The soy game in the Brazilian Amazon

Climate & Natural resources,Peace & Security05 Nov 2013Karlijn Kuijpers, Tim Boekhout van Solinge

Conflicting interests and insurmountable tensions in the Brazilian soy industry

The rising production of soy for the global market has been one of the main drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. This is not only affecting the biodiversity of the Amazon region, but is also engendering severe violent conflicts in the region over the use of land. The ‘soy game’ is consistently won by the few people with a clear interest in the agribusiness sector at the expense of indigenous communities and small-scale farmers living and operating on the land that has been taken up to cultivate the soy for the global market.

Soy production and export has proved extremely profitable for both the Brazilian government and multinational companies trading in soy. Yet, the deforestation that it has caused in the past twenty years has subsequently led to severe violent conflicts over the ever scarcer land between large-scale agribusiness-based soy farmers on the one hand, and small-scale farmers and indigenous communities on the other hand. For their part, local and national Brazilian authorities have found themselves trapped, between trying to protect the Amazon from deforestation and to increase GDP through soy agribusiness development, which was introduced in Brazil in the 1990s. The soy conflict in the Brazilian Amazon uncovers a complex network of actors, clashing interests and conflicting struggles to survive.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Worldwide, an area of rainforest the size of a football field is cut down by illegal loggers every two seconds.1 Since the 1960s, when deforestation in the Amazon became more widespread, roughly 20% of the Amazon has been deforested. Along with cattle ranching and timber extraction, the production of soy for the livestock industry is one of the main and most recent causes of deforestation.2 Due to its size, its relatively low population density, poor state of law enforcement and high levels of corruption, the Brazilian Amazon is particularly susceptible to illegal logging. Deforestation is the key driver of Brazil’s future greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.3 Despite significant emission decreases over the years, Brazil continues to be ranked in the top-10 countries with the highest GHG emissions.

In addition to the harm it causes to the biodiversity and ecology of the Amazon region, deforestation in particular leads to violent conflicts over land conversion between loggers, soy farmers and traditional forest communities. These conflicts take place on the soy frontier, which has moved, due to rising demands for soy and exhaustion of the land, from the southern to the northern Amazon, in particular to Brazil’s Pará state. According to the Pastoral Land Commission (Comissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT), for many years, Pará has witnessed the highest number of violent conflicts over deforestation.

This article is based on research conducted by Tim Boekhout van Solinge and Karlijn Kuijpers, and is part of the ‘Lands and rights in troubled waters (LAR)’ research project of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research – WOTRO Science for Development (‘NWO-WOTRO’) programme, ‘Conflict and Cooperation over Natural Resources in Developing Countries (CoCooN)’. The research findings presented in this article are based on secondary data survey and primary data survey including in depth interviews and observation.

The article is an edited version of: Boekhout van Solinge, T. and K. Kuijpers (2013) ‘The Amazon Rainforest : a Green Criminological Perspective’, In: South, N. and A. Brisman(2013) Routledge international handbook of green criminology. Routledge. pp. 199-213.

‘The wild west’

According to the Federation of Organizations for Social and Educational Assistance(Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional, FASE), deforestation in northern Brazil is associated with severe violations and even killings, two-thirds of which have taken place in Pará. This has been the case especially around the town of Santarém, which is situated in the lower Amazon, some 900 kilometres from the mouth of the Amazon River and known for its high levels of corruption and lawlessness. Here, illegal logging takes place on a very frequent basis, resulting in a dramatic violent conflicts.4 In an interview, Ivete Bastos dos Santos, governor of  Santarém and former president of the Rural Workers’ Union (Sindicato de Trabalhadores e Trabalhadoras Rurais,  STTR), describes the violent state of affairs on the soy frontier as one of the largest conflicts in the history of Santarém.5

Traditional forest communities are overrepresented among  the victims of soy-related crimes, due to their relative powerlessness when they are faced with large-scale soy farmers aiming to start farms on the land on which they live. Bigger soy farmers largely stand above the law as they are generally supported by the strong agribusiness lobby, and have the power to hire pistoleros, gunmen, to impose their will on small farmers, forest inhabitants and rainforest activists. According to Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council (Conselho Indigenista Missionário, CIMI), the rights of these indigenous communities are consistently violated as more and more indigenous people are – often violently – forced from their lands by farmers, loggers or miners. In an interview, Gilson Rego, spokesman of the CPT, describes the soy frontier in Pará as the ‘the wild west’.6 Severe violations – killings, death threats, disappearances, property invasion, burning of houses and goods – are conducted in a context of poor or no law enforcement.

Other victims in conflicts related to deforestation have included human rights and environmental activists. Relatively well-known examples are the murders of Dorothy Stang in 2005, and João and Maria da Silva in 2011. While these murders did receive considerable international attention, most of the deforestation-related violence that occurs in the region passes by almost unnoticed by the national and international media. Between 1971 and 2004, 772 human rights and forest activists were murdered in Pará. Only three of these cases were brought to trial.7 In addition, many rainforest activists are living “under the threat of murder because of their fight against a coalition of logger, farmers and cattle ranchers”.

Brazil’s role on the global market

In the last two decades, Brazil has become the world’s second largest producer – just behind the US – and its largest exporter of soy, as this turned out to be an effective way to increase GDP.  The recent emergence of the biodiesel market in Brazil has stimulated this further. The largest proportion of Brazilian soy, however, is destined for the European market, where it is used predominantly to feed livestock for human consumption. Brazil’s aspiration to increase GDP  growth was intensified due to external inducements. In the 1990s, the IMF pressurized Brazil to pay back its increased national debt, demanding that it increased its export earnings and used its resources more efficiently.8 In practice this implied that Brazil should expand its agriculture into Amazon states like Mato Grosso and Pará, and increase its soy production through the agribusiness model, incorporating the full cycle of the production process, including infrastructure, processing, storage and distribution. Due to this national stake in keeping soy production high, Brazilian and international agribusiness entrepreneurs are in a position in which they can exercise a strong lobby, at the expense of small-scale farmers and indigenous communities in general.

In the past, Brazilian governmental authorities at federal, state  and local level have largely supported large agribusiness projects and developed the infrastructure required to facilitate large-scale soy farming and the soy industry as a whole, thereby indirectly playing an important  role in the process of the deforestation of the Amazon.9 This prioritization of the soy industry was aimed at increasing GDP in the face of a growing population, combined with the wish to compete with subsidized European and North American agriculture.10However, the downside has been that, despite recent measures to reduce illegal logging, the conglomeration of different state authorities, large-scale soy farmers and global commodity traders has been devastating for small-scale farmers and forest inhabitants.

The case of Cargill

A typical example of the interrelation between the Brazilian state authorities and global commercial interests is the case of Cargill, a US-based trader in commodities. In the late 1990s, after research had revealed the great potential for soy production in the Brazilian Amazon, US-based agro-corporation Cargill began implementing its  Northern Exit Project, a plan to export soy to Europe through the Amazon river.11 Part of this plan was the construction of a fluvial port in Santarém, which currently exports one million tons of soy per year, mainly to European markets.12

The construction of the port generated a lot of resistance, as it caused many small farmers to be expelled from their lands. It also led to farmers migrating to the Santarém region to start soy farms,  resulting in further deforestation. In 2000, Cargill was taken to court for neglecting to conduct an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).  The court ruled against Cargill, but the company appealed, while continuing construction of the port. In April 2003, with the judicial process still running, the port started operating. In 2007 the high court ruled that the port had to be closed and Cargill eventually agreed to conduct the EIA, which it published in 2010 and succeeded in re-opening the port, which was closed for a few days. A year later the Prosecutor’s Office accused Cargill of not properly carrying out the EIA. The company and its staff that conducted the EIA are still under investigation. In 2012 Cargill managed to obtain a permit for the port that it had constructed a decade earlier and, at the time of writing, had still managed to avoid prosecution.

The failure of the Brazilian court to legally enforce its own rulings on Cargill illustrates the state’s inability to hold agribusinesses accountable to the law. The example of Cargill shows how the interests of the agribusiness sector are widely interwoven in Brazilian politics and society, making it difficult to change the status quo. Representatives of local NGOs suspect that bribery has played a role in this case as, during the re-opening of the port, one judge broke with the unanimous decisions of the original judicial mandate and seven previous appeals.13 Whether this is true or not, on various occasions, enforcing Brazilian law has proved difficult, not in the last place because of the large number of appeals and bureaucratic viscosity.

Breaking the cycle?

Over the last few years, the Brazilian authorities have made successful efforts to reduce deforestation. Yet, in doing so, they are faced with the paradoxical choice between trying to protect the environment and respond to international criticism, and the need to increase GDP. In 2011, the Brazilian parliament passed a set of amendments to the 1965 forest code.14The amendments would have weakened the country’s promise to protect the Amazon and were applauded by the powerful agricultural lobby, which had long been opposed to the restrictions of the use of land under the code. Faced with severe opposition from NGOs and the Catholic church, as well as public opinion being against revision of the code, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff partially vetoed the revision bill. This partial veto – implying the rejection of 12 clauses and amendment of 32 others – embodies a clear compromise in the face of a trade-off between the desire to preserve Brazil’s natural resources and the expected economic profits resulting from loosening restrictions on land use for soy production.

The Brazilian authorities argue that the state’s enforcement efforts in recent years have resulted in a decrease in deforestation. Yet, environmental activists claim that the decrease is primarily due to the fact that the global economic crisis has resulted in lower demand for soy, timber, and cattle. They are concerned that when the global economy improves the restrictions will be relaxed, with devastating consequences for the Amazon region.

Implementing new sustainable methods of land use will help break the current cycle and prevent further deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon while safeguarding national economic interests. Yet, the question is how to persuade large agribusinesses who benefit from the current system to reform their methods when this seems to be against their short-term commercial interests.


Ajit Menon, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India.

Aklilu Amsalu, Assistant Professor, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Daniëlle Hirsch, Director, Both Ends, Amsterdam Netherlands.

Domien Huijbregts, Communications Officer, NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Frans Bieckmann, co-founder, former executive director and editor in chief, The Broker, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Teyo van de Schoot, Human Rights Senior Advisor, HIVOS, The Hague, The Netherlands.


  1. Goncalves, M. P., M. Panjer, T.S. Greenberg and W. B. Magrath (2012),Justice for Forests: Improving Criminal Justice Efforts to Combat Illegal Logging, World Bank Studies Justice for Forests, March 2012.
  2. Fearnside, P.M. (2005) ‘Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia; History, Rates and Consequences’, Conservation Biology, vol. 19, no.3, pp. 680-688.
  3. World Bank (2010), Brazil Low Carbon Country (pdf). Energy Sector Management Assistance Program, Briefing note 005/10.
  4. Tabarelli, M., L.P.Pinto, J.M.C. Silva, M. Hirota and L. Bedê (2005) Challenges and Opportunities for Biodiversity Conservation in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest’, Conservation Biology, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 695-700.
  5. Interview with Ivete Bastos dos Santos, 23 April 2012
  6. Interview with Gilson Rego, 18 April 2012.
  7. Grandin, G. (2010) Fordlandia. The rise and fall of Henry Ford’s forgotten jungle city, 2nd edn, London: Icon Books.
  8. Schoneker, J. (2007) “Sustainable soy” in Santarém: Power struggles for the future of development
  9. For example, in 1995 the federal government supported the construction of the BR-163, a highway which connects the city of Santarém with Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso in the south of the Amazon, in order to facilitate the transportation of soy and other goods to and from Santarém. The construction of the BR-163 also opened up ten million hectares of Amazon forest to exploitation.
  10. Jank, M.S., M.F.P. Leme, A.M. Nassar and P.F. Filho (2000) ‘Concentration and internationalization of Brazilian agribusiness exporters’, The International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, vol. 2, no. 3-4, p. 359-374.
  11. Besides Cargill, US-based agricultural commodities giants Archer Daniels Midlands (ADM) and Bunge are also involved in soy production.  Together they are responsible for about 60% of the total financing of soy production.
  12. Schoneker, J. (2007) “Sustainable soy” in Santarém: Power struggles for the future of development
  13. Schoneker, J. (2007) “Sustainable soy” in Santarém: Power struggles for the future of development
  14. Under the 1965 panel code, 80% of a farmer’s land had to be reserved for forest to compensate for the economic usage of the other 20%.