Amazon Port Pits Farmers Vs. Rainforest
By MICHAEL ASTOR Associated Press Writer
© 2006 The Associated Press
July 18, 2006
SANTAREM, Brazil — When U.S. grain giant Cargill opened a $20 million port in this sleepy Amazon River city three years ago, it expected to cash in on the rising global demand for soybeans that had become Brazil's richest agricultural export.
Instead, the Minnetonka, Minn.-based company today is under fire from residents, environmentalists and federal prosecutors, who say the port is illegal and are suing to shut it down.
Soy has become a villain for Amazon defenders and has turned environmentalists against the Brazilians who, like Cargill, see it as the only product capable of raising Santarem out of poverty.
Agriculture in Brazil. Image courtesy of NASA
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"We're not against Cargill. We're against soy in the Amazon. It's the wrong development model. The federal prosecutors are the ones against Cargill, we're just trying to alert everyone to the fact that soy isn't good for the Amazon," said Paulo Adario, director of Greenpeace's Amazon campaign.
Soy farming has overtaken cattle ranching and logging as the worst destroyer of the rainforest. The Amazon lost 6,950 square miles of rainforest between 2003 and 2004. Some 4,633 square miles of soybeans were planted during that time, making Brazil the world's No. 2 producer of soy after the United States. Brazil has so successfully adapted soy to the tropics that it exported $10 billion dollars worth last year _ more than sugar and coffee combined.
Aware of the soy boom, Cargill thought it had found a multimillion dollar opportunity a decade ago at the end of a neglected dirt road running from Brazil's heartland state of Mato Grosso _ Brazil's biggest soy producer _ to Santarem.
Cargill figured it could cut shipping costs by some $15 a ton if the road was paved. But it wasn't prepared for the backlash _ and the road never was paved.
"All I can say is that Cargill did everything the state told us we needed to do to open up the port," said Antenor Giovannini, the port's administrative manager.
Prosecutors say Cargill failed to comply with federal regulations by not conducting an environmental impact assessment for the port and by building it on top of sensitive a pre-Colombian archaeological site.
Cargill did not respond to repeated requests by The Associated Press for comment on the charges.
In February, Brazil's second highest court gave Cargill six months to carry out the environmental survey. The company and Para state, where Santarem is located, are appealing while the port's fate awaits the study's results.
"We are close to shutting down the port," said federal prosecutor Felicia Pontes Jr. "Public opinion has turned against Cargill. Four or five years ago the situation was different, the public supported the port. But now they see they aren't getting jobs. Someone is getting rich and it's not the people of the forest."
Pontes says the port's very existence has sped deforestation in the area around Santarem, known for its proximity to pristine rainforest, as farmers cut down jungle to grow soybeans mostly because they have somewhere to ship them from.
Greenpeace says much of that deforestation is illegal, because soybean farmers routinely ignore environmental regulations requiring landowners in the Amazon to leave 80 percent of their forested areas standing. In April, Greenpeace activists in chicken costumes invaded McDonalds' restaurants in the United Kingdom and chained themselves to the chairs _ accusing the company of feeding their chickens with soybeans grown illegally in the Amazon.
Local soy growers, in turn, have paid for billboards and bumper stickers reading: "Greenpeace go home. The Amazon is Brazilian." After Greenpeace's protest at Santarem, about 40 farmers stormed the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, and harassed its crew before being taken away by police.
Many local residents have soured on Cargill, too, because the expected jobs never materialized.
"They complain about Cargill because of the way it was sold by the politicians, they created the expectation the port it would bring millions of dollars and millions of jobs. We never promised that," Giovannini said.
The company also has tried to clean up its environmental image. Giovannini said for the next harvest the company could require soy farmers who sell to Cargill to present certificates that their soybeans were grown in accordance with Brazilian environmental laws.
Giovannini denies that Cargill now faces a boondoggle _ "Instead of recuperating our investment in six or seven years it may take 10," he said _ but foreigners have a long record of failing to make it in the Brazilian jungle.
Some 500 miles upriver from the ocean, the city of Santarem grew up around a Jesuit mission established in 1661 where the clear blue Rio Tapajos joins the muddy Amazon. A group of U.S. Confederates tried to establish farms here in 1867, but only a handful succeeded; most died of disease, melted away or returned to the United States.
A rubber boom later attracted U.S. automaker Henry Ford, who built huge rubber plantations out of the nearby jungle that operated for decades until supplanted by Indonesian sources. A series of gold rushes and timber booms followed, and when Brazil built highways in the 1970s, thousands of Brazilians moved in.
Isolation remains the blessing and curse of Santarem, now the Amazon's third-largest city with 330,000 people. With few hotels or restaurants and the highways now in disrepair, it still has the feel of a somnolent backwater, and most of its 330,000 residents live in poverty.
Today, without the road to Mato Grosso state being paved, the port only handles about 3 percent of the seven million tons of soybeans grown there each year. Nearly all the rest is shipped from Atlantic ports in southeastern Brazil. When the port was built, Cargill expected it would handle two to three million tons a year.
The soy that arrives at the port must travel by road to the western Amazon state of Rondonia where it is placed on barges for a five day river trip to Santarem, where it is loaded on to ocean going vessels.
Still, many here believe soybeans represent the future of the Amazon with growing demand from China and increasing investment from Cargill and other U.S. corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Bunge Ltd.
Few doubt the road to Santarem one day will be paved, but many believe only soy offers the necessary financial incentive.
"Soybeans are very controversial here, but if you stop the soybeans you'll stop Santarem," said Alfredo da Silva, 52, who grows soybeans on a small 20-acre plot just outside the city. "First the gold mining went bust and then logging went bust. If soybeans aren't the answer, I don't know what we're going to do here."