The rising global demand for soy products has placed increasing pressure on producers to cultivate more soybeans as well as make soy cultivation more profitable for investors. For Argentina, one of the world's leading producers of soybeans, the only lands left for agricultural conversion are marginal lands, such as arid regions and forests. Recent advances in technology, as well as current environmental changes have made it possible to cultivate soy in areas that were once considered undesirable for agriculture. One of these regions is the Chaco forest. The pressure from investors in the global market has lead to extreme deforestation in this region, and with the current projection of soy's popularity, the amount of wildland converted to agriculture is only going to increase in the upcoming years.
Soy Expansion in the Chaco Forest, Argentina
In over 30 years, soybean cultivation in Argentina has increased from 38,000 to over 16 million hectares (Pengue 2009).
Argentina produces 15% of the world’s soybeans, making it number three in the world soy production market (Grau et al. 2005a).
The Chaco forest runs from north-west Argentina through Bolivia and Paraguay, making up the largest contiguous tract of dry Neotropical forest (ReForLan 2009).
About 80% of the primary forest has been converted to pastures, scrub or cropland (Zak et al. 2008). The dominate driver of deforestation in this area is agricultural expansion, more specifically for growing soybeans as well as other crops such as sugarcane (Zak et al. 2008; ReForLan 2009).
In the recent years, the global demand for soy products has increased. This is partially due to meat consumption, an industry which uses soy meal as animal feed (Grau et al. 2005b) which has increased worldwide (Rosegrant et al. 2001). Demand for soy is also increasing due to the development of agrofuels based on soybeans (Pengue 2008).
The profitability of soy cultivation, driven by the international market has encouraged farmers to switch to soy cultivation. In the arid landscapes, such as the Chaco forest, investors from outside the area are now buying marginal land to expand their soy cultivation and thus their profits (Bradford 2004; Valente 2009).
Developments in agricultural technology are enabling soybeans to be successfully cultivated in marginal lands. Transgenic cultivars result in soybeans that can grow in more arid landscapes. Also the implementation of zero-tillage technology allows for better yields by relieving some of the issues of water restriction (Pengue 2008; Zak et al. 2008).
Argentina has a large amount of uncultivated natural areas, such as the Chaco Forest, despite being a major player in the global agricultural market. The availability of this land puts it at risk for agricultural conversion (Grau et al. 2005b).
The deforestation is threatening numerous forest species and fragmenting once continuous forest habitats, resulting in decreased biodiversity (ReForLan 2009).
The monoculture of soybean cultivation on such large scales is leading to the depletion of already nutrient poor soils. Fertilizers will expand the farming life of an area for a certain amount of time, however in the end the land will be useless and farmers must clear more land to continue soy cultivation (Pengue 2009).
Large agribusinesses and investors in the soy industry are buying land for agriculture that traditionally was owned and used by the indigenous communities in the Chaco region. This conversion from public to private lands leaves the local people without the resources necessary to maintain an acceptable lifestyle (Pengue 2008; Valiente 2009). This lack of resources has resulted in disease, malnutrition, and death among the native people in the Chaco region in the recent years (Valente 2009).
Currently, government policies are in place that support the expansion of the soybean industry, such as subsidies to protect soybean companies from market fluctuations and laws that promote the production and use of biofuels (Grau et al. 2005a; Pengue 2009).
In order to aid the native peoples in the Chaco region, changes in the current distribution of private land for public use need to occur, so that the beneficiaries are the people living in the area, not large businesses from other provinces.More specifically, the government needs to fulfill its agreement to aid the local populace in the Chaco region by providing land, support, and funding to small farmers and the betterment of livelihoods in that regions (Valiente 2009).
If the trend of Argentinean economic growth based on soy cultivation continues, millions more hectares of the Chaco forest will be lost to agriculture (Grau et al. 2005b).
Conservation strategies, such as protected areas and policies to prevent deforestation due to soybean agriculture expansion, need to be put in place and followed through by the Argentinean government (Grau et al. 2005a).
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Grau, H.R., T. M. Aide, and N. I. Gasparri. 2005b. Globalization and soybean expansion into semiarid ecosystems of Argentina. Ambio 34: 265-266.
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ReForLan 2009. Research Sites. Restoration of Forest Landscapes for Biodiversity Conservation and Rural Development in the Drylands of Latin America (ReForLan). http:reforlan.bournemouth.ak.uk/research_sites.html (last accessed 15 October 2009).
Rosegrant, M.W., M. S. Paisner, S. Meier, and J. Witcover. 2001. Global food projections to 2020. Emerging Trends and Alternative Futures. International Food Policy Research Institute.
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