Responsible soy project in Paraguay evaluated

In partnership with Solidaridad and Marks & Spencer, IDH trained from 2014 to 2016, over 2,600 soy family farmers in better and responsible agricultural practices. By preparing young people to be responsible land stewards the project contributed to a long-term future of responsible agriculture in Eastern Paraguay.

These and other results and lessons learned have been captured in a report. With this report the program partners hope to inspire farmers, cooperatives, NGOs, traders, and consumer brands – to join forces to make a difference in agriculture. Project report Paraguay Soy

One of the most prominent sustainability issues of soy production in Paraguay is illegal conversion of forests into arable land. Since 2004, deforestation in Eastern Paraguay is illegal and deforestation has decreased, but still occurs. Farmers with more than 20 hectares must maintain 25% of the original forest area by law and are required to protect riparian areas through reforestation with native species or natural regeneration.

The project supported farmers with integrating these environmental conservation measures into their farm management. Other issues were better pesticides and soil management. Part of the project included training farmers in environmentally friendly farming practices. In total, 2,658 farmers were trained in sustainability practices, covering around 150,000 hectares of soy in total.

A united front under UNICOOP
While most soy in Paraguay is produced through large-scale farming, there are still over 10,000 family farmers in Paraguay who produce soy. Their farms are usually between 10 and 100 hectares. These farmers are mostly organized in cooperatives and several of these cooperatives are in turn united within UNICOOP, the National Cooperative Union.

This union was the key partner in the project which promoted both legal compliance and the use of good agricultural practices. They created a special environmental committee and placed emphasis on promoting sustainability as an imperative for the long-term future of family soy farms in Paraguay.

“We are proud to have partnered with Solidaridad, IDH and UNICOOP on this project which reached over 2,600 farmers in Paraguay. These farmers in Eastern Paraguay are role models with the potential to inspire farmers in other countries to appreciate the economic, social and environmental benefits of achieving an optimum balance between productive agriculture and a healthy landscape. It‘s been an excellent example of the sort of partnerships needed in the future to face our global challenges.” Louise Nicholls, Corporate Head of Human Rights, Food Sustainability and Food Packaging, Marks & Spencers.

Self-assessment and data-driven improvements
The project was a pioneer in promoting sustainability in the Paraguayan soy sector, certainly among family farmers. One of the key methodologies used in the project was the introduction of Rural Horizons, a system Solidaridad developed for voluntary self-assessment.

The associated producers have the intention of complying with the law. They only need support and someone who shows them the way. When the producer adopts good agricultural practices, there is improvement in productivity, savings in pesticide use and fertilizer application, and improvement on land use. When adopting the practices promoted by UniSol, an almost immediate increase in productivity is generated”.
Gustavo Ruíz Díaz, Solidaridad Country Manager
By means of a self-assessment guide, producers took a confidential quick scan of their production system. Based on his or her own input, the farmers received a tailor-made roadmap along with a set of recommendations on how to improve practices. The input of data from large numbers of farmers allowed for group benchmarks which farmer associations and companies used to identify challenges per group of producers or region. It was then used to customize and improve trainings.

Providing the right incentives for farmers
Despite positive results of several front runners, convincing farmers to reforest proved to be challenging. But by seeing the positive results of farmers who had already joined the project, other farmers were able to overcome their mistrust and join the project.

The financial support to the cooperatives helped to centralize the workload, produce the seedlings and increase the capacity needed for reforestation. But the most influential impact of the project has been changing the mindsets of farmers’ families and their surroundings. They now see the importance of investing in sustainability for the long-term future.

Changing lives for a better future
Despite the challenges, farmers reforested areas with native and exotic species and achieved legal compliance as a result of the project. While certification under the standard of the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) was not an aim of the project, some of the more advanced farmers and farmer cooperatives now certainly meet these requirements.