A sustainability journey through the Amazon rainforest

This is the third part of a three-part series from Virginia Tech examining the rapidly changing landscape of sustainability in the global soy market. Read part one here and part two here.

Armchair travelers not only miss the flavors, smells and sounds of new destinations — they also don't experience the relationships that connect people, place and economy.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS) at Virginia Tech has found that appreciating and understanding those relationships are essential to empowering today's sustainability professionals. Immersion in context is key to advancing innovative solutions to sustainability challenges around the world. 

Case in point: the way in which soybean production has transformed Brazil's Amazon rainforest.

To help advance progress on this issue, CLiGS has arranged for faculty and mid-career sustainability professionals to travel through the soybean supply chain in Brazil's Amazonia region. These learning journeys focus on sustainability leadership as the most valuable skill to address challenges and opportunities in some of the world's most critical regions that, like Brazil, are poised to have significant impacts on the future of the planet.

Brazil's deforestation problem

As the largest and most populous of Latin American nations, Brazil has the world's seventh largest economy and is expected to become the fourth largest by 2025. But a rapidly growing global middle class is increasing demand for Brazilian produced goods, namely agricultural commodities, minerals and energy resources. This growth in exports is increasing pressure on Brazil's land base and natural resources, compounded by the internal need and desire to continue growing and strengthening the economy.

Brazil also has ample land and water to support agricultural production and meet the food needs of other rapidly developing countries. For example, China — because of domestic water and land scarcity — already imports 14 percent of its water needs by strategically importing soybeans from Brazil rather than growing the water-hungry crop domestically. Chinese demand for Brazil-grown soy is expected to increase more than 40 percent over the next decade. 

Brazilian Amazonia is a region where the convergence of these drivers is playing out in real-time. Agricultural expansion is a significant contributor to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil has robust federal legislation in place to curtail illegal deforestation, but historically has lacked the capacity to meaningfully monitor and enforce it. Increasingly, however, illegal deforestation is being reduced through the work of innovative cross-sector partnerships promoting a mix of certification, capacity building and other strategies targeting global supply chains.

To spur similar innovative approaches elsewhere and to create educational lessons in leadership for sustainability, CLiGS organized a Brazil-based "supply chain" learning journey for early and mid-career professionals to interact with the government, NGOs, producers and corporate actors in soy's global supply chain.

Studying Cargill's cross-sector partnership

In January 2013, a learning journey took professionals to the state of Pará in the Northern Amazon Basin to examine the partnership built among Cargill, The Nature Conservancy's Amazon Program, local soy producers, the state environmental agency and other key actors in the supply chain. The team had an opportunity to meet with high-level representatives from each key stakeholder group. The goal was to develop a comprehensive documentation of this partnership, and particularly to see how it has evolved since the last case study on conservation in Brazil's soy industry was published in 2007.

CLiGS' approach is to use project-based learning to immerse professionals in the theory and practice of leading change. In Brazil, this was through the exploration of a successful cross-sector partnership to develop and implement an innovative strategy for advancing a more responsible and sustainable global soybean supply chain.

This particular project revealed powerful lessons about catalyzing change and innovation through partnerships — lessons that business leaders can apply to a wide range of situations they face in their own industries and professions. The CLiGS learning approach is applied in these professionally oriented learning journeys as well as in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) degree program designed specifically for mid-career professionals. Both use a series of tools and strategies to promote the theory and practice of leadership for sustainability, especially those that involve the collaboration needed to address such complex and dynamic challenges as global supply chains, changing global demand, and water and climate risks.

Deforestation photo by Xico Putini via Shutterstock