Environmental Conservation

Soybean cultivation as a threat to the environment in Brazil

Philip M. Fearnside a1c1
a1 Department of Ecology, National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA), Avenida André Araújo, 2936 CP 478, 69011–970 Manaus, Amazonas. Study supported by Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International


Soybeans represent a recent and powerful threat to tropical biodiversity in Brazil. Developing effective strategies to contain and minimize the environmental impact of soybean cultivation requires understanding of both the forces that drive the soybean advance and the many ways that soybeans and their associated infrastructure catalyse destructive processes. The present paper presents an up-to-date review of the advance of soybeans in Brazil, its environmental and social costs and implications for development policy. Soybeans are driven by global market forces, making them different from many of the land-use changes that have dominated the scene in Brazil so far, particularly in Amazonia. Soybeans are much more damaging than other crops because they justify massive transportation infrastructure projects that unleash a chain of events leading to destruction of natural habitats over wide areas in addition to what is directly cultivated for soybeans. The capacity of global markets to absorb additional production represents the most likely limit to the spread of soybeans, although Brazil may someday come to see the need for discouraging rather than subsidizing this crop because many of its effects are unfavourable to national interests, including severe concentration of land tenure and income, expulsion of population to Amazonian frontier, and gold-mining, as well as urban areas, and the opportunity cost of substantial drains on government resources. The multiple impacts of soybean expansion on biodiversity and other development considerations have several implications for policy: (1) protected areas need to be created in advance of soybean frontiers, (2) elimination of the many subsidies that speed soybean expansion beyond what would occur otherwise from market forces is to be encouraged, (3) studies to assess the costs of social and environmental impacts associated with soybean expansion are urgently required, and (4) the environmental-impact regulatory system requires strengthening, including mechanisms for commitments not to implant specific infrastructure projects that are judged to have excessive impacts.

(Received January 7 2000)
(Accepted October 10 2000)

Key Words: soy; soybeans; deforestation; Amazonia; Brazil; biodiversity.

c1 Correspondence: Dr Philip M. Fearnside Tel: +55 92 643 1822 Fax: +55 92 642 8909 e-mail: pmfearn@inpa.gov.br