Cargill and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) have a long-standing relationship dating back to the 1980s. Cargill and TNC share a mutual interest in developing science-based, improved agricultural management practices that guarantee the productivity and enduring health of the ecosystem and landscape. 

— From a joint Cargill/TNC document [PDF] dated February 2006

In her new book Green Inc., Christine MacDonald argues that that large environmental NGOs have compromised their agendas in exchange for corporate cash. (See Mark Pawlosky’s recent review of Green Inc. for Grist.)

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I haven’t read the entire book yet, but I did catch an excerpt published by Multinational Monitor. In it, MacDonald makes a pretty convincing case for Big Green lameness with regard to the ever-expanding agricultural frontier in Brazil.

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She details collaborations between Conservation International and Bunge to “sustainably” expand soy production in Brazil’s vast savanna region; and between the Nature Conservancy and Cargill to promote “responsible” soy farming in the Amazon region.

According to a recent Reuters piece, Cargill and Bunge are the world’s largest and third-largest agribusiness companies, respectively, by revenue. Bunge concerns itself mostly with grain-trading and processing; Cargill maintains a global empire with interests in grain trading and processing, meat production, biofuels, fertilizer, livestock feed, and more.

Conservation International describes Brazil’s savanna, known as the Cerrado, as “one of the world’s 34 biodiversity conservation hotspots.” Moreover, the organization frets that:

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The Cerrado’s wooded grassland once covered an area half the size of Europe, but is now being converted to cropland and ranchland at twice the rate of the neighboring Amazon rainforest, resulting in the loss of native vegetation and unique species.

In 2003, MacDonald reports, Bunge opened a soybean-processing facility in a part of the Cerrado then only sparsely planted in soy — clearly betting that the factory’s presence would draw in more farmers. As landlords began clearing land for soy, the company bought the resulting hardwood and used it to power the facility — providing a double-incentive for transition to soy.

Within three years, soy production in the area had tripled. How did Conservation International respond to this bare-knuckled attack on a “biodiversity conservation hotspot”? Here’s MacDonald:

CI and Bunge began working together in Piauí in 2003, in an effort to help soy plantation owners comply with Brazilian environmental rules requiring them to set aside portions of the farms as nature preserves.

And the collaboration has been successful — to a point. MacDonald quotes a CI official: “Through the project we have 60,000 hectares [one hectare is about 2.5 acres] of new reserves established, and another 60,000-odd in process of legalization according to the Brazilian law.”

Right, so 120,000 hectares spared from being transformed into monocropped soy fields. Except, adds MacDonald, “by CI’s own estimates, 2.2 million hectares of El Cerrado’s ecosystem are lost every year.” Ouch.

Meanwhile, a Cerrado resident named Judson Barros has been actually trying to stop Bunge’s egregious practice of burning cleared hardwoood in its soy-processing plant. Apparently, he’s managed to be a real thorn in the agribiz giant’s side; the company has filed lawsuits against the Brazilian activist demanding a total of $1 million for “moral damage” to its reputation. Barros has also received death threats. CI’s response? Here’s MacDonald:

CI officials in Washington say they are unaware of any organizational efforts to support Bunge in its dispute with Barros, but Barros says CI officials in Brazil have pressured him to end Funaguas’ campaign against the company. CI staff were also at Bunge’s side in a May 2005 meeting, where the company offered to drop its $1 million lawsuits if Funaguas would withdraw its objections to the [soy-processing plant]. According to an official account published by CEBRAC, a Brazilian organization for soy growers that mediated the meeting, CI officials also made a presentation highlighting Bunge’s commitment to CI’s conservation work in the region.

The Nature Conservancy has done similar work on behalf of Cargill, which in 2003 built a port for exporting soybeans at the mouth of the Amazon. Like Bunge’s Cerrado facility, this one had the immediate effect inspiring vast land-clearing for soy production. Cargill built its plant without filing a Environmental Impact Statement, as required by Brazilian law.

The port remains the subject of international condemnation. Transforming rainforest into soy fields not only ruins indigenous homelands and obliterates biodiversity, but it also contributes to global climate change by releasing vast stores of carbon. The Nature Conservancy’s response? Collaboration, not confrontation. MacDonald quotes a TNC official:

“In the [TNC/Cargill] project, named Responsible Soy and supported by the Cargill Foundation, we work with soy farmers with the objective of helping them develop eco-friendly practices that abide by Brazilian environmental legislation, which requires, in the Amazon, that 80 percent of the land must be set aside as protected forest preserves. The rules also mandate that landowners leave forests standing within 10 to 50 meters of streams and rivers as ‘areas of permanent protection.'”

Right. Meanwhile, rainforest clearance proceeds apace. According to MacDonald, Cargill claims the partnership “enables the company to be seen more visibly as a champion of prudent conservation practices around the world.”

TNC also works with other companies in need of similar perception improvement, including defense contractor Boeing, oil giants BP, Exxon, and Chevron, coal-addicted Duke Energy, automakers Chrysler and GM, GMO-seed and herbicide behemoth Monsanto, bottled-water powerhouse Nestlé Waters North America, plus Dow Chemical and Coca-Cola for good measure.

I guess there’s a legitimate debate to be had about the practice of taking money from corporate polluters with the purpose of nudging them to do better in exchange for a bit of nice PR. I have to admit, the point is lost on me. I look forward to reading MacDonald’s book.