U.S. soy giants Cargill and ADM linked to ‘green land grabbing’ case in Brazil

Two giant U.S. commodity traders bought soybeans in Brazil from farmers that are trying to evict a traditional community from South America’s largest savanna, where deforestation is hastening global warming, watchdog group Global Witness has found.

The Brazilian grains producers, who say they bought the disputed land legally, have been fighting in court since 2017 to evict the Capao do Modesto people from part of the Cerrado, where the cattle herders say they have lived for 200 years.

Severino de Oliveira, a member of the Capao do Modesto, said his people’s way of life was under threat, accusing the farmers of destroying cattle fences and using security guards to intimidate the community.

“(My children) know that if we lose this land, we’ll end up (homeless) under the bridge in Correntina,” said de Oliveira, who declined to publish his real name for fear of retaliation, referring to a nearby town in Brazil’s northeastern Bahia state.

“We used to live a quiet life — we slept with our doors open. Now, we sleep on alert for any suspicious noise.”

Global efforts to stop climate change and deforestation have focused on the Amazon, but the Cerrado is disappearing nearly four-times faster accounting for relative size, with forests and grasslands being turned into farms, pasture and towns.

Global grain traders in 2006 agreed to stop buying soybeans from newly deforested Amazon jungle areas. But Brazil — the world’s largest soybean exporter — has made no similar push to preserve the Cerrado, another vital ecological zone.

Money transfers

Money transfers seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation show that during 2017 and 2018 Cargill paid 880,000 reais ($268,000 at the exchange rate on Dec. 31, 2017) to soybean producer Agropecuaria Sementes Talisma, one of seven claimants in the case.

Another grains trader, Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM), paid the same company 530,000 reais ($162,000 at the exchange rate on Nov. 30, 2017), the transfers show.

“These business relationships directly link international traders as contributors to the abuse and victimisation of the Capao do Modesto community,” Global Witness said in its report.

Subsistence farmer Valdineiz Pereira walks on sand that has invaded spring water inside of area of Cerrado at a farm near Barra do Ouro, Brazil, in February 2018. | REUTERS
Subsistence farmer Valdineiz Pereira walks on sand that has invaded spring water inside of area of Cerrado at a farm near Barra do Ouro, Brazil, in February 2018. | REUTERS

“Despite public commitments to sustainability and due diligence, these international traders are profiting from land conflicts and human rights abuses.”

Cargill confirmed in emailed comments that it had bought soybeans from Talisma in 2016 and 2017, but said it no longer had a commercial relationship with the firm.

“We had negotiations with Agropecuaria Sementes Talisma in the crops of 2016 and 2017, however, in compliance with our commitments, this company was blocked on our systems for presenting embargoed areas,” it said.

In 2011, Talisma was put on a Brazilian government list of firms that have broken environmental law because it prevented or hindered “the natural regeneration of forests or other forms of native vegetation.”

ADM said it had launched an investigation after receiving a letter from Global Witness alleging that suppliers in its supply chain in Bahia were responsible for irregularities that violated its purchasing policies in the area of human rights.

“The investigation found no irregularities in the points raised under local law or with ADM’s policies by such suppliers, which have commercial relationships to obtain commodities,” ADM wrote in emailed comments.

While the land dispute has been reported before, it is the first time a link has been made to the U.S. firms — highlighting the challenges of ensuring human rights and environmental due diligence in global supply chains.

‘Green land grabbing’

Supporters of the Capao say the case is part of a growing trend of “green land grabbing” — where farmers illegally acquire forest or other undeveloped land, not to turn it into fields or cattle ranches but to keep it as a nature reserve.

By law, every rural property owner in Brazil must set aside between 20% and 80% of their land, depending on the region, to maintain tree cover to combat climate change, regulate rainfall and prevent flooding.

Through “green land grabbing”, or “grilagem” in Portuguese, landowners can deforest a higher percentage of their legitimately owned properties by counting the illegally acquired land as their nature reserve.

In the ongoing case involving the Capao, the seven agricultural producers say they own and are maintaining 9,421 hectares (23,280 acres) of land as a nature reserve.

A soy plantation at a farm in Sao Desiderio, Bahia state, Brazil in March 2018. | REUTERS
A soy plantation at a farm in Sao Desiderio, Bahia state, Brazil in March 2018. | REUTERS

“Talisma acquired these properties in 2008. These lands were never occupied by residents, only by a group of people who tried to invade, degrade and release cattle in a place destined for environmental preservation,” the firm wrote in emailed comments.

“Capao’s case is one of green land grabbing,” said environmentalist Marcos Rogerio Beltrao, a member of another traditional community in Bahia who researches land rights in the Cerrado. “They have lived in this area for centuries … but now are being branded as invaders.”

In Bahia state court documents seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the agricultural producers said the Capao invaded their land and were damaging it with their cattle.

AATR, a lawyers’ association representing the Capao, denied this. “Their impact on the environment is minimal. The cattle are dispersed along a very large area,” it said.

Establishing the legality of a land claim can be hard in Brazil, because many people manufacture fake deeds. In this case, there are two conflicting title deeds.

Talisma presented a deed of sale to the court showing that it acquired the land in 2008 from a couple who signed with their thumb prints.

But a different company — Agropecuaria Onca Pintada, an agricultural producer not involved in the eviction case — also presented a document showing it has owned the same plot since 1989.

For Valney Dias Rigonato, a land rights researcher at the Federal University of the West of Bahia, the case illustrates how growing demand for farmland in Brazil is putting pressure on the survival of traditional communities like the Capao.

“They do an amazing job at managing their lands. It’s in those areas that the Cerrado is still standing, where there’s still biodiversity,” said Rigonato. “Now their way of life and their sacred territory is under threat because someone came with a map and said to them: you’re on land that belongs to me.”

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