By Inae Riveras
LUCAS DO RIO VERDE, Brazil, March 17 (Reuters) - Soybean farmer Clovis Cortezia has started replanting native rainforest trees on his farm to meet demands of international buyers keen to be environmentally responsible.
Like other growers in Brazil’s No. 1 soy-producing state Mato Grosso, Cortezia started replanting trees native to Brazil’s center-west savanna in 2007 on 4.6 hectares of his 8,000-hectare farm in Lucas do Rio Verde.
He said he needed to do so in order to obtain bank financing.
"It’s the right thing to do," said Cortezia especially if our clients are requiring that."
Environmental and consumer groups, particularly in Europe, have long complained that rapid expansion of Brazil’s soy frontier was speeding up the deforestation of the Amazon.
Banks and trading houses that finance soy farmers in environmentally sensitive areas have reacted to their concern.
Cortezia’s restoration program is typical of simlar efforts launched by growers to meet "green requirements" ranging from soil conservation to proper agrochemicals use.
Bank agronomists often visit farms to confirm compliance.
"That’s not to have a discount in rates but simply to get the financing," Cortezia said. "The bank just won’t give any money to producers with any kind of environmental liability."
When frontiersmen broke ground in Mato Grosso in the 1980s, the government encouraged farmers to clear land and develop it — especially bush around water to reduce malaria.
But rapid expansion in planted area in in recent years damaged the environment, and foreign pressure helped drive a two-year moratorium starting in 2006 on trading soy from newly deforested areas in the Amazon.
New laws stipulate that, in the savanna part of the state, farms must leave 35 percent of their area untouched as a legal reserve. But many farms do not comply with the law, which also sets a permanent preservation area of 100 meters of native vegetation around rivers and lakes.
Many farmers believe the law unfairly penalizes them since they bought their farms before it took effect in 2000. The prices they paid for their land reflected previous laws that required a legal reserve of only 20 percent.
Restoration costs are usually around 8,000-10,000 reais ($3,850) a hectare, but upkeep of a replanted area costs much more. It can take 20 to 30 years to recover native characteristics.
Cortezia is part of the a program organized by the local government in a partnership with U.S. environment group The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
The project already mapped out 364,000 hectares (900,000 acres) of private land and set restoration strategies for each of Lucas’ 540 farmers. Satellite photos showed around 10 percent of the area was not in compliance with the law in 2008.
"The main motivation for the program was fear of international rejection, the introduction of environmental barriers," said Giovanni Mallmann, coordinator of the project for TNC in Lucas.
The local government is negotiating a compensation system so farmers, instead of trying to restore original vegetation, could buy land for preservation in other areas with the same characteristics.
This could be cheaper and more effective, since artificial restoration of land is never perfect.
"Farmers here invested a lot to ensure environmental issues will not lead to any trade barrier," said the town’s agriculture and environmental secretary, Luciane Copetti. "Most know environmental respect is crucial for business."
About 11 towns near to Lucas do Rio Verde are in talks with TNC to introduce similar programs. One is Sorriso, Brazil’s largest soy producing town with 1 million hectares of planted area, which is expected to sign a deal in the next few months.
(Editing by Reese Ewing and David Gregorio)