A decade after the “Save the Rainforest” movement captured the world’s imagination, Cargill and other food giants are pushing deeper into the wilderness.
Looking Toward 2030
Victor Yucra, the director general of Bolivia’s forest and land management at the Forestry and Land Authority, stressed the need for the Bolivian government to balance the protection of its forests with the needs of its agricultural sector.
“Our concern is in ensuring that intensive agricultural production takes place within a framework that also provides for sustainable forestry and protection for standing forests,” Mr. Yucra said.
Mr. MacLennan, the chief executive of Cargill, described a business trip to Brazil last year, during which he saw the Amazon from a plane window. “You look down and you see this beautiful forest,” he said. “Kilometers and kilometers of forest. But you also see these big chunks of dirt.
“The brown really contrasts with the green,” he continued, comparing the forest and deforested areas. “When you see it, it’s like, ‘Holy cow. That’s what’s happened.’ It just hit me when I saw it in broad daylight — the impact the deforestation has.”
Mr. MacLennan initially garnered praise among environmentalists for pledging to extend the no-deforestation pledge it had made regarding palm oil to cover every commodity the company handles. Cargill’s commitment was called one of the most sweeping environmental pledges ever made by a large agricultural company. It earned Mr. MacLennan a photo opportunity with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general at the time.
Even before the New York Declaration, Cargill had made significant efforts to buy palm oil sourced only from land not linked to fresh deforestation, according to a supply-chain expert with extensive experience working on Cargill’s global sustainability efforts. The expert spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that to do so openly would jeopardize professional relations with the company.
Cargill continued to invest millions of dollars adding extra staff members and hiring third-party auditors to verify that the palm oil was coming from established fields, not farmland freshly carved from the forest, he said. But Cargill has been less aggressive with other commodities, he said.
Part of the issue was Cargill’s decentralized setup, the expert said. Another problem was the resistance from commodities traders, whose incentive is to seek supplies from as many sources as possible in order to drive down costs. Buying only sustainably grown commodities would mean a more limited supply.
Now, environmental groups accuse Cargill of backtracking on its 2020 deadline. In recent statements, Cargill has adopted a 2030 deadline for elimination of deforestation from its supply chain — a separate deadline, mentioned elsewhere in the New York Declaration, that was meant to apply to ending all forms of deforestation, not just those related to agricultural commodities.
“They’re willfully misinterpreting the Declaration,” said Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive of Mighty Earth. “They’re breaking their own pledge.”
Cargill is committed, Mr. MacLennan said, to eliminating by 2020 deforestation from its production of palm oil, a commodity widely used in food, detergents and cosmetics. But, he said, Cargill had always understood the declaration to give all signatories until 2030 to tackle deforestation.
“I don’t think I or others appreciated the vast complexity of the task,” Mr. MacLennan said. “Let’s say that we are trading or buying and selling soybean meal. Where did the soybeans come from? And did they come from deforested land? Maybe we weren’t buying the soybeans directly. I don’t know.”
Holly Gibbs, an expert in tropical deforestation and agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, called the 2030 deadline interpretation devastating. “If we were to wait until 2030,” Ms. Gibbs said, “there would be no forest left.”
Fire and Water
In Mr. Janzen’s newly cleared field, a long strip of land flanked by vivid vegetation, blue-white smoke drifted from a smoldering landscape.
The German-speaking Mennonites, who live amid horse-drawn buggies and farmhouses that wouldn’t look out of place in rural Ohio or Pennsylvania, trace their origins to 16th-century Protestant reformists who migrated to Russia, the United States, Canada, Belize and Mexico in search of farming opportunities and religious freedom. Some moved to Bolivia in the last century, and about 57,000 Mennonites now live in 55 secluded settlements here, eschewing some aspects of 21st century technology, like modern cars, but enthusiastically embracing others, such as tractors and genetically modified seeds.
Their trade with companies like Cargill has transformed their communities into a bloc of relatively prosperous landowners. But in recent years, they have also been targeted by land reforms enacted by Mr. Morales, who has pledged to reverse the centuries of subjugation of Bolivia’s indigenous majority.
The farmer, Mr. Janzen, with the help of two laborers, spent the day digging roots from the earth, between smoking woodpiles. There was a brown jumble of slender trees, saplings, shrubs, bushes, vines and roots. Occasional larger trees showed gashes where the bulldozer first made contact, pushing them to the ground.
Farther downfield lay more long, neat cordons of debris, waiting to be burned. “If the rain holds off, I’ll burn the rest tomorrow,” he said.
An article on Feb. 26 about the return of deforestation across the Amazon basin misidentified the country that is home to the Matopiba region, where the American-based food giant Bunge has a 20 percent share of the soy crop. It is Brazil, not Bolivia. The article also gave an outdated reference to the nature of the Bolivian Institute of Forestry Investigation. It is a nongovernmental organization; it is no longer a joint monitoring effort between the Bolivian and American governments.