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Newsletter 25 : 11 - PANDA-ING TO THE SOYA BARONS?

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'In the past the big conservation organisations used to believe that nature reserves should not include people, so many were moved out, and indigenous people lost their lands. Now it seems as though the WWF is making another big mistake, with serious implications for small farmers, rural communities and food sovereignty.' Helena Paul, EcoNexus.

Global demand for soya is rocketing, fuelled by rising meat and dairy consumption in South East Asia, especially China. Europe’s demand for soya for animal feed also increased massively after the BSE crisis, but a 1992 GATT agreement set a limit on the amount of oilseeds that could be produced in Europe, which means that most of it is imported. The area that is therefore taking the brunt of this 'soya boom' is Latin America, already a major soya exporter, where the area given over to soya cultivation may swallow up another 22 million hectares of savannah and tropical forest by 2020. It will also drive rural communities off the land and destroy small scale and subsistence farming.

Early 2005 saw two responses to this threat being launched in Brazil. The first was the 'Roundtable on Sustainable Soya', convened by conservation group WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund), which brought major NGOs and unions together with corporations involved in soya production and shipping (e.g. Cargill, Unilever, Syngenta). The second was the 'Iguazu Counter-conference', convened by the Peasant Movement of Santiago del Estero (MOCASE) and the Grupo del Reflexion Rural (GRR), both of Argentina.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Soya (RSS) is part of a WWF attempt to 'green' the soya boom and hopefully reduce the amount of forest and savannah lost -- down to a mere 6 million hectares. With so many interested soya producers involved the final statement of the RSS was predictably weak, concluding that 'soy production brings about social, economic, environmental and institutional benefits and problems.'

Effectively this means that the WWF accepts that soya production will increase and also accepts the current agricultural model, by which corporations and major landowners are in control of the processes. In a fact sheet sent to Corporate Watch, designed to answer criticisms of the RSS, the WWF states that 'Opposing the expected increase in demand does not serve a purpose. The challenge is rather to steer the expected expansion of soy production to a more sustainable path.' There is, however, a massive question mark as to whether any expansion can ever be 'sustainable'.

The Iguazu counter-conference, on the other hand, proposed a wholly different model, in which control over the land is placed in the hands of those who live and work on it. This would mean moving away from the export-driven model of agriculture, favoured by the major soya producing countries -- Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. Governments like exporting cash crops as it brings in revenue (especially dollars), to pay their debts and to buy oil, while farming for local food use does not contribute to 'economic growth' and international trade.

The WWF fact sheet states that 'Although corporations are often part of the problem, they should undoubtedly be part of the solution'. Another analysis would be that agribusiness can never be a part of the move away from exports of cash crops -- because that would involve the end of corporate control over many major international commodities. The only groups that currently have an interest in creating sustainable land use are grassroots peasants organisations; would the WWF consider these to be suitable 'partners' towards sustainability? Unlikely. Working with major corporations, unions and NGOS is much easier than working with scattered, under-resourced networks. While in a corporate-dominated world, working with companies like Unliever can seem to offer a large possibility for change, even if only at a rather superficial level.

For more details on the Iguazu counter-conference contact www.grr.org.ar or contact Corporate Watch for a copy of the conference's reports in English, and for a DVD about the counter conference, both available for postage and a donation to cover costs of copying.

You can read some WWF documents on this issue at

www.panda.org/downloads/forests/rssacuerdofozenglish.pdf (final statement) and www.panda.org/downloads/forests/managingthesoyboomenglish_nbvt.pdf ('Managing the Soya Boom'). Contact Corporate Watch for a copy of the WWF fact sheet on the Iguazu counter-conference.