Soya blazes a trail through the Amazon

Feature story - 12 December, 2003
It was a beautiful star gazing night last night and almost everyone was out on deck. The moon rose late and the lights on deck were off because we are in transit. In the distance, against the silhouette of the forest, there was an orange glow. Coca said I hope that is the moon. I said, it isn't. I've seen it many times before on this trip, the warm orange glow on the horizon accompanied by a smoky haze in the sky. The distinct smell of burning wood hung in the air.

The US based Cargill corporation burns large areas of rainforest to prepare for soya plantations.

Over the past week we documented huge deforested areas in Santarem, many still on fire, all being cleared for soya plantations. The aerial images confirm that the attack of private companies on the forest continues out of control and we delivered the images to the federal prosecutors.

The expansion of Brazil's soya market is fuelling an emerging cycle of deforestation. Over three-quarters of a million hectares of soya was planted within the Amazon deforestation belt by the end of 2001.

Three forces are driving soya expansion in Para state - low land prices, the lack of funding for an effective government inspection infrastructure, and the construction of Cargill's soya handling facilities in Santarem.

But federal prosecutors just announced that they will launch legal action in the federal courts calling for demolition of Cargills' soya handling facilities in Santarem. The federal prosecutors will also ask for the immediate suspension of the US corporation's activities in Santarem until the courts reach their decision.

Under Brazilian law the construction of the Cargill facility required prior preparation and approval of an Environmental Impact Assessment. Instead of complying, they chose to contest this requirement in the courts. After four years of court challenges, late last month the Court of Final Instance ruled unanimously against Cargill. However, in the interim, the multinational giant constructed their facility in Santarem's main beach, in violation of the law. Twenty-five families were displaced in the construction of the facilities.

At the announcement, Federal Prosecutor Felicio Pontes said "Cargill believed that because they were a powerful multinational, they could disrespect both Brazilian legislation and the environment. The court decision shows that they were wrong."

Way to go federal prosecutors - a victory for the people and the forest.

Before the completion of the Cargill facility, one hectare of rural land in the region cost R$50 (US$13). With the arrival of "gauchos", as the soya producers are called, the price per hectare skyrocketed to R$900 (US$300). Entire rural communities were displaced, the inhabitants having sold their land rights and moved to the city.

Based on our ongoing field investigations, we believe that deforestation this year will be even higher than last year. There is a growing and very dangerous trend appearing.

Traditionally cattle ranchers would move into areas that loggers had exploited, and clear the land for pastures. Empirical data now indicates that cattle ranchers continue to push into new areas that are being deforested, after exhaustive exploitation by loggers, later selling the areas to the soya producers. At the same time the soya producers are burning large tracts of the forest solely for conversion to large-scale agriculture

Between August 2001 and August 2002 deforestation in Brazil's Amazon increased 40 percent compared to the previous 12 months. Analysis of satellite images by the National Institute of Space Research (INPE) show that the destruction dramatically expanded beyond what is known as the "Arc of Deforestation" - that runs from the east and south of Para state towards Acre state - and is cutting deeper and deeper into the heart of the untouched forest. According to the Ministry of Environment, this deforestation is a direct result of the invasion of soya producers.

The burning question the government must answer: do they want to contain deforestation, support and promote sustainable alternatives, and strengthen the Ministry of Environment, or lose immense areas of the Amazon to predatory exploitation?

Until then, the fires rage on.



Watch video shot while flying over the burning forest and the resulting huge soya fields. Formats: Quicktime (6.5 MBytes), Windows media(4.8 MBytes), Real media,(4.3 MBytes).