New Allies on The Amazon

An unlikely team of Greenpeace activists and McDonald's executives took a boat up the Amazon to see the destruction of rainforest partly driven by McDonald's demand for soybeans.
An unlikely team of Greenpeace activists and McDonald's executives took a boat up the Amazon to see the destruction of rainforest partly driven by McDonald's demand for soybeans. (Photo courtesy of Bob Langert, McDonald's)
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It was an unusual group to be sharing a small boat making its way up the Amazon River.

There were four environmental activists from Greenpeace -- Brazilians and others who flew in from Europe for the trip. And there were four corporate leaders of McDonald's, the world's largest fast-food chain, from its Chicago headquarters and from Europe.

The eight were in the rainforest together on a mission to see firsthand where farmers were cutting down virgin forest to grow soy beans for, among other customers, McDonald's. And though Greenpeace had not long ago been accusing McDonald's of complicity in the deforestation, by the time of the Amazon trip in January, the eight officials were calling each other partners.

Those weren't just words. The ubiquitous fast-food company and the global environmentalists had already jointly pressured the biggest soy traders in Brazil into placing an unprecedented two-year moratorium on the purchase of any soy from newly deforested areas.

Officials at Cargill, the huge multinational company that supplied McDonald's with Brazilian soy for chicken feed and ultimately pushed fellow soy traders to accept the moratorium, confirmed that the odd couple of McDonald's and Greenpeace made it happen.

"McDonald's and, yes, Greenpeace, were the catalysts," said Laurie Johnson, a spokeswoman for Cargill. "They brought together a wide range of people and created a sense of real urgency."

The tale of how the two heavyweights came together reflects the complexities, pressures and ironies of the globalized economy. It also illustrates how once-unthinkable partnerships can become forces for addressing environmental and social problems that governments cannot handle.

With Brazilian soy, the problem at least partially grew out of an unrelated dispute over genetically modified food products.

While U.S. consumers and many others largely accept biotech foods, the products are unpopular with Europeans, and most companies doing business in Europe make a point of using only soy, corn and other staples that have not been genetically modified. With U.S. and other major soy growers increasingly turning to biotech crops, Brazilian growers saw a market opportunity in traditional, non-modified soy.

With help from multinational companies such as Cargill, some Brazilian farmers began cutting down trees in the interior of the Amazon rainforest to grow soy and other crops. The scale of the operation did not become apparent until 2003, when Greenpeace and other activists saw satellite maps that showed significant new deforestation. Because of the Amazon rainforest's central role in modulating global climate, the maps caused immediate alarm.

Greenpeace's investigators searched records to see which companies were involved in the destruction and which were buying the rainforest soy. One relatively small-scale but high-profile buyer was McDonald's European operation, which fed the soy to chickens destined to become McNuggets.

Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations have become adept at putting pressure on big companies like McDonald's, which don't want customers to think they are unfriendly to the environment or mistreating animals. Greenpeace not only staged rainforest protests at McDonald's outlets in Europe last spring, but it also sent its ship, the Arctic Sunrise, to block Cargill's port in the Amazon city of Santarem.

Following the protests, the fast-food chain and the environmentalists got together and brought in Cargill. The company had opened a port and series of soy silos at Santarem in 2003 and encouraged some farmers to grow soy for it -- though Johnson, the spokeswoman, said the company thought most of the 150 to 200 farmers it worked with were tilling land that had been deforested long ago. She also said the port was used to ship soy grown outside the rainforest.

At first, Cargill took the stand that it was bringing economic development to an impoverished region and was already working with the Nature Conservancy and others to promote good stewardship practices. Greenpeace, and soon additional environmental groups, replied that the company was inducing farmers to move into environmentally fragile areas, where they often began planting with fake property papers, without proper permits and with little understanding of forest conservation.

Faced with its unhappy McDonald's client, Cargill brought together other Brazilian soy traders, and they ultimately agreed on the moratorium -- an unthinkable action just a few months before.

"We really didn't see an immediate problem with the soy farmers, but we could see how it could grow into a big problem in the future," Cargill's Johnson said. "The moratorium will give everyone time to plan how to better control the farming and protect the forest."

A working group of soy traders and environmental and community organizations is scheduled to meet this month to discuss the soy farmers, this time with representatives of the Brazilian government, too.

For McDonald's, working with a group like Greenpeace was unusual but not unprecedented. The company has joined with a variety of environmental and animal welfare groups over the years on issues including the company's packaging, the use of environmentally harmful refrigerants and treatment of farm animals. Creating a responsible supply chain is part of the corporate culture, its officials say, though it clearly is also good public relations.

"We listened to what Greenpeace was saying about soy from the rainforest, and I think we surprised them at first by saying, 'You're right. We have a problem here,' " said Bob Langert, McDonald's vice president for corporate citizenship. "We have a firm policy against using beef -- or any other products -- that come from the rainforest. So when we learned that some of our soy was coming from there, we got involved."

John Sauven, head of Greenpeace's rainforest initiative, said that joint efforts between nonprofit groups and major corporations have become increasingly important and sophisticated but that the idea of partnering with McDonald's was hardly in the initial plan.

"We have an active campaign to save the rainforests, and it turned out that we and McDonald's had very similar goals," he said. "We didn't start out with the idea of focusing on McDonald's or partnering with them, and someday we may well go after them again on other issues. But on this one, they played a highly positive role."

John Buchanan, director for agriculture and fisheries for Conservation International, a nonprofit group, said his organization has been working with the big traders of soy and other grains in Brazil for some time, helping them create "environmental scorecards" to see how they are doing throughout their long supply chains.

Buchanan said Greenpeace and McDonald's uncovered a growing problem that had not been flagged before. Together they "shook the tree" in "soil that had been cultivated by others," and now unprecedented environmental progress is possible, he said.

"You never know how things will ultimately turn out, but this could be an important model for attacking very complicated social and environmental problems in the future," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company