December 19, 2004

The Disappearing South American Forests & Grasslands

This month Knight-Ridder had several pieces about how the expanding global market is changing the face of the South American landscape. Barely a player in the world's soybean market in 2000, South American countries are now growing and selling more soybeans into the expanding China market than the US. The consequences of this is that the forests and native pampas are disappearing at an astonishing rate. Soybeans is one commodity that has the potential of maintaining its value for a very long time because China can consume much more than what it currently has. In fact, China is buying land in Brazil to grow soybeans for its own market.

In Brazil's Amazon basin, armed soy speculators are seizing rainforest land illegally and clearing it for soybeans. Brazilian growers also are eyeing Bolivia's eastern Amazon region, promoting a dam, canal and dredging project that would make more than 2,600 miles of inland rivers navigable by barges. The dream is to deliver soybeans to Atlantic and Pacific ports from fertile interior areas.

...By 2020, five South American countries - Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay - are expected to grow most of the world's soybeans. In each, the boom already is upending traditions and threatening ecosystems.

In Uruguay, a picturesque nation of 3.4 million known as the Switzerland of South America, a tidal wave of soybeans is making the country's cattle ranches and sunflower farms disappear. Uruguayan farmers planted 20,000 acres of soybeans in 2000, according to farmers and export groups. This season, they're expected to plant 860,000 or more.

...Argentina's surge began with the conversion to soy of cattle ranches and grain farms in the flat, humid Pampas regions south and west of the capital of Buenos Aires. The new growth is in Argentina's northern states, which are part of a vast three-country ecosystem of semi-arid bush savannahs called the Chaco.

The World Wildlife Fund, in a report earlier this year titled "Managing the Soy Boom," warned that 15.5 million acres of Argentine Chaco, more than 24,000 square miles, could disappear over the next 15 years. Steep losses are also projected in the Bolivian and Paraguayan Chaco.

The reason, according to the WWF: "Unlike forests, savannahs can be converted directly to soy plantations." The politically moderate environmental group wants South American governments to do a better job enforcing environmental laws. Chief among them are laws requiring controlled burnings that leave 20 to 30 percent of native forest standing when land is cleared. The group also favors integrated soy farming and cattle ranching operations.

And although the soybean boom is bringing new wealth to South America, it is leaving behind the poor farmers:

Efficient soybean growing, he said, leaves out small farmers because it requires lots of land. Soybeans also yield little gain for local economies because they're mostly exported. Most of the profits end up in the hands of relatively few speculators, growers, farm equipment suppliers, exporters and shipping companies, many of them foreign.

The free market has driven the destruction of the tropical rain forests for the timber, to create huge cattle ranches to provide beef for the McBurgers and now it is changing the native habitat into sterile monocultures. The wealth that can be had creates a corrupting climate for the governments who are selling public land for private gain.

One of the worst examples of this was the outright fraud that allowed an Argentinian nature preserve to be turned into private soybean farms. The preserve was the traditional home of the Wichi Indians who now are being forced from their land.

Greenpeace Argentina and other environmental and human rights groups are rushing to the Wichis' aid. They're incensed by the secretive process through which the savanna was stripped of its protected status and sold in four months - a supersonic pace in a country with a glacial bureaucracy. They say it shows how South America's soybean boom tramples everything in its path.

At the urging of Salta's three-term governor, Juan Carlos Romero, the provincial legislature on March 4 lifted the nature preserve status it had granted in 1995. The land was put to bid in April, and awards were announced in June. Bulldozers are already clearing it.

There was no public hearing or debate and, while some buyers are known, others are thought to be proxies for anonymous purchasers.

Gustavo Lopez Asensio, Salta's environment secretary, said consultations with the Wichis weren't necessary. There'd been discussions with the legislature.

"They are the representatives of the people," he said in an interview.

What is happening in South America is a microcosm of the hard tradeoffs we face as we go into the 21st Century. As a commodity driven economy, it makes sense for South America to find and exploit the ability to produce a high-value crop, wealth is generated within South America and food provided for China. Yet through this process, the environment loses, the poor and indigenous lose too and the monocultures that are formed help lead to the loss of species that depended on the native forests and grasslands. As natasha said, the consequences to the world of losing many species of birds will lead to Epic and Staggering losses to our ability to inhabit this world. What are our choices as we respond to this coming world?

Posted by Mary at December 19, 2004 09:10 AM | Environment | Technorati links |

Thanks for writing this, Mary. These are enormous problems that can kind of seem to fall by the wayside when we're worried about Iraq, SCOTUS appointments, and corruption here at home. But the rainforest in South America has been appropriately called 'the lungs of the world.' What happens to it affects everyone. As far as the grasslands go, those newly tilled lands are going to face tremendous erosion if the land is cared for improperly, and these types of short term speculators could usually give a damn.

There's got to be a better way to deal with all of this. Just got to be.

Posted by: natasha at December 19, 2004 12:58 PM