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Missouri company faces criticism over alleged role in Brazilian deforestation

A section of Amazon rainforest stands next to soy fields in Belterra, Para state, Brazil, on Nov. 30, 2019.
Leo Correa
Associated Press
A section of Amazon rainforest stands next to soy fields in Belterra, Para state, Brazil, on Nov. 30, 2019.

Bunge Limited, headquartered in Chesterfield, Missouri, is the world’s largest soybean producer and sells the overwhelming majority of inputs to Brazilian soy farmers. A new report from environmental and human rights group says that the company's practices incentivizes deforestation and illegal land grabbing.

A Missouri-based agricultural giant is helping fuel rapid deforestation in Brazil’s eastern savanna, a report by environmental activists claims.

Bunge Limited, headquartered in Chesterfield, is the world’s largest soybean producer and sells the overwhelming majority of inputs to Brazilian soy farmers.

The report, released Tuesday by a trio of environmental and human rights groups, says Bunge’s near-monopoly hold over financing soy producers in parts of Brazil — a characterization that the company disputes — incentivizes the expansion of plantations. And establishing soy plantations in Brazil, the report says, routinely involves deforestation and illegal land grabbing.

“It is this business model that is incentivizing the type of environmental and human rights abuses that we’re discussing here,” said Guarav Madan, senior forest and land rights campaigner for Friends of the Earth U.S., one of the organization’s behind the report.

He added: “This can be seen as an oversight, but I think it’s really a failure.”

In a response included in the report, Bunge said it was aligned with Friends of the Earth “that deforestation and human rights abuses are critical concerns”

“We devote considerable effort and resources to promote sustainable agriculture, disincentivize native vegetation conversion and incentivize the uptake of certified products that provide assurances of no deforestation or native plant conversion,” the company said.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

The report is also critical of the role Harvard University and retirement fund manager TIAA play in deforestation of the Brazilian savanna, known as the Cerrado.

The Brazilian Cerrado, the report says, is the world’s most biodiverse savannah and home to 5% of the world’s plant and animal species. While often overshadowed by the neighboring Amazon Rainforest, the Cerrado is a significant biome, the report says.

The investigation — published by Friends of the Earth U.S., ActionAid USA and Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos, or the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights — comes just weeks after Bunge announced it was raising its earnings outlook for the year following a record soybean crop in Brazil.

Last year, 10,688 square kilometers — or more than 2.6 million — acres of native vegetation were destroyed in the Cerrado, according to the report, which says that represents a 25% jump compared to 2021.

In the city of Santa Filomena, where Bugne owns and leases out silos, the report says deforestation nearly quadrupled in one year.

According to the report, under Bunge’s business model, farmers take out loans to purchase chemicals for farming and then give their soybean crops to Bunge to pay off the loans. That drives the expansion of soybean farming, “which is often carried out through the destructive use of fire, deforestation and land grabbing,” the report says.

Bunge has committed to ridding its supply chain of soy obtained through deforestation by 2025. That’s five years later than a group of dozens of nonprofits had called for in a joint “Cerrado Manifesto.”

The delay and the escalating deforestation, the report says, raise “serious questions about whether Bunge’s 2025 target date will tacitly fuel intensifying destruction of the Cerrado up to January 2026.”

Bunge has disputed the groups’ findings, saying it has monitored its sourcing in the Cerrado for years. Earlier this year, the company announced it could trace more than 80% of its soy supply in the area.

But it’s unclear, the report says, whether that tracing effort accounts for land grabbing and deforestation common in the establishment of a new soy farm.

Bunge pushed back on a number of the report’s claims, including that it holds a near monopoly in the state of Piauí. It said 87% of its Brazilian soybean volumes have no ties to deforestation or conversion.

“Since we established our non-deforestation commitment in 2015, we have developed the industry’s most expansive and transparent system of traceability and monitoring, giving us unprecedented insight into our supply chain and strengthening relationships with our suppliers,” the company said.

The company said its contracts in Brazil require that suppliers protect human rights. Credible allegations of abuse and exploitation, Bunge said, “are not tolerated.”

The report calls for a halt to expansion of soy farms in the Cerrado, like that in the Amazon Rainforest, and for the Brazilian and U.S. governments to hold companies accountable.

Madan said it’s time to shift food systems away from industrial agriculture, “which is too often predicated on deforestation, land grabbing and violence against indigenous peoples and local communities.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture.
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