Archives for posts with tag: brazil

Chico and his family

Today marks the 25th anniversary of death of Chico Mendes, a union leader and environmental activist who fought for the protection of the Amazon and pioneered the use of extractive reserves. In a tale that is familiar today, Mendez fought for sustainable use of the forest while cattle ranchers sought to clear the land. As The Guardian reports:

Mendes was an obvious target. As well as lobbying successfully to end international financing for Amazon clearance, he organised the rubber tappers in non-violent resistance. Men, women and children would form human barricades known as “empates” to prevent the bulldozers from tearing down trees. His success made him many enemies and he knew he was a marked man.

His killer was from a family of cattle ranchers, whose efforts to expand their pastures was held up by the empates. Darcy Alves, 22, and his father Darly were convicted in 1990 and jailed for 19 years. Although they are now free, former associates of Mendes said the assassination backfired. “Those who killed Chico got it wrong. They thought by killing him, the tappers’ movement would be demobilised, but they made him immortal. His ideas still have a huge influence,” said Gomercindo Rodriquez, who came to Xapuri as a young agronomist in 1986, and later became Mendes’s trusted adviser.

Mendes wanted the forest to be used sustainably rather than cut off from economic activity (as some environmentalists wanted) or cut down (as the farmers wanted). He proposed the establishment of extractive reserves for tappers, Brazil nut collectors and others who harvested nature in a balanced way. After his death the first of many such reserves in Brazil, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, was created, covering 1m hectares of forest around Xapuri.

After years of decline, the demand for latex from a local condom factory has boosted the price of rubber, and many tappers, who had turned to raising cattle, have returned to the forest. “This is Chico’s legacy,” said Gomercindo. “The extractive reserves have meant the preservation of the forest – all around it has been destroyed for cattle pasture. They have become an example, they now exist in other areas of Brazil.”

A day to remember and reflect on those who fight for the voiceless forest and her downtrodden people. Read more at The Guardian.

Recently while I was shopping on Amazon for a sustainable source of coffee to satisfy my morning buzz, I came across a coffee shop that was selling unique coffee grown in the Cerrado region of South America. After all I learned of the Cerrado through my XMNR courses, the largest and most ancient grassland savanna that mankind has a privilege to experience, it was upsetting to see someone describing it as “native” because I knew the region needed tremendous industrial transformation of its acidic soil in order to be suitable for growing any products at all. When I asked the seller if it was sustainable, he answered “I would think so, coffee is native to Brazil!!”

Across the web and the grocery aisle, terms like sustainable, natural, and organic have been reduced to marketing phrases. The promulgation of a myriad of labels and standards, together with a lack of transparency on what actually makes a product sustainable, has made it nearly impossible to shop for ethically sourced consumer goods without a masters in sustainability! This is not something we should expect from the average consumer.

Can we seriously know the veracity, sourcing, standards and impacts of every one of these labels?


A similar situation existed with medicines in the 1800s. Charlatans of all types sold medicines with wild claims and even those destined for doctors offices could not be assured that what was in them was the actual pharmaceutical. On top of that, a variety of regulations from different states within the US created a dizzying set of standards that essentially made companies selling in multiple states have to create a different type of product for each market, even if it was the same thing they were selling! The situation was dangerous to the public, bad for business, and stymied the progress of medical science. It was not until a coalition of a crusading chemist, women’s activists clubs, and multi-state businesses came together to push the federal government into creating the FDA that the safe foods and effective medications we come to rely upon today were standardized. It was an early example of a cross-sectorial collaboration between the public, business, academia and government – Collective Impact if you will.

A cartoon showing an elephant with a label, Hamlin's Wizard Oil,

Best Pain Remedy on Earth – Yup, sure.

Fast forward to 2013, and we have the multiple sets of organic, rainforest friendly, energy efficient and green labels that confronts and confuse us when we try to make ethically based purchases. It would seem obvious that what we need is an “eFDA”, or at least a set of agreed upon standards that can simply guide us when making purchasing decisions. We need a Nutrition Facts label for sustainability. And just as the Nutrition Facts uses agreed upon scientific standards to show us what is in our food, we need similar standards to show us where our products come from, as well as the environmental, social and economic impacts created in the process of production. Think of how much water to produce a can of beans, or how much energy to manufacture a laptop, or how many trees to create the toilet paper.

Mark Bittman recently wrote in the NYT about his dream food label which would encompass nutrition, “foodness” and welfare in a simplified, standardized label:


simple and to the point

The most difficult part, and the one with the most opportunity for sustainability professionals is that of “welfare”, which he writes would encompass the following:

“The third is the broadest (and trickiest); we’re calling it “Welfare.” This would include the treatment of workers, animals and the earth. Are workers treated like animals? Are animals produced like widgets? Is environmental damage significant? If the answer to those three questions is “yes” — as it might be, for example, with industrially produced chickens — then the score would be zero, or close to it. If the labor force is treated fairly and animals well, and waste is insignificant or recycled, the score would be higher.”

As Bittman notes, his proposal is not an end but a beginning of the conversation about how to create sustainability food labels. And for sustainability professionals, the subject of unified, simple and effective labeling is one that will require a Collective Impact approach. There is too much competition for grants and market position among for and non-profits alike in the green label field, for the sake of the planet we need to begin to come together around a label we can all agree upon, and read!

Cargill Expands “Responsible Soy” Project To Protect Rainforest

When The Nature Conservancy (TNC) approached Cargill to reduce the impact of Soy farming on deforestation in Brazil, their intent was pure: we need to stop this habitat destruction. Bolstered by Greenpeace’s successful campaign to convince McDonald’s to pressure their beef suppliers, namely Cargill, to reduce the impacts of their cattle feed on deforestion, TNC approached an economically pressured Cargill about how to manage the supply chain of their Brazilian soy production in a way that could reduce the negative impacts to biodiversity in the region.

This well intended partnership, which gave birth to the Responsible Soy program , appeared to be a win-win: Cargill uses its weight in the region to reduce deforestation by buying soy from land that was previously cleared, such as cattle ranches, rather than farms on newly deforested land. And TNC can build on the partnership to expand and partner with other companies, all the while having a positive impact on the Cerrado and Amazon.

But the economics of Soy, driven in large part by a Chinese market demand that values price stability over sustainability, resulted in unintended consquences, as detailed by researchers from McGill:

Soybean cultivation carries the political weight necessary to induce infrastructure improvements, which in turn stimulates crop expansion. Further, Nepstad et al (2006) suggest that growth of the Brazilian soy industry may have indirectly led to the expansion of the cattle herd. According to Nepstad et al (2006), soy has driven up land prices in the Amazon (5–10 fold in many areas of Mato Grosso), allowing many cattle ranchers to sell valuable holdings at enormous capital gains and purchase new land further north and expand their herd further. This hypothesis is consistent with our spatial analysis showing northward displacement of pasture, with declining pasture in parts of Mato Grosso, and increasing pasture further north (figures 1and 4), and also supported by findings from other recent studies (Dros 2004Cattaneo 2008). Our statistical analysis of the relationship between soy/cattle price and deforestation lends further credence to this hypothesis (figure 6). It shows that while the relationship between cattle price and deforestation has been more or less stable, soy has become increasingly related to deforestation over time. In summary, even if the proximate cause of deforestation was mainly ranching, it is likely that soy cultivation is a major underlying cause (

The lesson is not to get together for a partnership between large corporations and non-profits, if anything the relationship between Cargill and TNC has likely increased environmental awareness within Cargill, a key cultural shift essential to moving us towards a more sustainable planet. The problem lies in creating these partnerships without a consideration of how a change in a major economic player will impact the other parts of the local economy. The economy works much like an ecosystem, you can’t impact one section without changing many others.

Future projects would be wise to consider the downstream envrio-economic impacts that could result from a change in policy among a corporate behemoth in developing economies, and the lessons learned in the Cerrado could then be used to model future plans elsewhere.