Brazilian authorities announced in May this year that five-grain trading houses, including major US agribusiness traders Cargill Inc and Bunge Ltd, and dozens of farmers have been fined a total of 105.7 million reais (US$29 million) for activities connected to illegal deforestation.

Thomson Reuters reported that the five trading firms, which include ABC Indústria e Comércio SA, JJ Samar Agronegócios Eireli, and Uniggel Proteção de Plantas Ltda in addition to Cargill and Bunge, were fined 24.6 million reais.

Government environmental agency IBAMA, which imposed the fines, said in a statement that the firms bought nearly 3,000 tonnes of grain produced in areas off-limits to farming under environmental rules.

Cargill said it had not received notification from IBAMA about the irregular soy purchases and would look into the matter.

Bunge said that its grain purchases in the area where it was fined are in line with best practices and that it had consulted public databases on banned areas. The company said it supports I and Brazil’s conservation efforts.

Representatives for the other traders could not immediately be reached for comment.

The fines were a phase of 'Operation Soy Sauce' carried out since April in which IBAMA and federal prosecutors clamped down on illegal land use in the Matopiba region - comprising Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia states - Brazil’s Cerrado savannah.

The Cerrado is one of the fastest growing soy regions thanks to cheap and abundant virgin land that is also subject to far less stringent rules on deforestation than those applied to the Amazon rainforest.

Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of US-based environmental advocate Mighty Earth said had issued many warnings to Cargill and Bunge that they need to stop their large-scale deforestation.

"Mighty Earth has conducted a series of undercover investigations that found Cargill and Bunge driving extensive deforestation in Latin America, including in the Cerrado, the region where IBAMA identified these companies engaged in illegal ecosystem clearance," Mr. Hurowitz said.

Read Baru nut: The next superfood? 

Mighty Earth provided footage, including aerial drone videos, showing the vast scope of deforestation, from the Cerrado field investigation.

“Despite years of evidence and calls from their customers for change, Cargill and Bunge have continued to drive destruction of these extraordinary natural ecosystems, " Mr. Hurowitz said.

Mighty Earth said 61 major soy end users, including McDonald’s, Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour, Unilever, and Nestle recently issued a formal call to soy and meat companies to stop all destruction of the Cerrado.

“McDonald’s, Carrefour and other companies that sell meat and dairy need to be asked why they are still selling products raised on soy from Cargill or Bunge, when these companies have driven so much destruction,” Mr. Hurowitz added.

Renê Luiz de Oliveira, the head of environmental enforcement at IBAMA, said illegal deforestation of the Cerrado savannah was advancing much faster in Matopiba than in other regions of the biome.

“This requires stepping up control strategies to deter every illegal link in the supply chain,” he said in the IBAMA statement.

The operation focused on areas that had already been illegally deforested and had been declared out of bounds by IBAMA, in order to allow native vegetation to regrow.

Dozens of farmers were fined for producing grains in these areas, for preventing the regrowth of the native vegetation or otherwise seeking to trade products originating in the banned areas.

Trading firms had purchased grains under advanced purchase agreements that in some cases financed the illegal farming to be carried out, IBAMA said. The statement said public prosecutors planned to take legal action beyond the fines to ensure the offenders repair all environmental damage.

An agro-forestry activity that can help control and prevent deforestation in the Cerrado region is the recollection of the baru seed. This nutritious superfood produced by the baruzeiro tree needs more attention also for the leading role the large indigenous tree plays protecting this unique ecosystem that contains the largest aquifers in Brazil.

Read Baru nut: The next superfood?