After a few months of traveling the soy fields of Brazil trying to figure out the complex relationships that drive agricultural supply chains, COUPLED PhD Tiago sent us a postcard with his initial reflections from his fieldwork.
Written by Tiago Reis
Every day I ask myself: What am I doing, and why am I doing this? To me, the scientific endeavour feels like a deep dive into the human experience on this planet. I am not satisfied by only measuring things, quantifying changes and observing transformations through satellite lenses, for example. Although I recognise that measuring and finding overarching patterns is necessary, it is insufficient. The phrase “linking people to pixels” introduced to me by our COUPLED supervisors Eric Lambin and Patrick Meyfroidt in our Advanced Training Course in Louvain-la-Neuve has become my guiding star since then. The way we live, occupy, use and abuse our land can be seen and examined by objective lenses from the space, but our passions, feelings, and subjectively insane rationales can only be approached, felt, and touched by us in person. To understand those aspects, I went to the field. After having measured the stickiness – or how much agricultural traders source from the same places over time – of the Brazilian soy export supply chain, I felt that I could only understand the mechanisms and reasons behind soy production and trade and ongoing land-use change in Brazil through experiencing and empathising with real people on the ground.
Productive landscape in the north of Mato Grosso. The green area around the river is a Permanent Protection Area (APP, in Portuguese). According to Brazil’s Forest Code, areas between 30 and 500m of riverbanks, depending on the maximum width of the river, must be totally preserved, excluding some exceptional cases related to smallholders.
The objective of going to the field was to conduct semi-structured interviews with various actors in different positions of the soy supply chain to understand why some trade relationships are more or less sticky over time. The rationale for this is that if supply chains are sticky, we may have more chances to design and implement effective private sustainability commitments. Issues such as illegal deforestation and local maldevelopment  are typical in agricultural frontiers. Private companies, feeling partially responsible for these adverse effects of rapidly expanding food production and supply, are developing initiatives to mitigate these issues. Nonetheless, we still know little about the potential effectiveness of each individual corporate’s commitment and the aggregate additionality, since as I see it, companies mostly seek to clean their own supply chain. I hope to be wrong about this assumption.
The challenge is looking through the global outcomes of all companies’ commitments combined, to prevent spillover effects such as deforestation leakage, jobs and economic displacement, mass migration, and others. The underlying assumption is that if one company is effective in eliminating deforestation from its supply chain, it may displace deforestation and other problems to other supply chains or other regions where it does not source, and in the end, we still have the same amount of deforestation, biodiversity loss, carbon emissions, local development problems, or even more. For example, maybe we can implement a zero-deforestation commitment in the whole Amazon, such as the Amazon Soy Moratorium , but then what happens with other ecosystems such as the dry forests of the Argentinian Chaco or the savannahs of the Brazilian Cerrado, or with the suppliers of companies that did not sign a commitment?
For things like the telecouplings between places of production and consumption, and the places receiving indirect effects, we, the people researching stickiness in supply chains, think that it is essential to better understand how supply chains function, behave and adapt to changes. Learning the potential cause(s), or influencing factors, of stickiness is part of that effort. The root of stickiness in agricultural supply chains can only be determined by listening to, working with, and feeling the people who work in, operate and manage the supply chain. For me, the stories, the narratives, empathising with tough realities are crucial steps to understand what happens and is not seen by satellite lenses. My perception is that science needs to improve the way qualitative and subjective aspects are regarded.
Pastureland in Northeastern Mato Grosso.
My fieldwork involved interviewing farmers, input suppliers, logistics specialists, traders, brokers, academics, market researchers and experts, lobbyists, leaders of unions and associations, policy-makers and enforcers, and whoever else would appear to tell me something interesting. I also conducted informal consultations and sneaked through a few sectorial events and meetings of local associations. This opportunity gave me more substance about governance structures and decision-making procedures.
It is not easy to get access to these people and places. I needed to use my network of friends, former colleagues and family members. I am a Brazilian man, born in a family of farmers, entrepreneurs and liberal professionals. I grew up in a medium-sized, relatively affluent, agro-industrial town. I am also a former researcher of an environmental, science-based, Brazilian NGO, which is well connected to social movements, policy-makers, and agribusinesses in Brazil. This position is very particular and was fundamental to build rapport and engage in trustful conversations with people I met. Of course, speaking Brazilian Portuguese, and knowing the typical countryside tales and jokes were fundamental to have fruitful access to these actors. These aspects influenced my research experience and will influence the outcomes. A Brazilian researcher from São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro would have a different experience, and it would be even more different for a European.
Arriving portal of Não-Me-Toque, in Rio Grande do Sul. The message says: “Welcome to Não-me-Toque, the national capital of precision farming”.
The first step was finding trustful gatekeepers in each of the regions I planned to visit. After a lot of transparency and detailed explanations from my side about my research questions and intentions, and source of funding, coupled with confidence from personal relationships in some cases, they would open the doors with key actors in their range, applying the finest of the snowball sampling style. I was positively surprised to see these gatekeepers re-explaining my research to their peers and asking for their time in several occasions. In regions where I did not have a gatekeeper, I went to the farmers’ union and talked with the president for help. I could say that I became friends with some of them. You know, sometimes those people depicted in newspapers or TV shows as the greedy and bad guys, who deforest, grab land, and expel communities can be very friendly and nice at the same time. In other words, the wicked and the kind are different parts of the same and reality is more blurred than our binary reasoning can see. I feel privileged to have experienced myself what Sergio Buarque de Holanda theorised as the cordial man in his seminal book, The Roots of Brazil, published in 1936 .
Wheat fields in centre-north of Rio Grande do Sul.
The period where I undertook my fieldwork – between July and October 2019 – was perhaps the worst time for that, because many parts of central Brazil becomes very dry and dusty; most fields are empty, finalising maize harvest and going to a fallow interval where the soil is mostly covered by straw. Of course, different parts of Brazil are different. I travelled from South to North through Midwest, Southeast and North-eastern parts, experiencing very different landscapes, levels of friendliness and personal warmth, cuisines, production systems and accents. In addition to this not-so-pleasant-season to visit central Brazil (mostly August-September), the most severe fire crisis in recent years hit the country. I will reflect on the recent fires in another post.
Fires in Northeast of Mato Grosso.
In agricultural frontiers, it sometimes feels like walking on Mars. On certain occasions, I drove for hundreds of kilometres watching these fallow lands, all brown and dusty. I would occasionally stop to view the landscape and imagine how those empty lands looked just a few years ago. I could directly feel one dimension of distance – a much-admired concept in COUPLED – the temporal dimension of distance. I was standing right there, where not so long ago the habitats of marvellous beings, from plants to humans, had been. Thousands of tree species, animals, insects, the gorgeous Onças-pintadas (jaguars), tamanduás (anteaters) and other animals would have lived on these lands. I was very close to them geographically, but distant in time.
The Mars feeling. Fallow land with maize straws in Maranhão.
In my view, fieldwork is a transformative experience. I wish every aspiring scientist could go to the field to see it, emphasize with the people and experience the reality with his or her own senses. For me, criss-crossing the Brazilian agricultural landscapes from South to North gave me a new perspective on how soy production and trade operate, and the things it leaves behind. Now, I have a lot of work interpreting all the interviews, extracting explanatory narratives, and performing a panel data analysis with quantitative variables. With those analyses, I intend to discuss what influences whether the Brazilian soy supply chain becomes more or less sticky. Hopefully, I can also contribute additional knowledge to the research on agricultural supply chains.
 Maldevelopment is an idea that explains a type of economic development that does not bring human development; it is a situation when there is a mismatch between increasing affluence, mostly retained by an elite or small group, and the conditions of the rest of the population, who do not benefit from this increased income. See, for example, the book by Samir Amin (1990) titled: “Maldevelopment – Anatomy of a Global Failure”. https://unu.edu/publications/books/maldevelopment-anatomy-of-a-global-failure.html
Photo credits: All photos are taken by the author, Tiago Reis