The soy-production’s fair(y) tale? Latin American perspectives on globalized dynamics,
territoriality and environmental justice
Robert Hafner, Martin Coy
Over the last three decades, the production of soy has become an increasingly lucrative business in
Brazil and Argentina. Now fully incorporated in globalized production networks, local consequences
of global activities are observed: Socio-territorial fragmentation, increasing vulnerability, rising polar-
isation between socio-spatial inclusion and exclusion, and the manifestation of socio-ecological con-
flict constellations become core problems of investigation. In this context, discussions on fairness have
become increasingly relevant in the production of and discourse on soy (see, for example RTRS,
In this chapter, we compare two soy frontiers: The Mato Grosso Region in Brazil and the Argentine
Chaco. At first glance, both regions seem to undergo similar patterns of development, experience the
same challenges and conflicts, and deal with issues of (un)fairness and (in)justice in similar ways, i.e.
mostly in the form of non-response and non-articulation of environmental justice claims. However, at
a closer look, there are important differences in the two countries related to different national agendas,
foci and socio-environmental frameworks; examples are fiscal export policies or migration and spatial
reconfiguration patterns. This is also reflected in the multiplicity of approaches and meanings of ‘fair-
The objective of the chapter is twofold. First, the two soy frontiers are compared in order to unearth
particular regional characteristics. Second, it is shown that fairness should be treated more as a ‘con-
ception’ rather than as a ‘concept’, since the understanding of what is considered ‘fair’ is context-
related and perspective-based. In this vein, activist-driven environmental justice concepts help to de-
velop arguments of how fairness could look like in different contexts and from different perspectives.
However, they are limited in analytical scope since situations of non-articulation of socio-ecological
claims are not considered. Such elements, however, are of high importance in our case studies.
We start by putting fairness and environmental justice into perspective by developing our understand-
ing of the two concepts/conceptions. The concept of territoriality is introduced in order to bridge the
gap between intangible theory and the tangible materiality of the case studies. Two axes of investiga-
tion are proposed: (a) territoriality, contextualizing the two regions in relation to non-articulation of
conflicts, and (b) discourse, highlighting the different conceptions of what is considered fair by three
main groups of actors in the two regions. After the conceptual section, we analyse the two case studies
and compare them along the axes of investigation. The last section concludes with a focus on what can
be learnt for resource fairness.
Fairness, environmental justice and territoriality
In the context of soy production in Brazil and Argentina, it is vital to conceptualize the term fairness
as well as environmental justice (EJ). ‘Fairness’ is an intuitive and highly normative term; it is often
used as an example of a concept that is clear unless defined. However, in order to be able to empirical-
ly work with the concept, an attempt to define and classify has to be undertaken. Hooker (2005) offers
an interesting approach by distinguishing between formal and substantive fairness. Formal fairness’
central feature is its non-normativity and impartial applicability, while not claiming that those rules of
fairness should be good or bad, moral, context or subject sensitive (Hooker 2005, S. 329).
Substantive fairness expands formal fairness to the extent that context and side-conditions are taken
into account: “[P]eople get what they deserve” (Hooker 2005, S. 330), although it becomes blurry how
it is decided what people should deserve. Important in this way of thinking is Rawls’ consideration
that unfairness per se is of no importance; his understanding of fairness is highly theoretical-utopian
and consequentialist, i.e. the consequences of a process should be fair, fairness of the process itself is
secondary (Rawls 1999, S. 114). One can however argue that the actual realization of substantively
unfair situations is already a form of consequence and has, therefore, to be dealt with. Fairness itself
has to be considered an ideal situation (much in the cosmopolitan liberal sense of Rawls’ intentions;
Rawls 1999; see also Nili and Pichler in this volume).
Hooker and Rawls should be considered as examples of how fairness is being defined. The main con-
siderations are theoretical and abstract, the direct application of their fairness concepts in our empirical
analysis is questioned, since – as it will be shown – the local, regional, and (supra-)national actors
each work with their particular interpretations of the concept of fairness. Unearthing and comparing
those conceptions of fairness both within as well as among the case studies offer new insights into the
regional frontier dynamics.
Going beyond a mere theoretical or social discussion and introducing the biophysical environment as a
medium, EJ offers the potential to analyse power relationships and interdependencies among different
actors (Wapner und Matthew 2009, S. 203). Hence, both human and natural variables are considered
in order to deal with three intertwined questions: (a) how do humans’ actions impact particular attrib-
utes of nature (interest and action); (b) how are people affected/conditioned by (changing) biophysical
variables (effect and consequence); (c) what should be altered in the human-nature interplay in order
to deal with possible injustices (reaction located on the normative level, see Drummond, 2008: 181).
Thus, unlike fairness EJ has always had a strong link to the local level (with possible supra-local ori-
gins of environmental injustice), while being – in the tradition of political ecology – conscious of the
fact that “‘nature’ or ‘environment’ – in both their ‘materiality’ and social construction – cannot easily
be used in immaterial abstraction” (Debbané und Keil 2004, S. 210).
Over the recent years, EJ research has developed its focus from analysing the distribution of environ-
mental risks (through quantitative methods) to include dimensions of responsibility, recognition, and
participation (qualitative methods) (Stanton et al. 2007; Holifield et al. 2009, S. 599). The openness
and diversity of the concept is also reflected in the fact that researchers increasingly combine EJ with
other approaches, such as capabilities (Schlosberg und Carruthers 2010; Nussbaum 2013; Groves
2015), sustainability (Agyeman und Evans 2004), or go to different scales beyond the local (e.g. glob-
al environmental justice; Agyeman 2014; Martin et al. 2014; Mehta et al. 2014), including aspects of
climate change (Okereke 2010; Wilson et al. 2010).
Particularly in a Latin American context, research goes beyond traditional EJ studies (e.g. on the ef-
fects of toxic landfills or air pollution) and deals with conflicts with international oil, mining and agri-
business companies in the context of development challenges (Martínez-Alier 2003; Roberts und
Thanos 2003; Schlosberg und Carruthers 2010, S. 19). Even though research on supra-national capital-
ist influence on frontiers of globalization can be found (particularly in Brazil; Gerber et al. 2009;
Acselrad 2010; Porto 2012; Coy 2013), up-to-date empirical in-depth analyses from Latin America are
scare (for an exception see Reboratti 2012; for implicit examples of EJ research seecf. García-López
und Arizpe 2010; Hufty 2008). One particular characteristic of the Latin American context lies within
the alternative framing (Taylor 2000) of EJ, such as context-based initiatives in the form of networks
(e.g. Rede Brasileira de Justiça Ambiental), the inclusion of socio-ecological approaches (Gudynas
2013), or the discussions of risk in the Latin American context (Coy 2010).
This chapter particularly focuses on the work of Flitner (2007) who established an analytical matrix of
scales of meaning and regulation (cf. Towers 2000; Urkidi und Walter 2011, S. 685), as well as of
justice of distribution and recognition. In so doing, material (distribution of environmental goods and
bads), symbolic (thought styles in the Flecksian interpretation
on said distribution), procedural (form
of actors’ inclusion in the process of decision-making and action) and cultural (socio-cultural back-
ground of actors being part in conflicting situations) justice put focus on socio-ecological conflicts at
hand (Flitner 2007, S. 50).
So far, it has been shown that theoretical discussions of fairness concepts are hard to transfer to con-
textual empirical studies; we consider the actors’ interpretations and definitions (i.e. conceptions) of
fairness more fruitful. The analytical basis is laid with EJ, since it is a more tangible form of dealing
with justice and the environment. Then, introducing territoriality as an underlying concept enables the
inclusion of multi-scalar perspectives in terms of global production networks and the materialisation
of socio-economic change in socio-ecological conflicts. The physical components of the soybean fron-
tier are reinforced in the analysis and put in an analytical framework of complex interactions and dy-
namics of the relationship between space and human agency (Agnew und Muscarà 2012, S. 60).
Particularly in the discipline of geography, territoriality has often been used to analyse the national
state and its execution of power within and beyond its borders (Kythreotis 2012, S. 462). However,
recent studies have shown that a more relational definition is preferred: Territoriality as a fluid and
historically grown, complex process (e.g. Agnew und Muscarà 2012; Elden 2010), where certain in-
terdependences and their normative interpretations overlap (Agnew und Corbridge 1995; Brenner
1998). We understand territoriality, in short, as “a strategy of social power, by gaining control over a
certain area” (Jerneck, 2000: 29).
As an addition to EJ, the concept of territoriality goes beyond claims-making as an indicator of socio-
ecological unfairness. Therefore, it is highly suitable in our case studies, since the sole focus on justice
claims would leave out the multifaceted realities. Power relations do play a role in the concept of terri-
toriality; they are not limited to the political sphere, but also include socio-economic as well as socio-
ecological and spatial perspectives. Henceforth, focus has recently been laid on topological scalar
terms, rather than areal ones (cf. Herod und Wright 2002; Antonsich 2009, S. 796), allowing for a
contextual understanding of global-local interplays and dependencies.
Summing up, we use ‘fairness’ as a conception relating to varying actors’ interpretations of the conse-
quences of the same socio-ecological and economic processes. EJ offers the analytical frame to un-
earth and investigate conflict situations. With the inclusion of territoriality in the EJ debate, we avoid
the EJ trap of needing the analytical trigger of claims-making, but still have a tool to analyse power
relations materialized in the bio-physical regions.
Hence, in order to visualize different aspects of fairness and EJ in the context of Latin American soy
production, two axes of investigation are proposed: (a) territoriality and (b) discourse. The goal of the
first axis is to contextualize the two case studies and to identify underlying mechanisms of (non-
)conflict handling. The second axis highlights discursive elements of different conceptions of fairness
according to varying settings and thought styles.
Soy frontiers: Brazilian Mato Grosso and Argentine Chaco
In this section, we analyse two soy frontiers, the Brazilian Mato Grosso Region and the Argentine
Chaco along the axes territoriality and discourse. The first case has been the major part of a research
agenda over decades, with long-term stays in the region, allowing for first-hand observations and
mappings of soy expansion, enriched by focussed and expert interviews. The second case has been
studied by 14 months of fieldwork in 2013 and 2014, predominantly working with Jazz Methodology,
a context-based approach combining sensory ethnography, participatory methods (e.g., Jane’s Walks,
workshops, netmaps), expert and focussed interviews.
(a) Territoriality, or: Where are the conflicts?
Soy production is a vital economic activity in Brazil and Argentina, with the second and third largest
production worldwide, respectively (FAOSTAT 2014). High levels of change (especially surface ex-
pansion) have been experienced in both countries over the last 20 to 30 years. Two of the most dynam-
ic soy frontier regions are the Brazilian Mato Grosso and the Argentine Chaco.
Brazilian Mato Grosso
For a long time, the state of Mato Grosso was one of the most peripheral and ‘underpopulated’ regions
of Brazil. At the beginning of the 1970s, much like the Brazilian Midwest and Southern Amazonia, the
region became a priority region for agricultural colonization. The military regime promoted land dis-
tribution at the frontiers of settlement as a double strategy: Expansion of agricultural production, and
creation of alternatives for the solution of land conflicts in the core regions of Brazil. Thus, the new
Mato Grosso frontier formed part of a re-territorialized response to socio-ecological conflict situations
(dealing with distribution of environmental goods, interest, and actions). Instead of agrarian reforms,
national avoidance strategies led to the implementation of settlement schemes for small farmers, orga-
nized by the state or private firms from Southern and South-Eastern Brazil. The expansion of modern-
ized agriculture in the South had caused deep structural changes by land concentration and expulsion
of small farmers in the South. In the form of an economically-driven exit strategy, business was made
on the hopes of those expulsed people for a better life at the pioneer front in Mato Grosso.
Three development phases are observed: First, an ‘occupational phase’ of Northern Mato Grosso (es-
pecially the region of influence of the BR-163 highway from Cuiabá to Santarém) was dominated by
small farmer immigration during the 1970s and the first years of the 1980s. Second, a ‘phase of extrac-
tivism’ was dominated by timber and gold extraction during the late 1980s and the 1990s (shifting the
focus from people to commodities). Third, a very dynamic expansion of large soybean farms imple-
mented on large estates in Cerrado areas substitute failed small farmers in the settlement schemes.
This highly altered the socio-economic and socio-cultural structure of the region (cf. Coy und Klingler
2011), causing increasing regional vulnerabilities due to world market oscillations and the concomi-
tant agribusiness reactions (Coy, 2005).
Hence, due to its high absorption of land and its high demand for investment (machinery, seeds, agro-
chemicals), the soybean boom contributed over the last 30 years to a marked process of land concen-
tration, agro-social exclusivity by privileging highly capitalized farmers and excluding gradually
small-scale farmers. Viewed from outside of the region, social-environmental questions of territoriali-
ty, exclusion and environmental (in)justice (particularly in terms of effects and consequences) have to
At the same time, the soybean boom left its marks in regional settlement structures, inscribing its so-
cial exclusiveness and its local-global logics in the new and highly dynamic pioneer towns (e.g. the
‘boom towns’ along the BR-163 road, developed by private settlement companies). Some of those
towns are now the ‘wealthiest’ municipalities in Brazil. They are economically dominated by the agri-
business sector (silos, traders, banks, implement merchants etc.) and socio-culturally driven by farmers
who increasingly prefer to live in an urban context.
Summing up, the development of Mato Grosso unearths plenty of contradictions: an impressive eco-
nomic ‘success story’ on the one hand, a story of social (and economic) exclusion as well as of ecolog-
ic risks (destruction of the Cerrado vegetation, reduction of biodiversity, erosion, contamination by
agrochemicals, etc.), on the other (Nepstad et al., 2014). Questions of distribution and concentration
(now favouring the Big Four producers ADM, Bunge, Louis Dreyfuss and Cargill, as well as some big
national companies, such as Amaggi) have to be asked, particularly in the context of EJ spheres of
regulation. However, this call is very little – if at all – answered within the region.
In the Argentine Chaco, the beginning of soy production can be dated to the 1970s, while a major in-
crease has been experienced mid-1990, due to the adaptation of production modes towards direct seed-
ing and the use of genetically modified crops. Nowadays, the Gran Chaco Region faces the highest
deforestation rate worldwide (Hansen, 2013), while the Argentine Chaco being most affected by soy-
bean expansion (Gasparri et al., 2013). In previously deforested areas, the new production scheme acts
as strong competition to traditional forms of agri- and horticulture; new actors enter local markets,
scales of production increase; land tenure and increasing land concentration and privatization occurs.
From an outside perspective towards the region, certain potentials for socio-ecological conflicts can be
identified: application of pesticides/herbicides close to settled areas, privatization of land, displace-
ment of puesteros (small-scale farmers/peasants living in the Monte, i.e. land covered with trees and
bushes) and deforestation (i.e. restriction of access to forestland), among others.
Three main results are observed: First, the thought style of ‘progress’ is omnipresent. Even though
locals may not directly benefit from increased soy production, the overall perception in villages sur-
rounded by soy fields is surprisingly positive. This feature is highly represented in casual language of
locals when talking about deforestation: “Han limpiado el campo” – “They have cleaned the field”.
Even though approximately 26% of the people living in the Argentine Chaco use firewood from the
Monte as a primary source of combustion for cooking (Krapovickas et al. 2016), it is astonishing how
far the positive outlook on frontier expansion is present in the local community.
Second, this one-term event changes local-regional territorialities, introducing new and predominantly
extra-regional actors through moving the centres of their lives to the Chaco region. However, those
actors came without their families. Coupled with the fact that workforce in the new soy agribusiness is
not needed (in general it is talked about one skilled employee per 1000 hectares of cultivated land), the
advancement of the soy frontier has occurred without migration towards the region. Since locals living
in the Monte were forced to leave for villages and local urban centres, an increasing disconnection
between urban areas and rural surroundings occurs. Thus, it comes without saying that the most prom-
inent sources of friction (if not to speak about conflict) arise from predominantly urban problems.
Third, the major results of several workshops carried out with young adults in three different locations
show that socio-ecological problems circulate among the following themes: waste management, soy
silos within urban areas, increased motorisation of the area (mostly trucks). Even though clear signs of
– often unlawful – fumigation are observed in the vicinities of the villages (the minimum distance
between urban areas and fumigated land has been observed to be less than two metres), fumigation,
however, does not play a major discursive role.
As table 1 shows, the Mato Grosso Region offers more characteristics of a state-encouraged expan-
sion, going along with new settlements, thus focussing on an expansion with people rather than a mere
commodification of land as experienced in the Argentine Chaco. Remaining in the economic realm, it
is observed that the concentration of land towards the Big Four in Mato Grosso is not that well pro-
nounced in the Argentine counterpart, due to already institutionalized conflicts between the Argentine
government and the agrarian sector.
Table 1: Territoriality – comparison between Brazilian Mato Grosso and Argentine Chaco
From land colonization to large-scale
From local peasantry to large-scale
Migration from South Brazil to Mato
No significant migration to the Chaco
region, but increased sub-regional
migration to urban areas
Form of fron-
Role of the state
in frontier ex-
- Provision of administrative
support at municipal level
- Public agro-research (e.g.
EMBRAPA, the Brazilian
Agricultural Research Corpo-
- No/little explicit support for
- Distribution of production-
New regional elites
Extra-regional control by members of
Very high towards the Big Four
(ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Drey-
fus) market leaders in agribusiness
Medium concentration, still small- and
Very high visibility of soy-related
activity; leads to more restrictions
Still more peripheral frontier with
little visibility on a global scale; facili-
tates more flexible practices for agri-
dling with local
Non-/ low-level materialization of unfairness or injustice; EJ claims are hardly
voiced within the frontier region
Both case studies show that the primary thought style revolves around the notion of ‘progress’, the
accompanying thought collective within the region is represented by what Fleck (2011) describes
through esoteric (inner; made of key stakeholders in the soy-agribusiness) and exoteric (outer; other
actors related to the issue of soy expansion, be it first or second hand) circles. The esoteric circle de-
fines the circumstances of ‘progress’ in the region. The exoteric circle – through territorial power rela-
tions – is willingly or unwillingly drawn to the pre-set notions and modes of action to the extent that
articulated forms of fairness claims – and thus the creation of conflicts – are hardly observed.
This interesting characteristic can be visualized through two often heard quotes by locals: (a) “We will
not bite the hand that feeds us”; and b) “Nothing can be done”. While (a) represents a clearly per-
ceived dependence of locals on soy-related stakeholders – be it legitimized or not, (b) reflects some
sort of resignation towards the dominant thought style and form of superimposed actions. This feature
in particular goes along with the theoretical discussion of socio-cultural aspects of justice (cf. Flitner
2007), where context, tradition and modes of living are crucial. These remarks refer to frontier-internal
From outside perspectives on the case studies, however, socio-ecological conflicts are central instead
of previously discussed notions of ‘progress’. Two potential sources of socio-ecological conflicts can
be characterised as either one-off events (such as deforestation), or repetitive events (like fumigation).
Both of them can be put in Flitner’s (2007) EJ matrix under distributive justice. However, the main
obstacle here is the non-/or low-level-materialization of formal unfairness (Hooker 2005). This inter-
esting aspect can be coupled with changing territorialities and asymmetrical forms of procedural
(in)justice (cf. Flitner 2007). Simply put, participation in decision-making on environmental issues
related to soy expansion and its effects is close to non-existent, even though small scale attempts of
public participation on local levels exist. For example, some environmental secretaries try to supervise
agriculture-related activities according to legal regulations.
(b) Discourse, or: The justification of fairness?
Since it has been shown that conflict articulation does not play a pivotal role in terms of the relation
among local, regional and extra-regional actors, the second axis focuses on examples of how fairness
and soy production is dealt with by different organizations. Three actor groups and their perspectives
shall be presented: the national government, non-production related NGOs, and producer-driven ac-
Brazilian Mato Grosso
The Brazilian soybean economy has been legitimated by its obvious economic dynamism putting the
country on the top of the world producers and exporters of agricultural raw products. This is a consti-
tutive part of a long-lasting Brazilian discourse of ‘agricultural vocation’, integrating Brazil’s frontiers
into global commodity chains and production networks.
In Brazil, national politics and agribusiness are intrinsically linked. The perception of agribusiness as a
national ‘growth engine’ is discursively and politically supported by the powerful and growing repre-
sentation of agribusiness interests in the Brazilian parliament (so-called ‘bancada ruralista’), national
and regional governments reinforce agribusiness and the soybean sector by a decisive growth- and
modernization-oriented policy, including large-scale infrastructural investments. The soybean sector
developed a very professional ‘machinery’ of self-representation, of political lobbying, of image and
discourse building. Aprosoja (Association of Soy and Corn Producers) has become a very professional
and powerful instrument of the sector in all kinds of political debates. Its main field of action is to
claim logistical improvements (reduced transport costs, road infrastructure etc.) and to politically safe-
guard an entrepreneurial friendly (neo-liberal) framework for investment. Simply put, the discourse is
linked to a linear form of argumentation: Soy expansion is considered part of progress and growth,
which secures sustainability; sustainability is seen positive and fair, making the circular assumption
that soy expansion is fair. As a result, farmer’s immediate economic interests are put first, setting back
issues such as socio-ecological governance, an intrinsic aspect related to EJ. Nevertheless, Aprosoja’s
own visions of ‘social and ecological responsibility’ have meanwhile become a visible part of its dis-
courses (see, for instance, Aprosoja’s CSR-activities ‘AçãoVerde’ or ‘AgroSolidário’).
In this vein, in 2006 the soy processing agroindustries, together with different NGOs and other actors,
agreed for a so called soy moratorium which should guarantee that soybeans produced on recently
cleared forest land in the southern part of the Amazon should not be commercialized. This moratorium
proved to be relatively efficient, aggravating and breaking, for instance, the expansion of soybean
cultivation along northern parts of the BR-163 corridor (Nepstad et al., 2014). Despite all such initia-
tives for certification or for the implementation of rules aiming at a ‘greening’ of soy production, the
most opposed factor for such initiatives are, nowadays, shifts in global demand structures. China, spe-
cifically, as not only an emerging, but increasingly dominating market is not very interested in socially
or ecologically certified products. Therefore, producers do not feel any pressure, at the moment, to
comply with changing production standards, notwithstanding all discursive-contrary declarations.
Nevertheless, the soy production sector is faced with resistance by national and international civil so-
ciety activism. The BR-163 region in Mato Grosso became a ‘hot spot’ of disputes in this sense. The
plans for the conclusion of road pavement towards Santarém required by the representatives of Mato
Grosso’s agribusiness (e.g. Aprosoja) in order to guarantee competitive transport costs and market
conditions, evoked resistance by ecologists and social movements. Against this conflicting situation,
the Lula government (2003–2011) intended to frame the plans for road building at the BR-163, for the
first time, with a program (Plano BR-163 Sustentável) containing measures of participatory planning,
ecological governance, protection of natural and indigenous areas, and a whole package of measures
towards sustainable regional development. In a certain sense those plans were promising concerning a
fairer and just regional development. In more recent years, however, those plans were substituted by
the merely modernization- and growth-oriented national investment programs PAC1 and PAC2, high-
lighting the aforementioned national discourse.
Thus, the recent regional incorporation of Mato Grosso into the globalized market was based discur-
sively on social development and economic chances of the frontiers for all people (colonization as an
‘alternative’ to agrarian reform), but in reality, the capitalist interests of private firms dominated from
the beginning. Therefore, ‘fairness’ and (socio-economic as well as environmental) ‘justice’ were nev-
er valuable concepts within the (societal, economic and socio-ecological) context of Mato Grosso de-
velopment. Thus, the dominant thought style driven by market forces shows an implicit understanding
of libertarian fairness where those who invest get the returns.
Unlike in Brazil, in Argentina the relationship between the government and the agrarian sector has
been plastered with irritations for the last 60 years, culminating in the agrarian crisis in 2008 (Reca,
2010: 435). This tense relationship is manifested in one certain form of taxation on exports, particular-
ly of soy-related products. While from 1993 to 2001 export taxes (retenciones) amounted to only 4%
of the commodity’s value, the retenciones were increased to 35% by 2007 (Reca 2010, S. 440). Since
the internal market for soy is not considered relevant, the vast majority of producers have been affect-
ed negatively. Since then, Argentina’s government under Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de
Kirchner (2003–2015) has radicalized its discourse against agrarian monopolies, defaming soy as be-
ing “yuyo” (i.e. weed; La Nación 2008).
Nevertheless, a fundamental piece of information here is the actual discrepancy between promoting
negative publicity against soy production and the application of the high-value retenciones
into account the various forms of social plans existing in Argentina, it would be impossible to finance
those plans without the existence of the globalized soy market. A clear form of action-oriented prag-
matism is observed. Following neo-extractivist thought styles the redistribution of funds coming from
extractive industries (here particularly including the agribusiness) establishes an approximation to-
wards formal fairness of secondary income distribution due to soy expansion. Thus, the government’s
form of applying fairness (also in relation to Flitner’s symbolic justice; Flitner, 2007) goes towards the
maximisation of people’s benefits (through a mixture of egalitarian and utilitarian fairness) in mone-
tary terms and thereby neglecting the locally based negative effects of soy expansion. This feature
becomes particularly important in the Argentine Chaco since – as in the previous section described –
local forms of resistance/articulation and materialization of fairness claims are not accentuated. Thus,
as a first critical remark, it becomes clear that theoretical concepts of fairness have to include scalar
dimensions, since what may be fair on the national level, can be considered unfair on the local scale.
The second critical perspective on fairness should be highlighted with the example of Greenpeace’s
activities in the Argentine Chaco. From an outside perspective, it would be expected that NGOs en-
gaged a lot in local struggles, be it ecological or socio-ecological. However, from a regional inside-
perspective, clear critique from locals in the Argentine Chaco is voiced. The presence of NGOs, par-
ticularly Greenpeace, is seen as practically non-existent by locals. The locals’ anger of the perceived
NGO’s non-commitment in the region is constantly being expressed. Confronted with this accusation,
a representative of Greenpeace in Buenos Aires elaborated the organization’s focus on deforestation.
This anecdote highlights the problem of the Chaco region of being an area out of focus for (inter-
)national activist groups.
The third actor group, representing a group of farmers in Las Lajitas (Grupo Las Lajitas), is a mix of
locally and regionally rooted, but also globalized producers streamlining their technical expertise in
the area. This is of particular importance, since – unlike in many production areas in the USA – tech-
nical state support for farmers focuses primordially on small-scale (often self-subsistent) agri- and
horticulturalists. Thus, the auto-organization of in groups of middle-to-large-scale farmers occurs out
of necessity to create parallel support structures for day-to-day business; the organization’s principles
are clearly defined by libertarian thought styles. When dealing with fairness on a discursive level, ac-
tion-oriented pragmatism is very prominent. Once again, it is seen that from a national level, Argenti-
na is more critically minded towards agribusiness activities, also articulating fairness claims on a na-
tional and supra-regional level, even though state incomes highly depend on agriculture.
As shown in table 2, in both our cases we have seen different modes of interpretation of fairness, owed
to national structures as well as socio-economic patterns and traditions. The most obvious difference
between the two regional examples lies in the states’ discursive approaches towards agricultural activi-
ty: Brazil shows a continuation of the positive outlook on agriculture, while Argentina radicalized its
discourse, particularly against soy production, but still heavily relies on its revenues. This feature is
highly reflected in the establishment and level of formalisation of agricultural lobbying groups in both
Table 2: Discourse – comparison between Brazilian Mato Grosso and Argentine Chaco
Overall agribusiness dis-
course in favour of soy pro-
- Stop hunger
- Creation of employment
- Strengthen regional/national development
Official national discourse
- Agribusiness equals eco-
- Mato Grosso is a success
- Critical in terms of envi-
ronmental problems (defor-
estation, climate change)
and Environmental Govern-
- Increased radicalization of
discourse against agribusi-
- Redistribution of wealth is
necessary and has to be car-
ried out by the national gov-
Frontier-internal view of
Positive; the overall agribusiness discourse is fully internalized
Frontier-external view of
- Critical by national and in-
- Positive by business sectors
- Critical/indifferent, particu-
larly by non-soy related
- Important for large-scale producers and core regions of pro-
- Predominantly relevant for export to the EU
One great commonality of both regions is the aspect of certification of soy production. Certification is
intrinsically important. As confirmed by brokers in Buenos Aires, the current standards for exporting
to the Netherlands (and thus the EU) say that certified soy and soy related products are an added bene-
fit but are not a primary necessity. However, it is believed that the current status is only one step to-
wards making certification obligatory, intensifying the pressure on producers to follow stricter norms
in relation to legal compliance and good business practices, labour conditions, responsible community
relations, environmental responsibility and good agricultural practices (cf. RTRS 2015), and thus high-
lighting the ‘fairness of soy’.
Another interesting aspect in this context deals with business size. In both regional cases, small or
medium scale farmers do not see the necessity for certification since their visibility (on all scales) is
fairly limited, thus reducing the need for better corporate social responsibility. Large-scale companies,
however, are more faced with criticism in relation to their production modes and are thus more willing
to participate in certification programmes (as confirmed through informal talks with RTRS representa-
tives). Another vital argument in this context deals with the growth of new soy markets (predominant-
ly China), where the core purchasing reason is defined by pricing rather than socio-ecological stand-
Summing up, in both regions, certification only plays a role for large companies with high visibility on
a global scale, and thus being affected by opinion-making of potential customers. As a result, the di-
chotomy of perception of the ‘big and bad multinationals’ vs. the ‘small and good farmers’ has to be
broken up and re-evaluated; visibility can thus be seen as an indicator for global pressure towards fair-
ness. Furthermore, certification – from the point of view of soy farmers – is predominantly an act of
marketing rather than an actual statement towards fairer production.
Soy production and fairness discussions are clearly context dependent. While Brazil and Argentina
show two different forms of discourse towards agriculture, it has become visible that both countries
rely on the production of soy; Argentina, in particular, may be even more dependent on this commodi-
It has been shown that the concepts of fairness are difficult to operationalize in empirical research.
Therefore, we have looked for alternatives and have applied an EJ approach that was extended with
the concept of territoriality. This allowed us to unearth underlying conceptions and situations of fair-
Taking up two axes of investigation – territoriality and discourse – major differences in perspective,
from within the case studies and from the outside are observed. Fairness per se is not discussed in the
research areas unless open conflicts arise. In this case, particular understandings of fairness are in-
strumentalized to legitimize actors’ strategies.
Referring to our first axe of investigation, (a) territoriality, both regions have in common that open
conflicts between members of the agribusiness and locals/local (environmental) groups are hardly
found. Two reasons are the thought style of ‘progress’, dominated by leading actors of the agribusi-
ness that constantly overwrite the articulation of fairness claims and the perceived dependence on the
new dynamisms of the agribusiness (particularly in terms of job creation).
The second axis, (b) discourse, is less physio-regionally attached but deals more with how different
thought styles towards soy production are presented. Taking three different actor groups and their spe-
cific discourses into account, certification proved to be a major issue in the debates on soy-related
fairness. Here, examples have shown that the motivation for certification (of all actors involved) de-
pends, once again, on pragmatic reasoning of output maximisation. This shows yet again that fairness
is not a value per se but becomes relevant when extra benefits are obtained (in terms of publicity, mar-
keting, and use of protest resources).
Finally, it has been shown that the combination of EJ and territoriality can be fruitful for empirical
cases dealing with resource fairness, since they facilitate profound insights into the underlying struc-
tures of socio-ecological conflict situations and their territorial as well as discursive framings. Hence,
we conclude that for global topics such as resource fairness, regional contexts are of great importance.
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We thank the Austrian Agency for International Cooperation in Education and Research (OeAD-GmbH) for
awarding Robert Hafner a Marietta Blau grant, financed by the budget of the Federal Ministry of Science, Re-
search and Economy (bmwfi). Furthermore, thanks go to the Austrian Academy of Science for Robert Hafner’s
DOC Fellowship at the Institute of Geography, Innsbruck University.
Ludwik Fleck (e.g. 1980) has elaborated the concept of ‘thought styles’ in order to study the way in which
cognition and thinking is being formed in a community. The advantage of using thought styles rather than para-
digms lies in the fact that they are procedure-oriented and constantly changing, based on the members within the
community but also highly influenced by its surrounding.
In November 2015, with the election of Mauricio Macri, the era Kirchner came to an end. Thus, changes in the
retenciones-regime in favour of Argentine producers are already announced and partly implemented.