Great report back from Samantha Corbin, who attended Bunge’s shareholder meeting last Friday!
“I’m more of a party crasher than someone who gets an engraved invitation. Certainly so when the party is the shareholder meeting of a billion-dollar multinational corporation like Bunge, one of the largest argribusiness and food companies in the world and a major force in the devastation of South American rainforests. I’m used to getting chucked out of these meetings for sneaking in and then challenging CEOs in front of their board and shareholders while people try not to make eye contact. Aaaawkward.
But this time was different in some surprising ways. First of all I was actually allowed to be there and participate in Bunge’s annual general meeting at the posh Sofitel Hotel in midtown Manhattan today, and while I was expecting to have to practically grab the mike and race through a statement on their destructive practices, I was able to have a ten or twelve minute open discussion with their CEO Alberto Weisser while shareholders on either side of me smiled or gave me little thumbs up. After the meeting several shareholders wanted to talk about sustainable development, and thanked me and Rainforest Action Network for bringing up these issues in the meeting.
Nobody wants to be Scrooge McDuck funding things that are wrong or bad. And people are becoming especially aware of issues of sustainability and our interconnectedness as the our financial systems tumble and our planet begins to groan under the weight of climate change and prolonged abuse. Every shareholder I met in that room wants to be part of something useful and positive and Bunge’s corporate line certainly feeds into that.
They talk about feeding the world and had a whole packet enumerating their values of integrity, citizenship and environmental stewardship. Mr. Weisser spoke at length about working with local growers in South America and investing in social projects. I’m all for a business culture that values “integrity and citizenship”. The problem lies in the space between Bunge’s rhetoric and Bunge’s actions.
– While Bunge insists it is working to curb greenhouse gas emissions; it has continued to expand its operations in Brazil, which has become the fourth largest greenhouse gas polluter in the world with deforestation accounting for three quarters of its emissions. Soy expansion by companies like Bunge is the leading cause of deforestation.
– While Bunge talks about funding social programs in communities, it is still responsible for the human rights disaster of displacing Indigenous peoples throughout its South American operations
– While Bunge stresses a commitment to farmers and its employees, the expansion of soy forces small farming communities off their lands, providing just one job for every 11 subsistence farmer it displaces.
The CEO was adamant about the necessity for this kind of aggressive expansion based on the statistic that “in order to feed the world’s population we will have to double the amount of food we produce through 2050″. Now that’s a scary thought and the impulse to feed hungry people is certainly a noble one; however, much of the soy grown in these operations goes toward feeding European or Chinese livestock, or out of the food chain entirely into bio-fuels. Under this model I wonder if Mr. Weisser’s expecting we’ll have to mow down every bit of remaining rainforest to utilize its arable land potential. And if we continue to use the land we raze so irresponsibly, will that even be enough? I mean if we’re talking about a global food crisis, shouldn’t we be thinking about sustainable agriculture and low impact crops? Do we really want to test the planet’s carrying capacity over margarine and chicken feed? Really?
Considering the seriousness of the issues at stake it may seem obvious that an immediate turnaround of Bunge’s on the ground practices is the only way to cease activities wholly out of line with the core values of just about every living person, and if the shareholders do what they know is right they’ll push their company in that direction. But it was clear today that people can be so removed from the day to day realities of how a giant company like this works that it takes persistent little wake up calls be they petitions or demonstrations or people standing at microphones to keep the conversation going and the pressure on!”