Bunge’s Silent Conquest and the Corporate Climate Con

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Industrial agribusiness companies spread an insidious myth that their function is to “feed the world” – despite the fact that 80 percent of the world’s food is grown by family farmers, not megacorporations. Ignore the concerns that consolidated corporate control may lead the global food system to collapse. Agribusiness companies would generally prefer you look away from the rampant deforestation, violent land grabbing, gross human rights abuses, and destruction of biodiversity that plague their operations.  

This is why some investors’ use their shareholder power to rein in the environmental and human rights abuses that are endemic to the industrial agricultural model. Earlier this month, shareholders rebuked Bunge – a St. Louis-headquartered agribusiness giant with soy and palm oil operations that span the globe – by casting a surprising number of votes against the reelection of several company directors. In the Brazilian Cerrado – the world’s most biodiverse savannah – Bunge enables widespread deforestation and illicit land grabbing through its near-total control of the soy trade. The result has been a complete makeover in the landscape, with once-unique native vegetation now replaced by monoculture soy plantations. Over the last several decades, more than one-third of the total area of the Cerrado has been deforested for industrial soy production.  

A new report from Friends of the Earth US and the Brazilian Network for Social Justice and Human Rights details how Bunge’s monopoly and monopsony in the state of Piauí has led to thousands of hectares of illegal deforestation and protracted land conflicts with Indigenous, quilombola (rural Afro-Brazilian), and peasant communities seeking legal recognition over their collective lands. Altamiran Ribeiro, a leader with the Brazilian Pastoral Land Commission explains that deforestation is often carried out by local oligarchs known as grilleros, or land-grabbers, but “behind the actions of land-grabbers, there are corporations interested in speculating on the land. If the communities don’t have land, they can’t grow anything. They lose their food sovereignty.” 

The Network for Social Justice and Human Rights deployed a researcher to gather evidence of the illegal deforestation as it was taking place in a municipality called Santa Filomena. “Early in the morning, we would drive from the community to where the land was being deforested and we had to be careful,” the researcher reported. “If any of the gunmen were to see us, we’d be in danger. The criminals work together with a private security firm, often backed by public security forces, officers in uniform or ones offering private services illegally – in other words, they are paid by the land grabbers.”  

By failing to monitor the actions of the many companies that supply soy to its vast Brazilian supply chains, Bunge is complicit in such actions – and the company’s shareholders are beginning to take note. Several shareholders who voted against Bunge’s board of directors cited the company’s lack of action to address climate and deforestation issues. As noted in a recent shareholder brief, Bunge has failed to adopt a deforestation cut-off date consistent with industry best practices, align its net-zero targets with 1.5°C, and address human rights abuses in its supply chains. In 2021, 98 percent of voting shareholders supported a resolution calling on the company to address deforestation in the Cerrado. While Bunge’s response has been to cast itself as an industry leader, forest fires, hired gunmen, and violent evictions in the Cerrado tell a dreadfully different story.  

It’s not just that Bunge’s business model continues to enable sustained environmental and human rights violations. The company claims to address its climate and human rights record while it expands partnerships with fossil fuel majors and pesticide giants. Last year, Bunge announced a joint venture with Chevron, one of the world’s largest polluters that has intentionally spread climate disinformation and worked to obstruct meaningful climate action. At a time when scientists have made it clear that we need to phase out oil and gas production, Chevron continues to develop new fossil fuel reserves while it dodges responsibility for one of the worst environmental disasters in history

Bunge’s board is occupied by several executives from Syngenta, a pesticide giant accused of taking advantage of legal loopholes to export dangerous and deadly agrochemicals. These agrochemicals are responsible for reproductive failure, cancer, and water contamination in developing countries. In 2020, an OECD complaint was filed against Syngenta by Indian farmers.  

This is the corporate climate con – and shareholders should take note. They cannot expect the very companies responsible for climate catastrophe to suddenly be the ones to embrace bold solutions. 

Given Bunge’s failures to meaningfully address material climate risks, deforestation and human rights abuses, shareholders should consider their next step: a full makeover of the company’s board. Unless Bunge cuts off all sourcing from areas deforested after 2020, prevents violent land grabbing, and provides  compensation to impacted communities, shareholders should prepare to replace most of Bunge’s board tomorrow. Anything less would be a rejection of responsible climate stewardship.  

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