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Ferrogrão grain railway threatens Amazon indigenous groups, forest

  • Michel Temer’s administration is fast tracking the Ferrogrão (Grainrail), a 1,142 kilometer railway to link grain-producing midwest Brazil with the Tapajós River, a major tributary of the Amazon, in order to more economically and efficiently export soy and other commodities to foreign markets.
  • The railway is seen as vital to Brazil’s agribusiness-centric economy, especially considering the country’s current economic crisis, but indigenous groups say they’ve not been consulted in project planning as stipulated by International Labour Organization Convention 169.
  • The railway will come near several indigenous groups: the Kaiabi in Indigenous Territory of Batelão, the Pankararu in Indigenous Territory of Pankararu, the Kayapó in Indigenous Territory of Kapot-Nhinore, and the Panará in Indigenous Territory of Baú. These groups say they’ve not been properly consulted by the government.
  • Ferrogrão will also pass near Jamanxim National Park and cut through Jamanxim National Forest, where the government is seeking diminished protections to benefit elite land thieves. Scientists worry that deforestation brought by the loss of these conserved lands, plus the railway, could significantly reduce the Amazon’s greenhouse gas storage capacity.
An Amazon grain terminal at night. International and Brazilian agribusiness interests are pushing hard to turn the Tapajós basin into an industrialized commodities corridor so it can handle future soy production coming out of Brazil’s interior. Photo courtesy of Mayangdi Inzaulgarat

A serious dispute has erupted over Ferrogrão (Grainrail), the 1,142 kilometer (710 mile) railway that is to link the grain-producing region of Midwest Brazil with the Tapajós River, a major tributary of the Amazon.

The conflict pits the Brazilian authorities – who say that the railroad must be built at great speed to reduce current bottlenecks preventing the harvest from getting to ports for export – against indigenous groups and traditional communities, who want to be properly consulted to minimize the impact of the railway on their way of life and the environment.

The affected communities, particularly those of the Kayapó Indians, have seen the harm others have suffered as a result of big infrastructure projects carried out without proper safeguards, and want to avoid that fate.

“The construction of Ferrogrão can’t go ahead without the conservation units [along its route] being strengthened, with better monitoring, protection and vigilance,” wrote Kayapó cacique (chief), Anhe Kayapó, In a letter to Brazil’s National Land Transport Agency (ANTT).

“If this doesn’t happen, the indigenous people aren’t going to be able to withstand the pressure of land thieves, loggers and wildcat miners. This is what happened to our relatives in the Indigenous Territory of Cachoeira Seca. When the Belo Monte [mega-dam] was built, no measures were taken to protect their land and now it is the most deforested indigenous territory in Brazil.”

The planned railway will connect Sinop, Brazil’s so-called “national agribusiness capital” in Mato Grosso state with the river port of Miritituba in the district of Itaituba in the neighboring state of Pará. It will run parallel to the BR-163 highway (which often is clogged with bumper to bumper truck traffic during the soy harvest). The railroad, with an estimated construction cost of R$12.6 billion (US$4 billion), is expected to play a key role in transporting soy, corn and other commodities for export. It will be capable of transporting 58 million tons of goods a year.

Traffic on the BR-163 clearly demonstrates the need for expanded infrastructure like the Ferrogrão railway. However, the Brazilian government is fast tracking the rail project, apparently without proper environmental review. Photo courtesy of Agência Brasil

A much needed commodities rail line

The railroad will undoubtedly improve the efficiency and capacity of Brazil’s export infrastructure at a time when it is badly needed. Authorities expect total freight demand along the Tapajós export corridor to exceed 25 million tons by 2020, possibly reaching 42 million tons by 2050.

Because harvest time truckers now face long delays on the recently-asphalted BR-163 highway, and more serious hold ups on the road south to Santos and Paranaguá, ANTT is anxious to push ahead quickly: it plans to publish the tender, an invitation to bid, for the 65-year Ferrogrão concession in the first quarter of 2018 and to award the contract in the third quarter of the year.

Because agribusiness sees the project as essential, the government has agreed to allow the country’s state-owned development bank, BNDES, to provide the company that wins the contract with particularly generous conditions: the grace period for the repayment of the loan will be extended from the normal five years to seven or eight, with the repayment period increased from the normal 20 years to 25 or 30. BNDES is expected to provide loans that will cover 80 percent of the total construction cost.

The government may also grant the winner of the construction concession exclusive rights to operate along the rails – which means that, as a monopoly, the company chosen could make exorbitant profits. As a result, several big companies may well be interested.

Cargill is considering a bid, as part of a group of grain trading companies. Chinese companies are investing heavily in the port complex of Mirirituba, and are also expected to bid. In fact, at the end of last year the Shanghai Pengxin Group told President Michel Temer that it was interested in the contract. The Chinese group is already operating in Brazil as the controller of Fiagril, a company that processes and exports grain.

A Panará indigenous village. Rail Indigenous groups are concerned because the railway runs close to their territories. Transportation infrastructure also often results in greater access and deforestation. Photo courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental

Bypassing indigenous and environmental concerns

However, it is expected that the project will get underway before thorough social and environmental impact studies have been carried out, even though this is a legal requirement. Unpublished studies by the NGO Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), to which Mangabay had access, suggest that the railway may have – or accelerate – a series of harmful consequences. These include:

The railway combines with other threats

Related developments in the region, although not directly linked to Ferrogrão, could also greatly increase pressure on indigenous and traditional populations. Earlier this year, the federal government decreed two provisional measures (MP 756 and MP 758) in an attempt to downgrade protection to large portions of Jamanxim National Park and Jamanxim National Forest, both located near the planned route of Ferrogrão. These political moves were made in response to pressure from the rural caucus (bancada ruralista) faction in Congress, which wanted to reward its supporters, elite wealthy land thieves in the region who stand to profit from the dismembering of the conserved areas.

Faced with a wave of protest, not least from Norway, an important funder of Amazon forest conservation programs, President Temer reversed his position and fully vetoed MP 756 and partially vetoed MP 758. In the end, the only area which had its conservation status removed was a patch of 862 hectares (3.3 square miles) in the Jamanxim National Park, which stands directly in the way of the planned railway.

The ceding of this small area to the rail line is not in itself highly controversial, though the authoritarian way in which it was done has been criticized. What is of more concern to analysts is the attempt to weaken the environmental protection of the two conservation units — Jamanxim National Park and Jamanxim National Forest, for they play a key role in protecting the Amazon rainforest from incursions arising from the paving of the BR-163.

Although environmentalists won a temporary victory with the rejection of the Jamanxim initiatives, the story is far from over. Hot on the heels of Temer’s veto, environment minister José Sarney Filho said he would introduce into Congress a bill that would reduce the area of fully protected land in Jamanxim National Forest by 486,000 hectares (1,876 square miles), converting this land into an Area of Environmental Protection (APA), which allows land thieves to get titles to the land they illegally occupied, as well as permitting mining and cattle ranching. This is exactly what MP 756 had planned to do, so the government is attempting to get the same result by another route. The bill is already being fast-tracked through Congress.

Map of the proposed Ferrogrão railway. It wouid route commodities, especially soy, from Mato Grosso state through the Amazon basin to the Tapajós River, where the cargo would then be loaded aboard ships to be carried down the Amazon River to the Atlantic coast for export. Map by Mauricio Torres

Land theft in Jamanxim National Forest and National Park, combined with the railway, mean that the land within this heavily forested portion of Pará state will be among the most threatened in the Amazon, pressure that indigenous people are already feeling.

In his letter to ANTT, cacique Anhe Kaiapó noted that the region is already suffering seriously from “an increase in land conflict and the loss of forest.”

In addition, an analysis by IPAM, the Institute for Amazon Environmental Research, estimates that reduced protections for Jamanxim National Forest alone could result in deforestation releasing 140 million tons of CO2 by 2030. No such analysis has been done for the Ferrogrão railway to see how its influence may increase deforestation, though land prices along the route are already rising and there are reports that pressure on the Jamanxim National Forest is growing as a result.

Indigenous resistance

“Ferrogrão is planned for an extremely delicate region, which always figures among those with the highest levels of deforestation and where there is a great deal of pressure for the conservation units to be dismembered or re-categorized,” ISA’s Juan Doblas told Mongabay. “This is directly linked to the fact that heavy public investments are being made to create a big export corridor for soy and corn. This railway will add to the dynamic, which means it is all the more worrying that proper environmental impact studies have not been carried out.”

Panará Indians. Rail lines and roads increase access to remote Amazon areas, often leading to settlement by outsiders, land theft, and disruption and destruction of indigenous traditions and lifestyles. Photo courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental

The indigenous communities are alarmed by the dangers they face and of the urgent need for government to consult them before moving forward. Earlier this year, cacique Anhe sent a letter to the Ministry of Transport calling for “a process of free, prior and informed consultation with the Panará and Kayapó peoples, in accordance with the ILO’s [International Labour Organization’s] Convention 169, to discuss social and environmental safeguards and measures to prevent, mitigate and compensate the negative impact of the project on our rights and our territory.”

However, the Ministry of Transport replied, saying that “the proposed course of the railway is not close enough to cause a direct social and environmental impact on indigenous land.” The government can claim this because the railway does not run directly beside the indigenous territories of Baú (Kayapó), Menkragnoti (Kayapó) and Panará (Panará). Citing the Portaria 60/2015 ruling from the Ministry of Justice and the Environment Ministry, it argued that indigenous territories must be located less than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away from an infrastructure project to be consulted.

Prosecutors from the independent Federal Public Ministry (MPF) disagree. In a recommendation published on 10 November 2017, they said that the Ministry of Transport was ”mistaken” in its interpretation of Portaria 60/2015: “Under no hypothesis does it exclude the realization of studies to define areas that may be affected at a greater distance [than 10 kilometers] nor, moreover, does it exclude the effective participation of these communities so that, from their own perceptions, they can indicate the impacts that may occur.”

Kayapó caciques (chiefs). Indigenous groups say that the Ferrogrão railway has gone ahead without “a process of free, prior and informed consultation with the Panará and Kayapó peoples, in accordance with the ILO’s [International Labour Organization’s] Convention 169.” Photo courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental

They said that the preliminary technical viability studies for Ferrogrão had identified “the existence of at least 19 indigenous areas within the railway’s route” and that these peoples had the right to be consulted. It concluded: “Carrying out public hearings cannot be considered consultations according to the criteria established by the ILO’s Convention 169,” which stipulates that the affected people must have “the power to influence state decision-making.”

In light of these facts, the MPF called for the fast tracking of Ferrogrão to be halted, with immediate cancellation of public hearings, and for proper indigenous consultations, as specified by the ILO, to be carried out.

However, despite indigenous protests, the authorities are pushing ahead.

In late November and early December, ANTT published a schedule for Ferrogrãp public hearings (audiências públicas) in Belém, Cuiabá, Brasilia, Itaituba and Novo Progresso. Such hearings are formal occasions, in which the authorities announce their already fully-fleshed out plans in audio-visual presentations and invite written questions. On 4 December approximately 90 Munduruku Indians blockaded the entrance to the building in Itaituba where the public hearing was to be held, saying that they would only leave when the hearing was definitively cancelled, as the MPF recommended.

These government presentations are very different from the lengthy consultations that indigenous communities are seeking, in which discussions would occur in native languages, would offer complete information in an accessible way, and most importantly, in which indigenous views would help shape the project before it is drawn up.

The Ferrogrão railway will come near several indigenous groups and territories: the Kaiabi in the Indigenous Territory of Batelão, the Pankararu in the Indigenous Territory of Pankararu, the Kayapó in the Indigenous Territory of Kapot-Nhinore, and the Panará in the Indigenous Territory of Baú (seen here). These indigenous groups say they’ve not been properly consulted by the government. Photo courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental

Many in Brazil do not agree with the MPF, arguing that concerns of indigenous peoples must not hold back progress, particularly projects that bring clear financial benefits with minimal environmental harm (as is argued in the case of Ferrogrão), and especially as Brazil wrestles with its current deep economic crisis.

In a recent article, Frederico Bussinger, a transportation industry consultant, wrote that Brazilian companies are already obliged to undertake “free, prior and informed consultation” with affected communities at every stage of the undertaking of an infrastructure project, through law 6938 of 31 August 1981, and this already causes delays and frustrations.

He concluded: “Haven’t we produced a paradox? Namely, almost everyone agrees that railways are a form of transport of high energy efficiency, low emissions [of greenhouse gases and particulates], safe, environmentally-friendly, and so on. We read reports of increasingly ambitious projects outside the country. But in Brazil, with the governance we have developed over the years, it is extremely difficult to undertake greenfield rail projects [that is, entirely new projects on undeveloped land]. Perhaps that is why we have about two dozen rail projects on our shelves, demanding action bur receiving just promises, speeches.”

As often happens today in Brazil and elsewhere, those arguing for the opening up of a remote wild area to agricultural and mining exploitation wear a green hat. But, say environmentalists, carrying soy and other commodities on eco-friendly trains, rather than on trucks spewing out carbon emissions, will do little in the long-term to protect the carbon absorbing forests which play a crucial role in stabilizing the global climate.

That sort of thorough forest protection can only be achieved by creating large and rigorously enforced conservation units, by marking out indigenous territories, and by working closely with traditional communities and indigenous peoples, who have long proved to be the best stewards of the forest.

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Indigenous communities traditionally traded and communicated with each other via dugout canoes on the Amazon’s many rivers. Rail lines and roads are changing that traditional way of life. Photo by Mauricio Torres
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