The good and bad news about Brazil's soy moratorium

A new study has shown that Brazil's Soy Moratorium -- an industry-led pledge not to clear Amazon rainforest for soy production -- has had incredible benefits.  But there's also bad news.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

The study, undertaken by U.S. and Brazilian researchers and published in the leading journal Science, was led by Holly Gibbs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The team found that, prior to the Moratorium's commencement in 2006, about 30% of the soy planted in the Amazon directly replaced rainforest. 

That's a huge impact because Brazil will soon be the world's biggest soy producer.  Much of Brazil's soy is exported to China and Europe.

In fact, the impact of soy on the Amazon was even greater than Gibbs and colleagues suggest, because a lot of soy farmers bought up Amazon cattle ranches to expand their farms, pushing the ranchers deeper into the rainforest and thereby promoting more deforestation for ranching.

But after the Moratorium, the impact on the Amazon from soy fell sharply.  By 2014, less than 1% of soy replaced rainforest, according to Gibbs and colleagues. 

While this is a tremendous accomplishment, the Moratorium doesn't apply to Brazil's biodiversity-rich Cerrado, a vast but imperiled savanna-woodland that's a global biodiversity hotspot.  There, soy expansion continues to be a major driver of habitat loss.

Some in Brazil -- particularly elements of the powerful soy lobby -- are arguing that the Soy Moratorium should be dropped, because Brazil's government is effective enough, they say, to limit soy expansion into environmentally important areas.

But the study by Gibbs and colleagues suggests exactly the opposite.  They found abundant evidence of illegal deforestation in the Amazon, in areas such as Legal Reserves.  This suggests that the government alone can't halt illegal deforestation without help from major land-using industries such as soy producers. 

Hence, rather than being canceled, the Soy Moratorium should remain in force and should even be expanded -- to include the rapidly vanishing Cerrado as well.

Let's hope that sanity prevails in Brazil.  Those combating the Soy Moratorium will find themselves facing major boycotts and public shaming if they kill off one of the best industry-led environmental initiatives in the world.

 

Rainforests imperiled by environmental 'one-two punch'

A strange thing is happening in the Amazon.  So strange that scientists who've spent 35 years studying the rainforests there are still scratching their heads about it.

Forests behaving in very peculiar ways  (photo by R. O. Bierregaard)

Forests behaving in very peculiar ways (photo by R. O. Bierregaard)

In the heart of the Amazon, one of the world's largest and longest-running ecological experiments has uncovered evidence that the remote forests there are being altered by an environmental 'one-two punch' -- a combination of threats acting in concert. 

One of these threats is obvious.  The experiment -- known as the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project -- has chopped up the rainforest into isolated patches surrounded by cattle ranches.  A large team of researchers has been studying how the trees, vines, mammals, birds, and other animals of the rainforest respond to the environmental insult of fragmentation.

But something decidedly unexpected has also been happening.  The forests are changing in ways far beyond what you'd expect fragmentation to cause.  The dynamics of the forest -- the rates at which trees grow and die -- has accelerated, and disturbance-loving vines are proliferating.  Even undisturbed forests are changing too.

What's happening?  The best explanation is that the forests are responding to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere -- the result of billions of tons of human-caused carbon emissions each year.  Plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and when the gas increases it evidently alters forest dynamics and plant communities.

Vines like both forest disturbance and rising carbon dioxide  (photo by William Laurance)

Vines like both forest disturbance and rising carbon dioxide (photo by William Laurance)

So, Amazonian forests are not just being affected by local land-use threats such as habitat fragmentation, but also by global-scale changes in the atmosphere -- an environmental 'one-two punch'. 

This finding was just reported in a paper led by ALERT director Bill Laurance and co-authored by ALERT members Philip Fearnside and Tom Lovejoy, the latter of whom founded the Amazon fragmentation project 35 years ago.

The bottom line: Humans are changing the world in myriad ways, and these changes can interact in a complex fashion.  As a result, it could be very difficult to predict the fate of many ecosystems in the future.