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Amazon farmers grow grain and save the forest

McDonald's, Cargill, and The Nature Conservancy create a 'responsible' soy program.

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You might call it the greening of Chicken McNuggets.

At first glance, there seems little common ground between fast-food giant McDonald's, US commodities multinational Cargill, and The Nature Conservancy, an environmental group.

But here in the Brazilian Amazon, all three are working together to help soy farmers produce grains without cutting down the forest.

In fact, under the Responsible Soy Project, farmers in two municipalities in the northern Amazon can only sell soy to Cargill if they promise to plant trees on denuded land. McDonald's, which buys chicken fed with Brazilian soy, set that condition after pressure from environmental groups and consumers. The Nature Conservancy, with $390,000 from Cargill, assists all sides and oversees compliance.

It is, conservationists say, a potential model for sustainable development not just in the Amazon but all over Brazil, home to the world's largest rain forest.

"This is an important step in the sense that it is initiating actions to stop the deforestation of new areas," said Valmir Ortega, a senior environmental official with the Para state government. "This is being done only in a small region as of yet but it has stopped the expansion of soy [farms] in that region. We are seeing similar pressures to open other areas for other products like ethanol and palm oil and so this experience can be very illustrative."

The Responsible Soy Project is based around compliance of Brazil's Forest Code. The code dictates that Amazonian landowners must keep natural vegetation on 80 percent of their territory and farm only 20 percent.

But, like many laws in Brazil, it is largely ignored. Around 17 percent of the Amazon has disappeared, withmuch of the recent deforestation coming to make way for massive soy plantations on the southern edges of the jungle. Brazil is now the world's largest exporter of soybeans.

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