of Amazon Environmental Research) expressed great concern that a delay in clear policy action on the Cerrado Manifesto is causing farmers to deforest as much land as they can now to beat the clock, action driven by fears that a Cerrado Soy Moratorium could be just round the corner.

Some say that the implementation delay is due to the inexactitude of the Manifesto itself, which fails to outline concrete policies for implementation. As a representative from Rainforest Foundation Norway put it, the Manifesto “plans to establish ‘working groups’ and ‘roadmaps’” in order to drive significant change, “but we also know that [such mechanisms] can stagnate progress.”

Until these details are worked out to the satisfaction of commodities companies, critics say, it seems the Manifesto could remain ineffective.

Two international NGOs, Mighty Earth and Rainforest Foundation Norway, have also criticized the Manifesto for its Brazilian exclusivity. “There’s no technical reason why conservation issues can’t be applied continent-wide, to places like the Bolivian Amazon,” says Hurowitz. “The excuse boils down to the same inertia that prevented the soy moratorium from being expanded beyond the Amazon in the first place.”

Rainforest Foundation Norway agrees, noting that, like the Cerrado, the Gran Chaco in Argentina and the Atlantic Forest in Paraguay are undergoing widespread deforestation due to agribusiness cultivation, which needs urgently to be curtailed.

Ploughing up the Cerrado to plant soy. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth

Incentives needed for farmers

Some economists argue against the consumer and commodities driven approach represented by the Manifesto. They advocate a “collaborative approach,” in which sustainably-minded commodities companies work directly with farmers and lawmakers to create a system that is palatable for all parties.

This camp voices skepticism toward the Cerrado Manifesto due to its perceived lack of concern for Brazilian farmers. Current law holds that farmers whose properties lie within most of the Cerrado need only protect 25 percent of native vegetation (or 35 percent if their land falls within the bounds of Legal Amazonia). These farmers, many of whom have gone to some length to ensure they are abiding by the law, worry that they will suddenly start being penalized by the market for cutting trees and utilizing land for commercial purposes, even though they have the legal right to do so.

Scientist Daniel Nepstad, who has written extensively about supply chain interventions in the beef and soy industries, points out that no financial compensation is currently being offered to farmers to offset the cost of protecting native vegetation on their land.

“Farmers’ land value will decrease dramatically,” if the Cerrado Manifesto is implemented, Nepstad warns. He says that the Manifesto corroborates the suspicions of many Cerrado farmers who believe that international NGOs and governments are hell-bent on harming the agricultural sector, taking away their land and land rights.

But others argue that Nepstad’s insistence on involving farmers is misplaced. “Giving deforesters a veto over forest protection would be like giving coal mine owners a veto on clean air laws,” says Hurowitz. “It’s a complete nonsense idea!” He believes that large-scale soy growers are the major players who need to be brought onboard in the Cerrado, but they seem unlikely to easily give in to conservationists.

Recent clearance in the Cerrado. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth

Nevertheless, Nepstad asks: “Why don’t we frame this in a way that’s going to work for farmers? Particularly as Brazil cannot afford to seriously constrain [the agribusiness] industry.” Nepstad and his colleagues have written extensively about the importance of financial incentives offered in support of sustainable farming practices. They point to the effectiveness of credit programs which reward farmers who successfully limit their conversion of native vegetation to cropland.

Tiago Reis says that he completely supports the idea of such a credit system, but that it’s hard to find the funds. “Current [native vegetation] conversion rates in the Cerrado are alarming – it’s an emergency,” he said. “That’s why we’re considering an immediate [deforestation] ban, and then we can work out financial mechanisms.” The Cerrado Manifesto does mention the importance of creating financial incentives for farmers.

One source of incentive financing could be the Amazon Fund, a United Nations REDD+ mechanism (the U.N. Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries). However, the Cerrado is not currently considered for such investments, because most of its land lies outside of Legal Amazonia, a Brazilian designation. Still, experts argue that the Cerrado should be a candidate for the Fund.

According to Nathalie Walker, from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), a number of NGOs and strategic partners are indeed working on a strategy for “Aligning Capital,” to establish incentives, business models and financial mechanisms that reward actors that adopt deforestation-free production alternatives.

Fires rage as native vegetation is cleared for new croplands. Farmlands don’t have anything close to the carbon storage capacity of Cerrado lands covered in native plants. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth
An animal skull revealed in the aftermath of a fire. Fire is often used as a tool for converting forests to croplands. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth

Risk of companies opting-out

Nepstad, while critical of the Manifesto’s lack of farmer incentives, is also concerned that this kind of top-down corporate pledge could have serious unintended consequences. Namely, sustainably-minded companies could simply stop buying from overly contentious regions, like the Cerrado, out of fear for the potential negative PR consequences from continued business there.

Other companies could then swoop in and take their place as commodities purchasers – companies with little or no commitment to slowing deforestation, and who show a complete disregard for environmental sustainability.

Nepstad points out that “China is by far the biggest buyer of Brazilian soy, and right now they don’t give a rip” about the environment. China currently purchases a third of all soy produced in the Brazilian Cerrado, according to Trase, a sustainability tool developed by the Stockholm Environment Institute. Withdrawal of Cargill or Bunge might simply create a commodities vacuum which the Chinese would be all too willing to fill.

Indeed, European customers currently make up 52 of the 62 companies that signed in support of the Cerrado Manifesto, with 26 from the Netherlands, 10 from the U.K., 6 in the U.S., 3 in Brazil, and the rest scattered among EU countries. China is notably absent.

Despite these challenges, preservation of the Cerrado biome remains fundamental to the preservation of global biodiversity, to curbing global warming, and to limiting Brazilian water shortages. So it makes sense for conscientious commodities traders and retailers to use their purchasing power to drive positive change – working with the national, state and local governments to ensure that soy farmers and cattle ranchers don’t convert native vegetation to farmland, but expand their operations into already-cleared land.

Many analysts agree that the Cerrado Manifesto is a useful innovation in curbing deforestation, but if it is to be effective, they say, it needs to be acted on swiftly, with traders leading the way.

“The Cerrado is a region where win-wins for production and habitat protection are possible,” says an optimistic Nathalie Walker. “We’d like to see that possibility put into action.”

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Mountain top clearance for soy, while fires rage behind. Brazil’s Supreme Court, in its March 2018 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Forest Code, legalized the clearance of steep slopes and hilltops for cultivation. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth
An enormous cleared area in the midst of what was once Cerrado forest and native vegetation. Photo by Jim Wickens, Ecostorm / Mighty Earth

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