Maldevelopment revisited: Inclusiveness and social impacts of soy expansion over Brazil’s Cerrado in Matopiba

Related GLP Member: Mairon Bastos Lima, Tiago Reis


  • The claim that the expansion of cash crops such as soy promotes development needs unpacking beyond simplified indicators.
  • Local perceptions from 62 interviews in 18 municipalities inform our analyses on soy expansion in Brazil’s Matopiba region.
  • While grabbing land and water, soy expansion has fostered the social, ecological and relational exclusion of local actors.
  • Neglecting Matopiba’s local actors’ voices allows agribusiness’ exclusionary expansion’s self-portrayal as “development”.
  • Inequitable processes of change that worsen the conditions of most stakeholders can rather be understood as maldevelopment.


Cash crops such as soy, cocoa and oil palm have expanded at great speed in developing countries, often at the expense of customary landowners, traditional livelihoods, and biodiversity. These landscape transformations have global drivers, but they are often justified by a dominant rationale that they bring development to otherwise underprivileged regions. Such development claims, however, are either taken at face value or conflated with simplistic macroeconomic indicators that gloss over most social issues. Those claims may, therefore, hide severe inequities. To better analyze these phenomena, we revisit and conceptualize the notion of maldevelopment, here defined as inequitable and exclusive processes of change that deprive most local stakeholders of their social and material capabilities. Using an inclusiveness framework, we then conduct an in-depth analysis of soy expansion in the Matopiba region of Brazil’s Cerrado. This rich biome with a mosaic of land uses forms an agriculture-savanna landscape that is rapidly giving way to soy monoculture – under the guise of development. Through fieldwork and primary data collection in 18 Matopiba municipalities, we have interviewed 62 stakeholders in that landscape transformation from different social groups. We assess how soy expansion has altered access and allocation patterns of key resources such as land and water, as well as participation in the local food systems and governance initiatives. When looking beyond general economic indicators, our findings expose a brutally exclusive process of environmental degradation and resource dispossession. Yet the stakeholders we interviewed do not want to simply be left undisturbed but to experience inclusive development instead, with participation in governance and support for bottom-up initiatives. We conclude that the frequently cited claim that industrial monocultures bring development to underserved regions deserves far greater scrutiny, and that inclusiveness in the design and execution of interventions is crucial for avoiding maldevelopment.