TRI FIELD NOTES: Investigating deforestation-free agreements in the Brazilian Amazon

TRI FIELD NOTES: Investigating deforestation-free agreements in the Brazilian Amazon

By Mariana Vedoveto, 2015 TRI Fellow in Brazil

The challenge of the conversion of tropical forests into croplands and grazing pastures demands urgent solutions. After a decade of decreasing deforestation rates, recent analysis of satellite imagery reveals a rapid increase of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. According to IMAZON (2015), the pace of deforestation in the Amazon has more than doubled by the first quarter of 2015 compared to the rates of 2014, transforming native forests into agricultural and pasture lands (CIFOR, 2011). Increasingly, deforestation trends in the Brazilian Amazon have been linked to globalized markets for beef, timber, soybean, biofuels and other commodities.

In the past decade, there has been a remarkable proliferation of deforestation-free agreements between governments, the private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the goal of reducing tropical deforestation from supply chains and investments. Nevertheless, given the briskness with which these commitments have been made, there has been little opportunity to reflect on the concept of “deforestation-free” and the ability of these agreements to act as effective mechanisms to fight deforestation (TFD, 2014).

As a TRI Fellow, I am researching the first voluntary deforestation-free agreement carried out in the tropics: the Brazilian Soy Moratorium (SoyM). Implemented in 2006, the SoyM pressed major soybean traders to commit to cease purchasing soy grown on deforested lands in the Brazilian Amazon. This historic agreement occurred as a response to increased pressures from retailers and nongovernmental organizations in support of environmental protection. Gibbs et al. (2015) affirm that the agreement led to huge changes on the ground and dramatically decreased deforestation caused by soy.

However, the long-term effectiveness of the SoyM is still unclear, as are its effects on the private sector practice, public policies and deforestation leakage. For example, other actions may have decreased agricultural expansion into forestlands, such as the Brazilian government’s investments in enforcement and monitoring of deforestation, the creation of new protected areas, as well as changes in market conditions. Therefore, the preliminary analyses of the SoyM’s impacts may possibly overestimate the actual results of the agreement. The victories of the SoyM may be another example of how the “claims of success of market mechanisms tend to be exaggerated, based on partial data, misleading rhetoric, or assumed correlations” as described by Balleti (2012). The effectiveness, challenges and opportunities that deforestation-free agreements present require further assessments.

Credit: Mariana Vedoveto

My research aims at better understanding the uptake process of the SoyM and how the diverse forces (market, politics, social norms, and legislation) influenced the agreement’s implementation and results. I am analyzing the real effects of the SoyM in combating deforestation and exploring the multiple logics through which this mechanism has shaped the soybean supply chain in Brazil. As my methodology I am implementing the pathways framework, which involves an assessment of the influence of the SoyM on the Amazon deforestation rates, policy decisions, law enforcement, and corporate responsibility in the soybean supply chain. More specifically, my research seeks to clarify the following questions:

  1. Understanding the SoyM agreement: Who are the stakeholders involved in the SoyM and what are their specific roles and motivations to adhere to the agreement? What kind of causal pathways have influenced the SoyM signature? What are the national and international forces that contributed to the SoyM implementation?
  2. Current impacts of the SoyM in deforestation rates, public policies and corporate responsibility in the soybean supply chain: What kind of behavioral changes and local/national policies has the agreement promoted/influenced? Are they permanent? Is deforestation caused by soy expansion really decreasing? Does the SoyM explain this decrease?
  3. SoyM durability, replication and recommendations: Is the agreement durable? What is the potential to continue private sector engagement in decreasing deforestation and developing new policy after 10 years of agreement? What are the next mechanisms to enforce the agreement, maintain its results and ensure its durability?

To answer these questions, I spent two months in Brazil and travelled more than 10,500 km to interview key stakeholders that can explain the dynamics behind the SoyM. In doing so, I have collected and assembled the pieces of information that describe the story of the SoyM since its early beginnings in the 2000’s. In order to identify different actors and perspectives, including opposing opinions, I conducted preliminary research through primary and secondary sources, including conversations with key stakeholders. My initial list of interviewees included major soybean sector players, non-governmental organizations, the federal and state governments and key experts that would provide an outside, but holistic and analytic view of the SoyM.

São Paulo, my hometown, was my first stop and a really welcoming start! It was essential to have my family’s help to give me the necessary strength to concentrate on my fieldwork. However, the first appointments were not easy. Reaching out to the highest functionaries required creative strategies and numerous (and persistent) attempts to schedule my 30-minute interview. I had to use different arguments to convince each of them to spare some minutes of their hectic routine to talk to a master’s candidate trying to understand a controversial agreement. Gradually, I established a network and each interviewee granted me access, or even direct contact, with another stakeholder. With time, my list of interviewees grew unexpectedly and I gained access even to organizations that had at first refused an interview.

Along my journey, I conducted my fieldwork in:

  • Sao Paulo, where the headquarters of soybean traders, investors and private sector associations are located; Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil that houses the branches of the federal government and the most powerful decision maker entities;
  • Pará State (Belém and Paragominas), where between 2002 and 2004 Greenpeace first identified the expansion of soy plantations into the forest and thus started its environmental campaign “Eating up the Amazon”, which gave place to the SoyM a year after its launch; and
  • Mato Grosso (Cuiabá), Brazil’s leader state in soy production, responsible for 31% of the nation’s yields (Macedo, 2012).

Through this journey, I had the opportunity to speak with federal prosecutors, CEOs of soy trading companies, federal and state associations of soy producers, the federal association of the oil industry, NGO researchers and campaigners, environmental consultants, academic researchers and professors, representatives of the Ministry of the Environment, representatives of federal and state environmental agencies, the Soy Working Group (GTS), among other important stakeholders, totaling more than 30 hours of interviews.

I feel very enthusiastic about my research and the knowledge that I am gaining from each interview. Each person I meet offers me an applied lecture on environmental politics, multistakeholder governance, deforestation monitoring and supply chain traceability, global markets, social and environmental certification, capital ventures, land use change, law enforcement, socio-environmental movements, and many other realms. Each conversation is a new piece of this puzzle and opens a wider horizon of new actors, episodes, data, and questions. The research process and the complexity of this topic have been fascinating. Both the interviewees and myself are looking forward to the resulting analysis I will be working on in the coming months.

Thanks to the Tropical Resource Institute Fellowship and the Carpenter-Sperry Fund, I have been able to collect my data and learn more about the SoyM and the implications of non-deforestation agreements. This opportunity also enables me to contribute more effectively to my country’s environmental issues, with emphasis on deforestation and economic development in the Amazon region, which still houses the largest tropical forest in the world.

“TRI Field Notes” share the stories of TRI Fellows as they conduct independent summer research throughout the tropics. The Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) is a center at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. For more information on research and fellowships visit