Maranhão: Sustainable soy to curb deforestation

The state’s southern region is one of the key points in the Cerrado’s conversion. Conscious producers and agencies use technology tools and sustainable practices to grow with environmental responsibility.


The state of Maranhão is the “Ma” in the acronym Matopiba, a region that includes three other Brazilian federative units (Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia) and is one of the most vigorous forces in the production of grain in the country. It is also a transition area between the Amazon and Cerrado biomes, an agricultural frontier going through ambiguous expansion: conscientious producers and organizations advance in the implementation of environmental and labor regulations, while illegal deforestation grows.

In southern Maranhão, the conflict of interest is evident. The region, led by the municipality of Balsas (which comprises a total of 18 towns), accounts for more than half of the soy produced in Maranhão – and the state exports around 80% of the total, a large part of which is certified for international trade.

On the other hand, Balsas also leads the deforestation ranking in the Cerrado: almost 23,000 hectares of the biome were cleared in 2020, according to the PRODES survey. And, in 2021, according to data from Deter, the pace of environmental impact has accelerated, with more than 121,000 hectares already cleared as of November.

Agricultural expansion and soy consolidation

The migratory movement of soy in Brazil advances from the South to the North. From the 1980s onwards, farmers from Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná went first to the states of Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Goiás looking for larger portions of land to expand their production. A second southern exodus took place in the first decade of the 21st century toward Matopiba.

Paulo Roberto Kreling, a 62-year-old gaucho from Não-Me-Toque, moved to Balsas in 2003 to occupy an area purchased by his father in the 1970s. “He was a visionary. Back then, there was nothing here,” he says. When he arrived at the property, amid the challenging topography of Serra do Penitente and the irregular climate in the rainfall regime, he recalls that there was not even access by car. Today, however, his farm counts with 2,400 hectares – 1,760 of them with soy – and supports his entire family and the families of 10 employees. 

Paulo Kreling, Balsas – Maranhão

When he settled in Maranhão, Kreling could not have imagined that he would produce 5 tons of soybeans per hectare, his current level of productivity. Although land prices were attractive, climatic, geographic and logistical conditions made agricultural development in the region unlikely.

The boom in agricultural growth was mainly about investment in technology. In the 2000s, a partnership between the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) and the North Export Corridor Research Support Foundation (Fapcen) developed a genetic bank of soybean seeds with cultivars adapted to low altitudes.

The following decade was one of industry consolidation: the first was the entry of foreign capital into the technological development of soy seeds. Large companies in the food sector understood the productive capacity of southern Maranhão and invested in new gene banks for the grain.

The second was the implementation of more modern and sustainable agricultural techniques. Paulo Kreling reports that to overcome the dry spells and periods of water scarcity, it is necessary to invest in improving the soil profile and to ensure adequate soil coverage, for example, with the use of direct planting in straw on the ground. Also, combined with the genetic technology and more adequate management, it is also essential to invest in building the skills of the workforce.

Finally, add to that the set of investments made for the expansion of the Port of Itaqui, located in São Luís, the state capital. Inaugurated in the 1970s, it underwent a modernization cycle between 2012 and 2018 and reinforced its strategic status due to its geographical position: from there, it takes about 10 days to reach the main ports in Europe or 15 days to China, via the Panama Canal.

Macroeconomics and business opportunities

The use of technology and modern planting techniques has considerably reduced the risk of extreme weather events compromising field productivity. But farmers are still dealing with the instabilities exacerbated by the economic crisis.

The devaluation of the Brazilian real against the dollar – together with growing global demand for grains to produce animal protein – boosted the export of Brazilian grains to developed markets. But the side effects are showing: the prices of seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, fuels and machinery, also traded in dollars, have pushed production costs up. “We’re very worried about the next harvest,” warns Kreling.

Faced with this scenario, Kreling and many other producers have committed to sustainable growth to retain their investments. On the other hand, the urgency to revert losses is pushing some entrepreneurs to fail to comply with environmental regulations and to the irregular clearing of areas of native vegetation. Thus, in addition to producing more in volume, land grabbers also increase their wealth by converting areas with native vegetation– which are cheaper – into cleared areas – which have more value.

Although the lack of adequate inspection is a problem for the state to solve, the international market is moving to curb the sale of inappropriately sourced soy. Buyers are increasingly demanding certification, especially European countries.

Gisela Introvini, Fapcen’s superintendent, explains that conscientious producers actively seek out agencies to receive consultancy and certifications that show they respect environmental and labor laws, as well as financial and technical incentives for the development of social projects in the communities in which they operate.

The RTRS (Round Table on Responsible Soy Association) certification is the most popular and comprises five principles: management model, employee relationship, respect for the environment, involvement with the community, and appropriate agricultural practices. “It’s also very important to invest in food diversity,” says Introvini. “Commodities are exported, but we also need to produce beans, cassava and rice, and act in niches, so that cities can also be prosperous.”

For this, farmers rely on the impulse of green credits. Public institutions such as Banco do Brasil, Banco do Nordeste, and Caixa Econômica Federal have credit lines below the basic interest rate for rural development; but they require, in return, full regularization of environmental licenses – for example, the establishment of a legal reserve of 35% of native area in Maranhão is mandatory.

More recently, a new business model has entered the horizon for soy producers. Since September 2020, the PSA Soja Brasil program estimates that it has avoided the deforestation of 4,000 hectares of Cerrado and ensured the sequestration of 10 tons of carbon from 50 registered farms, with a total of 450,000 hectares in southern Maranhão.

The focus is on the development of methodologies for measuring and pricing environmental services promoted with good sustainable agricultural practices. In other words, they are using techniques such as direct planting and straw management, for instance, to reduce carbon emissions and sell them to ensure a new – and intelligent – source of revenue.

“I participated and was compensated for carbon,” celebrates Paulo Kreling, who was part of the first team of producers at PSA Soja. The offsets from the carbon market’s green currency only represent timid percentages in relation to its total sales so far. But they already signal the possibility of a medium- and long-term environmental preservation strategy that is both ecologically and economically valuable.

Therefore, the chain that promotes responsible soy production is growing. Banks only issue carbon credits and, mainly, financial credits to those who maintain a minimum legal reserve of 35% of the rural property and who meet the demands for obtaining certificates accepted by international buyers. “Rural entrepreneurs today know that they need to preserve,” concludes Kreling. “The consumer market is sovereign. And it demands that more and more.”