The largest privately held company in the United States, Cargill began doing business in Brazil in 1965. Today, the company’s Brazilian subsidiary has become Brazil’s largest agribusiness company, leads the country in soybean and corn exports and has manufacturing plants and offices in 17 states within the South American country.
The company has been repeatedly denounced for several problems in its supply chain within Brazil. Among them are cases of deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado, human and labour rights violations, land grabbing and land conflicts. These problems have been demonstrated by several Brazilian and international civil society organisations.
Repórter Brasil has been investigating Cargill’s activities in Brazil since 2003. In that year, the organisation cooperated with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to identify companies involved in slave labour and socio-environmental crimes. The studies served as a starting point for the creation of the National Pact for the Eradication of Slave Labour in Brazil in 2005, still in force today. Initially, Cargill refused to sign the agreement. However, after public pressure, the board of directors changed its position a year later and decided to support the pact.
The following is a summary of the history of grievances reported about the company in Brazil, with emphasis on recent years.
Deforestation in the Amazon
Under pressure from civil society organisations, Cargill and other grain trading companies signed the Amazon Soy Moratorium in 2006, a voluntary agreement to achieve zero deforestation in the Amazon region. Despite the commitment to reduce the deforestation rate, investigations have shown several flaws and violations of Cargill’s commitment not to buy soy linked to forest destruction in the Amazon region.
In May 2021, a joint investigation by Repórter Brasil, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Greenpeace showed a scheme to “clean up” grains planted illegally in the north of Mato Grosso, allowing soybeans from deforested areas to enter international supply chains that claim to be deforestation-free. In this case, soybeans produced by a farmer in recently deforested areas entered the chain of Aliança, a company that supplies Cargill
and other trading companies.
In February 2022, an investigation by Repórter Brasil showed that Cargill bought soy and corn from a farm in São José do Xingu (MT), also in the Amazon biome, which lost approximately 800 hectares of forest between 2013 and 2015. The negotiations between Cargill and the farm occurred despite soybean planting in areas of recent deforestation having been confirmed by the Soy Working Group (GTS), the entity responsible for monitoring the Amazon Soy Moratorium.
In October 2022, research by Repórter Brasil pointed out to the lack of transparency in the biofuel that Cargill trades in Europe. The European Union imports biofuel to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its transport sector. However, the product contains beef tallow in its composition, and thus ends up encouraging precisely the sector that most contributes to deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil, livestock. A report by Repórter Brasil showed that Cargill imported, through its Belgian arm in October 2021, almost 5 million litres of biodiesel made with beef tallow linked to deforestation, produced by the Brazilian company BSBios.
In April 2023, Repórter Brasil showed that Cargill and other agricultural traders bought soy from a family of farmers with interdicted and burned areas in Mato Grosso. The soybean production took place in areas of adjoining farms, where Brazilian environmental agencies found illegal deforestation (aka without federal authorisation). The family supplying the company is being investigated by the Federal Prosecution Service and the Mato Grosso State Prosecution Service and has also been fined by the State Environment Secretariat.
Deforestation and Land Conflicts in the Cerrado
The expansion of grain cultivation in the Cerrado followed the commodity boom in the 2000s, and grew intensely after the Soy Moratorium in the Amazon biome. With more difficulty in expanding its activities in the Amazon, part of the agribusiness sector focused its activities on a new region. A number of studies have shown Cargill’s connection not only with deforestation, but also with the rise of land conflicts in the biome, where soy plantations have occupied the lands of peasant communities and Indigenous Peoples with the monoculture.
In 2018, a report by Repórter Brasil showed that a Cargill supplier with farms in Piauí and Maranhão is accused of illegally appropriating land, as well as being pointed out by small farmers to have threatened and ordered the killing of those who opposed him in the process.
In 2019, Greenpeace research showed that Cargill buys grain from a large farm in Bahia involved in deforestation and intimidation
of traditional communities, in a place where two leaders had been shot that year. The company that owns the farm is suspected of buying favourable rulings from judges in the region.
A subsequent 2022 investigation into the case by Repórter Brasil revealed new connections between trading companies operating in the European market and land conflicts in the region, including Cargill itself. The local community reports that coexistence with the agribusinesses includes constant threats made by private security teams hired by the companies to guard the area. The soybean produced by Agrícola Xingu, a company linked to the conflict in the region, was later acquired by ALZ Grãos, which has Cargill among its clients. Other studies and research have also connected Cerrado deforesters to Cargill’s supply chain.
In May 2021, Dutch organisation AidEnvironment showed that Palmeira Farm, owned by the SLC Agrícola group, had 4,700 hectares of Cerrado consumed by fire. The deforestation occurred legally, after environmental permits were issued. Reports produced by Chain Action Research point to a large loss of forest cover occurring in areas owned by SLC Agrícola between 2015 and 2020, close to 210 km². SLC Agrícola is one of Brazil’s largest producers of soy, corn, and cotton, and Cargill is one of their main traders of their produce.
In 2022, another study by Repórter Brasil showed that part of the production from farms with interdicted areas in the Cerrado was bought by Cargill and financed by BNDES (Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development). One of them was banned by Ibama for “not having an environmental permit granted by the competent environmental authority”. Even so, its owner took out three millionaire loans indirectly operated by the banks Santander, Sicredi and Bradesco. The grain from the Lucas do Rio Verde property was purchased by Cargill in 2018, after the environmental violation, but before the producer was added to Ibama’s list of violators.
Cargill and 13 other agribusiness giants signed a commitment at COP27 in Egypt in December 2022 to eliminate deforestation by 2025. As demonstrated by Repórter Brasil, however, the companies cannot even meet their own environmental conservation goals and help export soy produced in deforested areas to Europe.
In November 2021, Global Witness’ research showed that Cargill operated businesses with soy producers involved in conflicts with small farmers in Correntina, western Bahia. This includes cases of intimidation, destruction of community property and death threats to members of traditional communities.
Labour Rights Violations
Investigations by the press and civil society have also shown links to labour rights violations among Cargill’s suppliers. In 2018, labour inspectors found workers on two cocoa farms subjected to precarious housing conditions, paid less than the minimum wage and without access to mandatory protective equipment or drinking water. The workers on both farms traded the cocoa harvested with the same intermediary, who said
he sold the product directly to Cargill and other companies.
A 2021 investigation by Repórter Brasil showed that Cargill’s grain transport down the Madeira River in Rondônia has been linked to a series of serious injuries resulting from labour accidents and violations of safety standards. Employees and former employees of a company hired by Cargill to transport soybeans have suffered serious labour accidents, most often after irregular journeys of over 30 hours without rest. Workers also complain about exposure to the grain’s pesticide-laden dust and the company’s omission.