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Dutch support soy transport mega-project, posing major risk to Amazon

  • For more than a decade, the Netherlands has vigorously supported Brazil in development of the Northern Corridor, a mega-infrastructure transportation initiative that would transport soy and other commodities from Matto Grosso state via new road, rail and port projects to the Tapajós River in Pará state, then downriver to the Amazon, and to the Atlantic for export.
  • Although the Netherlands government publically says these projects will be constructed in a “sustainable” manner and reduce fuel used in transport, analysts — and even the Dutch government itself — say that the new harbors, roads and railroads would contribute significantly to deforestation, land grabbing and rural violence by bringing many new loggers, cattle ranchers, soy growers, and settlers into the Amazon region.
  • Internal documents from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, obtained through a FOIA request, show that the ministry is fully aware of these negative environmental and social impacts, but sees them as a mere public relations, or “reputation problem.”
  • Internal memos uncovered by Platform Investico, a Dutch collective of investigative journalists including Mongabay contributor Karlijn Kuijpers, alerted the public to Dutch participation in Brazil’s Amazon transportation infrastructure initiative and the environmental and social harm it could do. In response to these revelations, the Dutch Labor Party has requested a debate in parliament about Dutch involvement in the Northern Corridor.
Grain silos in Miritituba on the Tapajós River, where soy and other commodities from Mato Grosso state are transferred from trucks onto ships for the trip downriver to the Atlantic coast for export. The Dutch, with their history of infrastructure development, are big backers of the development of Brazil’s Northern Corridor. Image by Karlijn Kuijpers

This story is the result of an investigation conducted by Platform Investico, a Dutch collective of investigative journalists.

“Brazil and the Netherlands share a special history,” said Brigit Gijsbers, director of maritime affairs from the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment, at the start of a speech given in the city of Belém near the mouth of the Amazon River. “For centuries, it was shipping that connected us. Pernambuco, Bahia, Recife and Rio de Janeiro were popular ports of call on the way to the East Indies,” she added in a veiled reference to a time when the Dutch West India Company shipped slaves from Angola to Brazil to work on sugar plantations.

It was September 2015, and Gijsbers was in Belém with reps from 13 Dutch companies who wanted to profit from the construction of the Northern Corridor, a mega-infrastructure transportation initiative intended to move soy and other commodities from landlocked Mato Grosso state down the Tapajós and Amazon rivers, to Atlantic ports for export.

The Corridor project would require a vast, newly built network of paved roads, railroads, harbors and hydroelectric dams that would need to be hacked through the heart of the Amazon and which would spur deforestation, land grabbing and conflict. Over the past five years, at least ten new soy harbors have already been built in Pará state as part of the initiative. According to the Association of Private Ports, 58 new private harbors would need to be built in the Amazon region to complete it.

“There’s an enormous potential in Brazil,” Gijsbers continued. “No less than forty thousand kilometers [25.000 miles] are waiting to be used [for road, rail and river development], that is almost once around the earth,” she exulted. “I’m somewhat envious of the possibilities you have in the Amazon region. The Netherlands is ready and willing to assist. The Dutch business community is ready to come up with innovative and sustainable solutions that work.”

A ship being loaded with soy at Cargill’s river port in Santarém, Pará state. Improvement of Brazil’s transportation network via the Dutch-supported Northern Corridor would give Brazil far greater commodities export capabilities. It would also, according to the Netherlands own admission, lead to disruption of society due to a large influx of outsiders, negative consequences for indigenous populations, corruption, illegal logging and deforestation, environmental pollution, and violent conflicts with large land owners. The Dutch continue to claim that the Northern Corridor is “sustainable.” Image by Karlijn Kuijpers.

The Netherlands lends support

For more than a decade, the government of the Netherlands has used diplomacy, subsidies and advisory studies to assist Dutch companies wanting to get involved in constructing the Northern Corridor. Historically, Netherlands companies specialized in shipbuilding, river transport and port development, all sectors vital to the Brazilian initiative. However, more recently some of those firms have come on hard times economically. So foreign projects, like these aimed at the Amazon, could help those companies recover, while aiding Brazil in its building needs, the ministry argues.

That’s how the Harbor of Rotterdam and the Amsterdam Harbor promotional organization came to write strategic plans for Brazilian inland shipping, with financial support from the Dutch federal government. The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), and advisory firms Panteia and STC-Nestra, received subsidies to write a blueprint for the Northern Corridor. These initial plans, with support from the Dutch government, were further developed by the Harbor of Rotterdam and TNO in a working group with Brazilian counterparts.

“The knowledge and insights obtained through this involvement will give Dutch corporations a competitive advantage in the implementation phase,” says an internal memo from the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment, obtained by Platform Investico through a freedom of information request.

To further the Corridor project, there have been at least fourteen official visits between representatives of the Netherlands and Brazil over the last ten years, with diplomats from both countries meeting tens of times to map out the details. The Dutch embassy has organized events including the Dutch Brazilian Symposium on Multi-modal Transport in the Corridor; established the Brazilian-Dutch Working Group for Harbors, Transport and Logistics; and accomplished matchmaking between Dutch and Brazilian infrastructure entrepreneurs.

Dutch corporations have won major projects already: consultancy firm Arcadis managed the construction of the Hidrovias do Brasil soy harbor in Barcarena, Pará state; gave strategic advice to the Brazilian ministry of transport; and is involved in several other projects. However, it is unclear exactly what those other projects might be: Arcadis will not say, due to non-disclosure “agreements with customers.”

Dredging and port management company Boskalis operates tug boats in the harbors of Santarém and Barcarena, while Damen Shipyards sells boats for use in the Amazon, and Alewijnse has sold equipment used on soy ships in the region. The embassy has identified so many Brazilian construction opportunities, that in coming years, it will put extra effort into supporting Dutch companies who want to get in on fully manifesting the Northern Corridor.

A barge transports soy from Miritituba downriver. For more than a decade, the government of the Netherlands has used diplomacy, subsidies and advisory studies to assist Dutch companies wanting to get involved in constructing the Northern Corridor, with its new roads, railways and ports. Image by Karlijn Kuijpers.

Sustainable, or not

In every document describing the Northern Corridor, the Dutch government stresses that it be developed in a sustainable way. “The Netherlands want to guarantee the sustainable development of the Corridor,” ambassador Hans Peters wrote last year. But previous articles by Mongabay show that the Corridor — what has been built already, and what remains only in the planning stages — is far from sustainable. Among those plans is the 1,142 kilometer (710 mile) Ferrogrão (Grainrail) which poses grave threats to the Amazon rainforest, biodiversity, and indigenous and traditional communities.

Academics Researchers and activists have long warned of the potential destructive impacts of infrastructure development in Amazonia. “Roads are the most important driver of deforestation,” wrote professor of ecology Philip Fearnside in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia on Environmental Science. “Containing infrastructure projects is essential if deforestation is to be held in check: once roads are built, much of what happens is outside the government’s control.”

Ione Nakamura, public prosecutor for rural affairs in Pará state, also foresees problems if the Corridor is fully developed. “The [transportation] infrastructure will attract cattle and soy farmers and loggers to the region. There is no doubt that this will cause land conflicts,” she says. “The roads and harbors will just bring problems to the region. People will lose their land. The wealth passes by, but doesn’t stick in the region.”

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway in the Amazon. The opening of new ports, roads and railroads has major environmental impacts. In Mato Grosso, for example, where rainforest and extraordinary biodiversity once thrived, today one sees little except soy and the silos owned by transnational commodities companies. Image by Thaís Borges.
Map showing the extensive deforestation occurring in the northern part of Mato Grosso between 1986 and 2016, made largely possible by the opening of the region via newly built transportation infrastructure. In just 40 years, the advance of agribusiness has radically reduced forest coverage. Making the Northern Corridor fully operational will no doubt add intensify Amazon deforestation. Image by Maurício Torres.

Building on empty lands

While the Northern Corridor is an immense initiative, one building project points to the falsehood surrounding Dutch sustainability claims. Every map on which the Northern Corridor is drafted highlights Barcarena. This city, close to where the Amazon River meets the sea, is a key hub for soy export. But the hundreds of traditional communities found in Barcarena’s forests are missing on every map. One of these invisible communities is São Lourenço, where Mario Santos lives.

“Soy trader Bunge built a harbor on our beach in 2014. The company said that nobody lives here, but we have been here since 1838,” said Santos. Although his family has a land title, they have not being recognized as inhabitants by the Brazilian government. “We are being seen as invaders. In the past, we took our boats and entered the river via the beach. This is not allowed anymore [by the corporation]. If we want to fish we have to do it secretly, by night.”

A little way down the road, there is silence. Wooden homes with barricaded windows and trees with rotten mangoes beneath them, bear witness to the fact that until recently 196 families lived here. But the village has been wrecked, encroached on by high walls and barbed wire, marking the perimeter of the soy harbor known as Hidrovias do Brasil. Nearby, the river is dotted with ships waiting to pick up their cargo of soy. The Dutch consultancy Arcadis managed the harbor’s construction.

According to official environmental impacts assessments, the area where the village stands was uninhabited when harbor construction began, explained Marcel Hazeu, a University of Pará researcher who studied the matter. That’s because shortly before the port was built, the families were vigorously pressured to sell out by K.F. de Menezes Consultoria, a Brazilian company. Evidence of unfair coercion: 85 per cent of the families ended up selling their land for such low prices that they were never able to buy a comparable house elsewhere.

Information gathered from the Brazilian trade registry shows that the real estate firm is owned by Kleber Menezes, who is also Pará state’s secretary of transportation. Menezes also happens to own a soy harbor and a transport company.

Once the land was “emptied,” of people, Menezes’ company sold the property to Hidrovias. “The port company wants a clean piece of land, without inhabitants or judicial procedures,” the director told Hazeu.

Multiple interviews conducted by Hazeu with former inhabitants show that most no longer own a home, and they say they were vigorously encouraged to leave. Some moved deeper into the forest, others left Barcarena because it had become too expensive. “196 families have vanished from the map,” Hazeu concluded.

Arcadis responded to questions by saying it was shocked and disappointed at the news: “Arcadis’s passion is to improve the environment through the projects we execute,” said Joost Slooten, Arcadis’s sustainability director.

When Arcadis got involved in the project, Hidrovias had all the licenses required in place: “When environmental authorities grant a license, one can assume that the impacts have been analyzed? The licenses did not include any information on the allegations. Arcadis had no reason not to participate in the project,” said Slooten.

To prepare the land for mechanized agribusiness, the rainforest must first be cut, then the roots of the felled trees must be removed — a labor and time intensive process that small-scale farmers are often unable to afford. As a result, large-scale landowners often pay for the work, while also gaining control of the land for soy production. It is these elite soy plantation owners who  lobby for new transportation infrastructure in the Amazon. So it is that Dutch support for the Northern Corridor helps contribute to deforestation, labor injustices and inequity. Image by Thaís Borges.

A friendly international collaboration

“The people at the Dutch embassy have become real friends: we regularly get a beer together, and we celebrate King’s Day at the embassy,” Marcelo Prado told Mongabay. He is the director of ANTT, the Brazilian federal Agency for Terrestrial Transport, and he is very positive about the Dutch infrastructure collaboration. “We are in continuous contact with the embassy. In a number of projects we really work one-on-one, for example in improving the navigability of the Tocantins River.”

Prado’s enormous office includes a beautiful view out over Brasília, the capital city, and the walls are covered in large maps. He draws out the Northern Corridor on one of those maps. “We have used the Dutch studies to make these plans,” he explained.

Why is the Corridor so important? “Because soy traders think it is important,” Prado stated flatly.

Prado justifies the Dutch infrastructure plans as being sustainable because they will facilitate rapid soy transport, which will cost less money and require less fossil fuel. Together with Dutch companies, Prado developed plans for highly efficient transport. However, ironically, none of these plans are being realized. “The Corridor is actually being developed in an uncoordinated way; the [Brazilian] government has no control over it. All Dutch plans for efficient transport are on hold,” he said.

For Prado, the fact that the new ports, roads and railroads will impact thousands of square kilometers of rainforest and numerous indigenous and traditional communities, is a small but necessary price to pay for economic development. “The Ferrogrão (GrainRail) crosses no man’s land,” he asserted. “Yes, it does cross indigenous land, but the indigenous [people] do not use all that land. If we pay some compensation, I do not see any problem. The GrainRail is going to be developed, as long as the people do not disturb too much.”

Where savanna and rainforest once existed in Mato Grosso, now only soybeans grow. Brazilian ruralists continue to encroach on the Amazon rainforest with cattle ranches and soy plantations. The key to this expansion is new transportation infrastructure, which the Dutch government has been actively supporting for more than a decade, publically claiming that such construction is “sustainable” while privately understanding that it is not. Image by Thaís Borges.
Entrance to the Unitapajós soy harbor in Barcarena, partly owned by Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, once known as the “Soy King.” Minister Maggi is a huge supporter of transportation infrastructure development, especially industrial waterways, as his family’s company, Amaggi, stands to profit handsomely from the Northern Corridor initiative. Image by Karlijn Kuijpers.

Why does the Netherlands continue to stress the sustainability of the Corridor, while the ports, roads and railways will clearly and substantially increase deforestation and conflict? What does the Dutch embassy think of Prado’s vision of sustainability? The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs was unwilling to answer. An interview request was denied. A ministry spokesperson said that the questions are “an accusation towards Brazilian authorities,” and that “The Netherlands is fully aware of the problems and acts accordingly.” But it remains unclear what those actions are.

Internal documents, obtained by Platform Investico through a Freedom of Information request, reveal that the Dutch government is fully aware of the impossibility of aligning the road and harbor construction objectives in the Amazon with sustainability goals. An internal memo on the Corridor lists the risks in bullet points:

But for the Dutch ministry, these problems seem not to be a reason to stop its involvement, or revise its plans. On the contrary: “the Corridor does not only contain the above-described risks, but also offers enormous opportunities for the Netherlands to play a beneficial role in which sustainability plays a central role.” How the Netherlands will contribute to sustainability is never revealed in all of the more than eighty internal documents acquired and reviewed for this story. However, Dutch civil servants stress that, “the good relations with Brazilian partners should not be harmed.”

Roderick Wols, the Dutch deputy head of mission in Brasília, was in Belém in April to meet with Pará officials. He and his delegation likely discussed Dutch cooperation in the continued development of transportation infrastructure in the Amazonian state. Image found on Twitter.

One internal memo shows that the Netherlands views the deforestation, conflicts and corruption manifested by the Northern Corridor primarily as a public relations and reputation problem: “If these risks will prove to be reality, then the Netherlands will — given its involvement in this project — face major reputation damage with possible large economic and even political consequences.”

In a reaction to these revelations, the Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation Sigrid Kaag stressed again that the Netherlands contribute to the sustainable development of the Corridor. The Dutch Labor Party has requested a debate in parliament about Dutch involvement in the Northern Corridor. At that time, the city council of Amsterdam will have to answer questions on the role of the harbor of Amsterdam in the initiative.

For now, the government continues its efforts in Brazil. Roderick Wols, the Dutch deputy head of mission in Brasília, was in Belém in April to meet with the Industrial Federation of the State of Pará (FIEPA). Wols was there to explore possibilities for cooperation in TRANS2018, Para’s largest conference on logistics which will take place in June.

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The BR-163 on the outskirts of the town of Sorriso. The highway runs from Cuiabá in the south of the state of Mato Grosso, to Santarém in the state of Pará, and it was built primarily to handle the movement of soy. Without it, soy growers would have to transport  their crop along an expensive, lengthy southern route. Development of the Northern Corridor, with Dutch participation, would open Mato Grosso and Pará to intensified deforestation, as well as other environmental and social degradation. Image by Thaís Borges.
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