Conservation news

Battle for the Amazon: Tapajós Basin threatened by massive development

  • The Brazilian Amazon has systematically been deforested, dammed and developed by the federal government, river basin by river basin. The most recent to be so developed was the Xingu watershed. The next target, where road and dam construction has already begun, is the Tapajós Basin.
  • Plans by agribusiness and the government call for the paving of the BR-163 highway (almost complete); the building of a new railroad, nicknamed Ferrogrão or Grainrail (just given approval); and the building of the Teles Pires-Tapajós industrial waterway, requiring dozens of dams, plus canals.
  • As Mato Grosso soy plantations creep north deeper into the Tapajós region, agribusiness hopes to benefit from the rapid development of transportation infrastructure that will provide a cheap, fast northern road, rail and water route to the Atlantic for the export of commodities.
  • Indigenous groups, traditional river communities, environmentalists and social NGOs oppose the mega-infrastructure projects, which they say will bring deforestation, cultural disruption, and quicken local and global climate change. The conflict is over no less than the fate of the Amazon.

(Leia essa matéria em português no The Intercept Brasil. You can also read Mongabay’s series on the Tapajós Basin in Portuguese at The Intercept Brasil here.)

The Tapajós River Basin lies at the heart of the Amazon, and also at the heart of an exploding controversy: whether to build more than 40 large dams, a railway, roads, canals and port complexes, turning the Basin into a vast industrialized commodities export corridor; or to curb this development impulse and conserve one of the most biologically and culturally rich regions on the planet.

Those struggling to shape the Basin’s fate hold conflicting opinions, but because the Tapajós is an isolated region, few of these views get aired in the media. Journalist Sue Branford and social scientist Mauricio Torres travelled there recently for Mongabay, and over coming weeks hope to shed some light on the heated debate that will shape the future of the Amazon.


The cerrado a vast tropical savanna rich in endemic species in Brazil’s central Mato Grosso state — was despised as worthless for farming for centuries. But over the last 15 years much of the biodiversity of this wide plain has been destroyed and, through the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, it has become the pride of Brazilian agribusiness, achieving the world’s highest levels of productivity.

Thanks in part to the Cerrado’s development, Brazil became the largest exporter of soybeans on earth in 2013 (though the US still produces more). Two years later, it achieved a 41 percent share of the global market, becoming very competitive with the United States.

But large-scale farmers in northern Mato Grosso are struggling to bring this bounty to market, as they are forced to truck their perishable harvest over hot, pothole-ridden roads via a circuitous 1,500-mile route to the Atlantic Ocean ports of Santos in São Paulo state, and Paranaguá in Parana state.

Sorriso, Brazil’s largest producer of soybeans, calls itself the Brazilian capital of agribusiness. Jorge Baldo says the BR-163 highway is essential to Sorriso’s soy growers: “Our region is not viable without it!” he declares. Photo by Thaís Borges, November 2016
The Tapajós River, Brazil. More than forty dams would turn this free flowing river and its tributaries into a vast industrial waterway threatening the Tapajós Basin’s ecosystems, wildlife, people, and even the regional and global climate. Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Agribusiness has three dreams for drastically reducing these high transportation costs: the paving of the BR-163 highway (linking the cities of Cuiabá and Santarém); the building of a new railroad parallel to that road (already nicknamed Ferrogrão, or Grainrail); and, most ambitiously of all, the building of the Teles Pires-Tapajós industrial waterway, a mega-infrastructure construction project requiring dozens of big dams, reservoirs, locks, canals and river ports.

Carlos Fávaro, president of Aprosoja, Brazil’s largest soybean cooperative, speaks glowingly of the Tapajós River as “Brazil’s Mississippi,” and as a “gift from God”.

Brazil, he declares, has been bequeathed by nature with the Juruena, Teles Pires and Tapajós rivers, which flow north and, when tamed, will allow for the transport of crops by barge and container ship from the country’s largest agricultural region in Central Brazil to the Amazon River and on to ports on the Atlantic Ocean — dramatically shortening and cheapening export routes to China, other Asian nations and European markets.

Of course, God has also graced the Tapajós Basin with staggering biodiversity — making it one of the most biologically rich regions of the Amazon. It is also home to a large number of indigenous groups and traditional river communities. These constituencies see a very different vision for the future.

The jaguar is an iconic symbol of the Amazonian wild. The taming of the rivers in the Tapajós Basin is likely to bring extreme deforestation, settlement and the destruction of one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

“They are destroying us”

The Third Juruena Vivo Festival, which took place in the town of Juara on the Juruena River in late October, provided a forum for voices of protest generally absent in Brasilia’s decision-making regarding the destiny of Amazonia’s rivers.

Three hundred participants gathered there, including representatives of the indigenous Apiaká, Kayabi, Munduruku, Manoki, Myky, Nambikwara and Rikbaktsa peoples; spokespeople from traditional river communities and peasant settlements; researchers and environmental NGOs.

A Munduruku Indian, Cândido Waro, with tears in his eyes, described how the dreams of Brazilian agribusinessmen are turning his home to nightmare: “Two large dams, [the] Teles Pires and Sāo Manoel, are being built on the very edge of our land. The dams are destroying our lives. The Teles Pires River is [now] dirty. Our children are dying of diarrhea. There are very few fish left. We didn’t want the dams but the government didn’t listen to us. They are destroying us.” Within weeks of the Juara meeting, an oil spill, possibly caused by construction on the Sāo Manoel dam, polluted the Teles Pires further, impacting indigenous villages.

The Third Juruena Vivo Festival in Juara in Mato Grosso state, attended by representatives from seven indigenous groups, members of traditional river communities, environmental researchers and NGOs. Photo by Thais Borges, October 2016
Candido Waro, a Munduruku man and presenter at the Third Juruena Vivo Festival in Juara, wept as he spoke: “We didn’t want the dams but the government didn’t listen to us,” he said. “They are destroying us.” Photo by Thais Borges, October 2016

Ironically, the Juara meeting, launched in rebellion against the industrialization of the Tapajós Basin — which the Indians see as just another callous act of colonialism — was occurring in the central square of Juara, beside the “Statue of The Coloniser”.

“The Statue of the Colonizer”, in Colonizer Square in Juara commemorates the beginning of the take-over of Indigenous territory in this part of the Amazon by non-Indians. Photo by Thais Borges, October 2016

Erected in 2010, the big monument’s inscription reads: “our history began here because it was at this very spot that Zé Paraná and other members of Sibal [the Real Estate Society of the Amazon Basin] began their trek into the forest in the midst of the cinders of the first [forest] felling”.

Andréa Fanzeres, of the Operação Amazônia Nativa (OPAN), an NGO that works with indigenous groups, organized the October gathering. She told Mongabay that OPAN had deliberately chosen to hold the event in this square: “All the people who took part in the festival live here. They are people who have been made invisible, people who suffer prejudice, people excluded from urban life. It was really daring of us to bring these people to a public square, to a square called the Square of the Colonizers.”

The ongoing struggle to survive

The “history that began” alluded to on the Juara monument plaque is a story of Brazilian expropriation and exclusion that intensified thousands of miles to the south during the country’s infamous dictatorship period, lasting from 1964 to 1985. Zé Paraná and the Real Estate Society of the Amazon Basin were beneficiaries of the military government’s so-called land colonization program — created to provide “land for the landless” people living in the south by settling them in the Amazon.

The military government launched initiatives to encourage large companies to set up cattle ranches and colonization programs along the Transmazônica highway. It also divvied up swathes of land in the northern part of Mato Grosso state among just a few favored “owners’: Juara, for example, was given to Zé Paraná; Sinop to Énio Pipino; Alta Floresta to Ariosto da Riva; and so on.

These privileged “owners” in turn subdivided and sold small plots to peasant families who had been left landless in the south due to the government’s support for large-scale farming and its failure to carry out a national program of agrarian reform.

As the plaque inscription notes approvingly, those settlers “who began history” set about felling and burning the forest and planting crops. In the beginning, these colonizing families found everything hard — the alien climate, the soil infertility, lack of hospitals, and lack of government support. Many returned home but, as they say in the region, “the pig-headed remained”.

Roads and infrastructure projects in the Tapajós Basin. Map by Mauricio Torres

The newcomers also ran smack up against a huge governmental lie. The government had promised “a land without people for a people without land”. It was nothing of the kind. In actual fact, indigenous groups and traditional fishing communities had long lived in the forests and on the river shores that were sold to the outsiders.

Serious land and livelihood conflicts quickly erupted between newcomers seeking to develop the land, and the progressively marginalized indigenous and traditional people who already lived and worked there.

In truth, until the progressive 1988 Constitution was promulgated, the indigenous people struggled for their very existence, for under previous constitutions the Indians were only allowed to stay on their land until they were “assimilated” into national society.

Even though they have won far greater rights today, their struggle is unrelenting: they have continued to lose land all over Brazil as their epic, centuries-long battle continues.

Escalating conflict

In the Mato Grosso part of the Tapajós Basin, Indians today are often confined to shrinking “islands”, indigenous zones tentatively guaranteed by the government. All over the region, territory is increasingly threatened by agribusiness’s ambitious new infrastructure plans, as well as by governmental schemes to delay and deny indigenous territorial demarcation.

Indigenous land and planned and built hydroelectric dams in the northern portion of the Tapajós Basin in Mato Grosso state. Map by Mauricio Torres

But it is not only Indians who are in trouble. Landless peasants flocked to the Amazon in the early years of the 21st century, hopeful that the newly elected, left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) government would deliver on its pledge to carry out an extensive program of agrarian reform. This did not happen, and today landless families, Indians and traditional communities cling to the land as extensive soy plantation monocultures — largely in the hands of large-scale wealthy farmers — march deeper into the Amazon forest from the south.

This collision of livelihood and lifestyle has resulted in violence, land grabs, assassination. The Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission recorded 19 violent deaths in the rural parts of Pará state in 2015, for example.

Instead of responding with law enforcement, the government has sometimes tried to minimize and normalize the violence. At November’s Marrakesh, Morocco UN Climate Conference. Brazil’s Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, himself one of the world’s largest soybean farmers, attributed the rising number of violent deaths to “problems of personal relationship.”

Human rights activists take a different view — seeing the current violence as a conflict over land use, property, and culture. Fernanda Moreira from the Catholic Church’s Missionary Council (Cimi) told Mongabay: “While the frightening level of violence in the countryside against Indians, peasant families and leaders of social movements indicates the ethnocide character of these struggles, it also demonstrates the intensity with which these people are resisting.”

Taming the Tapajós

The first step to securing a commodities export corridor stretching north through the Tapajós Basin required the paving of BR-163.

A Collared puffbird (Bucco capensis) in the Amazon. The Tapajós Basin is one of the most biodiversity rich places on earth. If the construction of commodies transportation infrastructure proceeds as planned, deforestation will cause much of that richness to vanish. Photo by Jeremy Hance / Mongabay

That road was to form a critical link between Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso state — where much of the nation’s soy is grown — with the port of Miritituba, on the opposite side of the Tapajós River from the city of Itaituba. From there, soy and other commodities could be shipped down the Tapajós to the city of Santarém, then on down the Amazon to the coast for export.

In 1994, Jorge Baldo became the first to promote BR-163’s improvement — a very challenging construction project considering the difficult terrain. He persisted through the years, though many ridiculed his vision as pure “fantasy.“

“We had to recruit people, one by one, and finally we formed [our own] organization and won the government over”, said Baldo, who presided over the Regional Development Association for the Conclusion of the BR-163.

The area around Sorriso where Baldo lives is now Brazil’s biggest soy producing region, with 3.5 million hectares (13.5 million square miles) under cultivation. Baldo declares the BR-163 to be essential for soy growers: “Our region is not viable without it!”

The government approved the paving project in 2004, and today only a final 110-kilometer (68-mile) stretch remains to be asphalted. When complete, BR-163 will open the way for high-speed truck traffic from Mato Grosso to Santarém, and the soy farmers are overjoyed about that.

Ferrogrão, the grain railway paralleling BR-163, looks ready to happen too. One of the first acts of Michel Temer’s government when it came to power earlier this year, was to select Ferrogrāo as a priority infrastructure project, with bidding for the contract expected in 2017.

A final infrastructure project — the most controversial of all — is the industrial waterway. It features in the government’s plans, but many important questions about it still have to be resolved.

Construction is well underway at the São Manoel dam site on the Teles Pires River, with three other dams completed or nearing completion. The Teles Pires is a major tributary of the Tapajós River and would form an important component of the industrial waterway. The dams were built firstly to provide hydroelectric power. Integrating the dams into the proposed industrial waterway will require adding canals and locks. Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
Indigenous Munduruku living on the Teles Pires River taking part in a mapping workshop delineating their territory. Indigenous people and river communities have seen, and will continue to see, territory lost, fisheries disrupted and depleted, and food security diminished, with the construction of the Tapajós Basin dams, roads and railway. Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Soy farmers are exultant over the new transport corridor and the potentially vast profits to be made: “New exit routes through the north can eventually halve our logistics costs and boost production in areas that today are unviable due to lack of infrastructure”, Luiz Antonio Fayet, a logistics consultant for CAN (the National Agriculture Confederation) told Bloomberg.

BR-163, Ferrogrão, and perhaps eventually the Tapajós industrial waterway will at last provide Brazilian agribusiness — allied with multinational commodities trading companies Bunge, Cargill, ADM and others — with a highly efficient commodities export corridor passing through the heart of the Amazon basin.

Carlos Fávaro’s dream of turning the Tapajós River into “Brazil’s Mississippi” is now within the grasp of Brazil’s agribusinessmen — with only indigenous people, traditional riverine communities, environmentalists and the ever-increasing concern of climate scientists about the damage that will be done to the forest, and thus indirectly to the global climate, standing in their way.


(Leia essa matéria em português no The Intercept Brasil. You can also read Mongabay’s series on the Tapajós Basin in Portuguese at The Intercept Brasil here)