Women are the future of responsible soy

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The soy farms of Mato Grosso stretch as far as the eye can see. In fact, it’s almost impossible for the mind to process a sense of scale in this environment. The green fields extend for what seems like forever, the huge blue sky blankets the land and highlights the golden sun that illuminates the soy fields. Located in the western part of Brazil, Mato Grosso is a large swath of biologically-rich land that contains parts of the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado savannah and that has become a place that feeds the entire world. And soybeans are the key.

Women working together on a participating farm.  © Cynthia Moleta CominesiWomen working together on a participating farm.                                                                © Cynthia Moleta Cominesi

Most people don’t realise just how much soy it takes to keep modern agriculture going – that’s because 75% of all soy produced is fed to the animals that we eat. Chickens, pigs, cows, farmed fish – they eat soy and then we eat them. As dairy cows eat a lot of soy, it’s also embedded in many of our favourite dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs. And you thought soy was just for vegetarians!  In fact your typical chicken burger likely contains meat raised on soy meal, margarine containing soy oil, mayonnaise with soy lecithin in it and other soy additives in the bun.  Soy is big business. And we are all its customers.

As a Brazilian who has worked in both the production and preservation side of the soy business, I have seen first-hand the wide ranging benefits soybean production has had for the Brazilian economy. I have also seen the environmental destruction that can accompany the farming of this increasingly important crop through land conversion, chemical use and water resource depletion. As an employee of WWF, I work every day to protect the forests, savannahs and grasslands of South America and to ensure that soybean farming and environmental stewardship go hand in hand.  One of the most exciting projects I work on is the ‘People Who Produce and Preserve’ project in Matto Grosso that aims to support female soy farmers who play a key role in sustainable development. Women make up 10 % of Brazilian soy producers and are more likely to be active in the community and already implementing best management practices in comparison to their male counterparts. Starting with a group of rural women from Sorriso, over time the programme will expand to also engage producers in other municipalities.

Launched in 2013 as a cooperative effort between WWF France, WWF Brazil, Solidaridad, Friends of Earth Club – CAT Sorriso and the French cheese company, the BEL Group – the project aims to preserve the forest between the Cerrado and the Amazon Biome whilst making it easier for producers to become certified by the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS). The RTRS standards provide guidelines for farmers that help prevent the conversion of valuable forests and habitats, reduce pesticide use, improve soil management and ensure fair labour conditions in relation to soy production. The project’s goal is to ensure that the participating farmers produce at least 240,000 tons of RTRS certified soy by June 2016.

Women involved in a ‘People Who Produce and Preserve’ workshop. ©Cynthia Moleta CominesiWomen involved in a ‘People Who Produce and Preserve’ workshop.                                     ©Cynthia Moleta Cominesi

The result of our hard work is already showing; at the first meeting in 2013 only 30 women attended but now between 150-250 women regularly attend all our workshops. During the last workshop, 150 women discussed the main issues affecting the Sorriso municipality and created an action plan to present to the mayor. The fact that these women can now confidently meet with the mayor and advocate for change is demonstrative of the remarkable progression achieved. We are also starting to see the women’s husbands become excited by the project and start to get involved.

The project has already helped 10 farms to evaluate their properties for certification readiness which includes both an environmental and economic analysis. These producers are now on their way to becoming RTRS certified. As soon as the farms have achieved certification, the BEL group will purchase the associated certificates thus giving immediate rewards to the farmers for their efforts.

One of our success stories is Ledair Cella – a soy farmer and widow. Before her involvement in the project she described herself as being very shy and sad with low self-esteem. She was not very active on her farm and left all decisions up to the farm manager. Now she is excited by the opportunities presented by improving the sustainability of her farm and has become involved in every aspect of running it, implementing best management practices and working towards RTRS certification. Ledair  wants to set a good example and be an inspiration to her children and grandchildren.

WWF are proud to be working with women like Ledair to be supporting communities and protecting the local environment. This project is still in an early stage and will no doubt encounter many challenges, but the power of uniting and mobilising women for ecological, social and environmental profit shouldn’t be underestimated. And not only in Brazil, women have the power to create change wherever they live. I am excited to see more women embrace their power and support their families and communities to both improve their lives and protect the environment.

By Cynthia Moleta Cominesi, a conservation analyst WWF-Brazil

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