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Published on April 13th, 2010 | by Guest Contributor


Make More By Using Less: The Profits of Conservation

In Brazil’s growing soy market, environmentalists are shifting their messaging to farmers from saving the environment to increasing their bottom line, reflecting a larger change in the way the connection between the market and the environment is viewed around the world. Brazil’s annual national soy harvest is estimated at 66 million tons, making it the second-highest soy producer in the world behind the United States. Producing that much soy requires clearing over 50,000 square miles of Amazon rain forest over the last 20 years.

Photo Credit: Threat to Democracy 20% of the Amazon has been lost to deforestation since the 1970's

20% of the Amazon has been lost to deforestation since the 1970's

But John Buchanan, senior director for agricultural markets at Conservation International, acknowledges that pro-environment rhetoric hasn’t made much of an impact on the process.

“We have to define what’s in it for the farmer. The private sector is too important a stakeholder not to have on board.” — John Buchanan,

Buchanan’s Conservation International has been working with Brazilian farmers since 2001 on everything from environmental legal compliance to identifying environmentally important land- to date they have created 326,000 acres of preserves in the country. Their approach balances the need for environmental preservation with realistic expectations.

“Some in the environmental community have unrealistic expectations of what farmers can do. We know we need to preserve important places. We also need to be producing the food, fiber and fuel that we need for a growing world.” – John Buchanan

Case in point is Mato Grasso, the top soy producing state in Brazil at 18 million tons in annual harvest. Blairo Maggi, a successful farmer called the “soy king” who became mayor of Mato Grasso in 2002 and whose family is one of the largest soy producers in the world, once told the New York Times that he didn’t feel “the slightest guilt” about deforestation. More recently, Maggi told Forbes that, “We agree farmers need to preserve forest, but they need the financial incentive to do so.”

The Triple Bottom Line

Combine consumer and environmentalist pressure and you have fertile soil for making sound economic arguments. Maggi is in favor of REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), a carbon-offset scheme where rich countries offset their emissions by paying to avoid deforestation places like the Amazon.

Another approach is education- that is, education for environmentalists. Brazil’s Conservacao Estrategica runs 9 day classes coaching conservationists how to make their arguments in financial terms. So far 350 people have taken the course.

Farmers in Sorriso are using a technique called “zero tillage.” The idea is to leave stalks, roots and stems from previous harvests as natural fertilizer and an erosion barrier. Zero tillage has been shown to increase profits due to saving labor and energy, soil conservation and increasing the land’s tolerance to drought- all in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Conservation is basically putting order to economic activities. But if you don’t understand the economics behind it all, it’s a tough sell.” — Marcos Amend, the executive director of Conservacao Estrategica

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