Cargill, the world’s largest agribusiness company—and the United States’ largest privately held company—is coming under yet more scrutiny from advocacy groups that have traced its business operations to recently cut tropical forests in Bolivia.
On Wednesday, the group Global Witness released a report showing that the Minnesota-based company has been buying soy grown on 50,000 acres of deforested land in the Chiquitano Forest, a tropical dry forest in the eastern part of the country. Bolivia has suffered some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, but has blocked efforts to slow down the cutting of its forests, which researchers say are critical repositories of biodiversity and carbon.
“Clearing land for agricultural purposes is the main driver of tropical deforestation and Bolivia has been going through a deforestation crisis over the last ten years,” said Alexandria Reid, a senior global policy advisory with Global Witness. “It has the third-fastest rate of tropical forest loss after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and soy is the main culprit.”
Cargill, which has been buying soy in the country for decades, ranks as the largest or second largest buyer of Bolivian soy in recent years.
The Global Witness investigation suggests that the company’s dominance there could expand. In an internal company map from 2018 that was leaked to Global Witness researchers, Cargill identifies another 7.4 million acres where it could potentially source soy.
In the new report, Global Witness traces Cargill purchases of soy to five large farm colonies where forests have been cut since 2017. The group procured receipts from local middlemen, showing that Cargill purchased the soy from land that satellite data indicates has recently been deforested.
Cargill did not respond to an inquiry from Inside Climate News, but in its response to Global Witness, the company said the soy it purchased from those farms likely came from acreage that had been cleared before 2017. The company said it investigates all allegations and regularly blocks suppliers that are not in compliance with its policies.
Cargill is one of the biggest buyers and traders of soy in the world, with much of the commodity flowing to Europe and Asia, largely as animal feed. The company has long come under fire for sourcing soy from other important ecosystems, including the Amazon and Cerrado in Brazil.
Last year, Cargill and 13 other companies pledged to end deforestation in the Amazon, Cerrado and Chaco ecosystems by 2025, but the agreement did not specifically include the Chiquitano. Climate and environmental advocates criticized the agreement, saying it was not ambitious enough, and noted that the companies had previously committed to stopping deforestation by 2020 and had failed, even by their own admission.
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Bolivia has the ninth-largest tropical primary forest in the world, but has adopted policies that have encouraged agricultural expansion, making it a deforestation hotspot. In 2019, farmers eager to clear land for cattle and soy production set fires that ended up consuming vast swaths of the Chiquitano.
During recent negotiations to stop deforestation in the Amazon, the Bolivian government blocked efforts to implement a binding agreement between countries that are home to the rainforest.
Bolivia became the first country to recognize the rights of nature in national legislation enacted in 2010 and 2012. “This was no small achievement,” the new report said, “but these laws did not prevent record-high levels of tropical forest loss in Bolivia in 2022.”