Without indigenous leadership, zero-deforestation policies will fail (commentary)

  • Importing countries and companies (such as traders, food processors, and retailers) committing to deforestation-free agriculture often assume that those commitments alone, if successfully realized, will protect forests and indigenous lands against illegal activities.
  • But a new science-policy report supported by the Luc Hoffmann Institute argues that, for deforestation-free commitments to be successful at achieving their goal, indigenous groups, farmers, and other relevant stakeholders need to have a greater say throughout the process.
  • Only a more inclusive deforestation-free policy can safeguard Brazil’s ecosystems.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

In recent years, companies operating in the Brazilian soy industry, such as Grupo André Maggi, Cargill, Bunge, and Archer Daniels Midland, have signed commitments to zero-deforestation in their supply chains (also known as deforestation-free agriculture). At the same time, a few European countries have signed the Amsterdam Declaration, which has the objective of supporting the private-sector goal of zero-deforestation.

Such commitments to eradicating deforestation are more important than ever as the new Brazilian government, inaugurated on January 1, 2019, forges ahead with transferring responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from the country’s indigenous affairs agency, FUNAI, to its Ministry of Agriculture. Analysts worry this move may lead to more aggressive actions against indigenous lands, people, and forest resources.

A new science-policy report (written by Malika Virah-Sawmy) explores the barriers and opportunities presented by deforestation-free commitments based on interviews with companies, scientists, and practitioners in the soy sector in both Brazil and Europe. The report, supported by the Luc Hoffmann Institute, which works with partners to tackle and resolve complex environmental challenges through innovation and systems change, is extremely timely given changes in Brazil right now.

Importing countries and companies (such as traders, food processors, and retailers) committing to deforestation-free agriculture often assume that those commitments alone, if successfully realized, will protect forests and indigenous lands against illegal activities. But the report argues that, for deforestation-free commitments to be successful at achieving their goal, indigenous groups, farmers, and other relevant stakeholders need to have a greater say throughout the process. Only a more inclusive deforestation-free policy can safeguard Brazil’s ecosystems.

Why is indigenous leadership crucial?

Because Indigenous peoples have been fighting for forest protection for a long time now

Indigenous peoples have been fighting to protect forests for a long time already, and they are frequently targeted with violence as a result. In Brazil, for instance, the Kaiowá-Guarani peoples have denounced over four hundred assassinations of their leaders by private militias hired by agricultural businesses as they protect their ancestral land from illegal commercial expansion. Since 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been highlighting this situation, warning that the “Guarani and Kaiowá have been engaged in a decades-long ongoing struggle to regain their rights over ancestral lands that are now largely under the control of non-indigenous occupants. This has led to ongoing violent attacks against the indigenous communities by militias allegedly paid for by non-indigenous farmers and landholders, who have very significant commercial interests in the region, largely related to industrial-scale agribusinesses.”

On December 18, 2018, Sônia Guajajara, the leader of Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB), which represents more than 300 Brazilian indigenous groups, warned further that the international community risks “turning a blind eye to genocide of peoples and cultures, and to the accelerated destruction of the environment and climate change. This will have consequences not just for indigenous populations, but for the planet as a whole.”

However, with the shifting of responsibilities of Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency to the Ministry of Agriculture, brought about by the newly elected government, analysts worry that indigenous people will be even more at risk of aggressive attacks and displacement from their lands.

In addition, and to make this picture gloomier, international initiatives for zero-deforestation, such as the Consumer Goods Forum, still do not involve indigenous people sufficiently — or at all — in partnerships to eliminate deforestation from international food supplies, in spite of the evidence of their critical role in forest protection.

Because consuming countries are not sufficiently sharing responsibilities for operationalizing deforestation-free commitments

Consuming countries are not sharing the responsibility for operationalizing deforestation-free commitments in the soy supply chain. Demand for meat has been a key driver in the rapid expansion of soy production in recent decades, as over 90 percent of soy is used for animal feed. However, meat-producing companies in Europe, a key region for leadership on deforestation-free agriculture, have hardly made any commitments to deforestation-free soy in their supply chains. Instead, international pressure continues to be put upon those companies operating on the ground in producing countries.

Soy producers are rarely compensated for their deforestation-free production or supported to make the transition — especially when they are expected to go further than the Brazilian Forest Code, which is one of the strictest environmental laws imposed on farmers in the world. Interviews in our research revealed that soy producers have the perception that zero-deforestation is on the agenda because European companies are calling for it, but that this comes at their personal expense in terms of future economic opportunities.

For these reasons, soy farmers usually allege that a zero-deforestation policy is an unfair burden on them — and argue that the international supply chain should require only full compliance with national legislation. Alternatively, the consumer countries or companies committing to zero-deforestation must find ways to share responsibilities for the farmers’ opportunity costs of not using available land on their farms that can be legally cleared.

“I think that [the] international market, if they really want sustainable soy production, have to look for the situation and bring solutions. Because this responsibility is not just ours, it’s a worldwide responsibility. Because it’s not concerning about our country, it’s concerning about the whole world,” one of the producer organizations we interviewed for the report shared with us. Such deep-set frustrations may also be leading to soy producers turning a blind eye to land grabbing in Brazil.

Because land grabbing is responsible for indigenous killings and deforestation

In Brazil, in fact, the deforestation problem for commercial agriculture can also be framed as the challenge of land grabbing. As soy becomes profitable and land owners put higher value on their agricultural land, investors and criminals alike start looking for cheaper land at the forest frontiers, where remaining pristine ecosystems and indigenous lands remain, according to our field research.

Typically, lands with native vegetation in forest frontiers are grabbed by land-grabbers (or ‘grileiros’ as they are called in Brazil) from state or federal dominion – or from traditional communities. Titles are then faked or illegitimately made legal through questionable local court decisions, cleared, cleaned, legalized, and then sold by the ‘grileiros’ to soy farmers who, by law, have complied with all legislation, have never engaged in illegal deforestation – and often have no idea that the land titles are fraudulent.

What is being missed by policy-makers, civil society, and the research community, is the role of actors in the soy sector as stimulators of this perverse local system. In other words, the prospect of soy arrival in a given frontier region acts as a strong signal encouraging land-grabbing, invasions, and often even the killing of indigenous leaders, followed then by deforestation to prepare lands for the arriving industry.

Making deforestation-free commitments more inclusive

There have been many company and government pledges for zero-deforestation. Most of these pledges are, however, vaguely formulated. Key definitions by the Consumer Goods Forum and the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, for example, were achieved mainly by international companies and NGOs. In practice, these processes did not include local communities and indigenous groups that are also impacted by these policies.

Therefore, these definitions need to be re-opened to acknowledge the views and opinions of local and indigenous communities. For example, an inclusive zero-deforestation may mean incorporating the value of ecosystem services from natural land in the definition of what constitutes a forest. Other groups might advocate in favor of other types of native vegetation that are non-forest, but also important for biodiversity and hydrological processes. Cut-off dates and how to operationalize these commitments may also be a matter of collective and participatory deliberation, as private-public-indigenous partnerships may emerge to ensure that the entire supply chain shares fair responsibilities on implementation.

A new participatory process to define concepts and specific details in zero-deforestation commitments can bring more transparency. This will allow companies, policymakers, scientists and civil society organizations to stop the connections that link land grabbing, deforestation, and global supply chains with indigenous killings. The direct participation of indigenous groups in zero-deforestation initiatives will ensure more accurate and timely reporting and tracing of indigenous killings associated with commercial agriculture and hence with our food plates.

Xerente children at play. The Xerente are an indigenous people of Brazil living in Tocantins. Photo Credit: Tiago Reis.


• Nepstad, D., Schwartzman, S., Bamberger, B., Santilli, M., Ray, D., Schlesinger, P., … & Rolla, A. (2006). Inhibition of Amazon deforestation and fire by parks and indigenous lands. Conservation biology, 20(1), 65-73. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00351.x

• Virah-Sawmy, M., Duran, A. P., Green, J. M., Guerrero, A. M., Biggs, D., & West, C. D. (2019). Sustainability gridlock in a global agricultural commodity chain: Reframing the soy-meat food system. Sustainable Production and Consumption. doi:10.1016/j.spc.2019.01.003

Malika Virah-Sawmy is a senior scientist at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and consultant for the Luc Hoffmann Institute and first author of the Luc Hoffmann Institute report “Strengthening collaborative and inclusive strategies for deforestation-free policies: an evidence-based approach for the soy supply chain”. Tiago Reis is a researcher and PhD candidate at Université Catholique de Louvain.

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