- The Ferrovia Paraense (FEPASA) railway if fully completed would run 1,312 kilometers (815 miles) from Santana do Araguaia in southern Pará, along the state’s eastern border, to the port city of Barcarena on the Amazon River. It could carry 80 million tons of mining ores and agribusiness commodities annually.
- In 2019, Pará state signed a memorandum of understanding with the China Communication Construction Company for a R$7 billion (US$1.4 billion) investment to fund the building of 492 kilometers (305 miles) of the railway, from Marabá to Barcarena. Construction is currently expected to start in 2021.
- But that plan could be delayed by resistance from Indigenous and traditional communities who say they’ve yet to be consulted on the project, as required by international law. FEPASA and Ferrogrão (Grainrail) will integrate Pará into Brazil’s vast rail network, greatly aiding export of Amazon commodities to China.
- A letter from the Amazon communities to Pará’s government accused it and its allies of “forcing on us a development model that does not represent us, that is imposing railways,… expelling people from their lands, ending our food security, destroying our people, destroying our cultures,… and killing our forests.”
“We are witnessing a large-scale cleansing of territory in the state of Pará,” says Guilherme Carvalho, program coordinator at the Federation of Social and Educational Assistance Organizations (FASE), an NGO which has been active in the Amazon for many decades. According to him, judicial orders are being issued to evict peasant families from their lands “to make way for a complex of logistic projects that will facilitate the expansion of transnational mining and agribusiness.”
The chief infrastructure project referred to by Carvalho is the Ferrovia Paraense (FEPASA), a planned railway that, if fully completed, would run from Pará’s forested interior along the state’s eastern border and is intended to carry mining ores and agricultural commodities to the Amazon River Estuary for export.
China is poised to provide much of the capital needed to launch FEPASA. At the end of 2019, Pará State Governor Helder Barbalho signed a memorandum of understanding with the China Communication Construction Company for R$7 billion (US$1.4 billion) in investment funding to pay for the construction of the first 492 kilometer (305 mile) section of the railway, from Marabá to Barcarena.
At the time, Barbalho declared: “We have Brazil’s largest mineral deposits and with these investments, we will develop the logistics and the competitivity of the state.”
Since then the proposed railroad has been fast tracked: At an event organized by the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper in October 2020, Barbalho announced that work on the first stretch of FEPASA should begin in 2021, an optimistic prediction given that international and Brazilian law requires that affected Indigenous and traditional communities must be consulted in advance of construction.
If fully completed, the railway as originally conceived would run 1,312 kilometers (815 miles) from Santana do Araguaia in southernmost Pará to the port city of Barcarena on the Amazon River. But the Pará State Government’s Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainability (SEMAS) told Mongabay that the project was recently reformulated, with changes made in the planned route to reduce impact, and that for the moment only the initial stretch from Marabá to Barcarena was going ahead, with the distance of that stretch of railroad increasing from 492 kilometers (305 miles) to 515 kilometers (320 miles).
According to preliminary official studies, the new railway will transport 80 million tons of mineral ores and agricultural commodities annually. Half its freight will be composed of iron ore, as the rail line serves mining companies exploiting the huge mineral reserves in the Carajás Sierra, near the city of Marabá. The remaining freight is expected to include bauxite (30%), grains and fertilizers (14%), cellulose (3%), and oil from oil palm plantations (3%).
Brazil now part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative
FEPASA represents one of the first concrete examples of Brazil’s inclusion in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious nearly trillion dollar plan — the biggest infrastructure program in history — to integrate China’s supply networks worldwide, at potentially great threat to global forests and biodiversity.
This initiative, reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road, was launched in 2013, and at first conceived to connect China with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa via new roads, railways and ports. The decision in 2018 to extend the initiative to South America came as Brazil emerged as a crucial supplier of China’s essential commodities, including soy, beef and mineral ores. The China Communication Construction Company, a majority state-owned company, has been widely contracted around the world by the Chinese government as an investment tool for implementing the Belt and Road Initiative.
Also crucial to Pará state’s inclusion in Belt and Road is Ferrogrão (Grainrail), a 1,142 kilometer (709 mile) rail line that, when built, will connect grain-producing midwestern Brazil (especially Mato Grosso state) with the Tapajós River, a major tributary of the Amazon River. According to Brazil’s Ministry of Infrastructure, the concession for this railway is expected for approval in 2021, with China a top runner for the construction contract. Grainrail is regarded as a governmental priority and, to ensure it goes ahead, the Ministry announced this month that it would make available up to R$2.2 billion (US$462 million) to the company that wins the concession for what it called “non manageable risks.”
Once both these railroads are operational, active Amazon rail export corridors will exist on both the east and west sides of Pará, with both railroads also linking up with the national network. FEPASA and Ferrogrão represent key stages in the creation of a vast integrated Brazilian rail network, crisscrossing the Amazon Basin and able to efficiently and economically move the biome’s mineral and agribusiness commodities to market.
This Amazon transportation infrastructure network has long been a dream of both the Brazilian government and transnational companies. However, it may not come about as quickly as hoped, due to resistance from social movements and environmentalists, who fear FEPASA will gravely impact the Amazon rainforest and the people who live in it.
Social and environmental costs
Brazil ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 in 2004, requiring that large infrastructure projects like FEPASA only legally go ahead with the “free, prior and informed consultation” of impacted Indigenous and traditional communities. In the past, Brazilian authorities have often ignored this requirement, or conducted only cursory consultations, without legal repercussions.
But in recent years, Amazon communities have become more aware of their rights, and more vociferously demanded they be consulted. Ever since hearing of the planned railway, Indigenous, quilombola (Afro-Brazilian descendants of runaway slaves), ribeirinho (traditional riverine), and peasant communities have asked for this consultation.
In 2017, they wrote a strongly worded letter to the Pará government complaining of their exclusion from the FEPASA planning process. In it, they wrote:
We denounce the Brazilian state, the state government and its allies, which are forcing on us a development model that does not represent us, that is imposing railways, ports, waterways, hydroelectric dams, expelling people from their lands, ending our food security, destroying our people, destroying our cultures, contaminating our rivers and streams, polluting our soil and killing our forests in the name of a neoliberal project that is imbued with a concept of progress based on the unlimited exploitation of common goods.
The Defensoria Pública do Brasil, an autonomous institution created to defend the fundamental rights of the country’s people, launched legal proceedings in Pará state’s Audit Court on behalf of these communities.
The Pará state government claimed that Indigenous territories and protected areas would not be affected by the railway, as they were located more than ten kilometers (6.2 miles) away from the planned route, and also that it would pay compensation to the few quilombola communities, some with titles over their land and some without, and the few agrarian reform settlements situated closer.
However, Johny Giffoni, a lawyer with the Defensoria Pública, rejected what he saw as an arbitrary distance limit, telling Dialogo Chino: “Does water respect ten kilometer [limits]? Does air respect ten kilometers? Does contaminated land respect ten kilometers?” Critics note that the new railroad could provide access to vast stretches of rainforest and rural communities that are currently remote to loggers, mining companies and agribusiness — potentially transforming much of Pará.
In May 2019, Julival Silva Rocha, who was then presiding over the Audit Court, supported some of the communities’ demands. After noting “the total ignorance of traditional communities” in the detail of the planned railway, he determined that public hearings should be held.
Some changes are underway as a result of the ruling. In a note sent to Mongabay, the Pará State Government’s Secretariat for the Development of Mining and Energy (SEDEME) said that it had commissioned new environmental impact studies to take into account changes in the railway’s route to reduce impact. It explained: “With respect to Indigenous peoples, the route always ran much further than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from their land; with respect to traditional communities, the improvement in the project has reduced even further the areas indirectly affected by the work.”
It continued: “Once the studies are completed, it will be possible to identify which communities will be heard.” SEMAS said that it would be organizing new public hearings to consult the affected communities.
It is too early to tell whether these hearings will involve the kind of consultation the communities are calling for, in which their views are not only heard, but also can affect and shape the project. In the past, communities across the Amazon have declared themselves very unsatisfied with the way public hearings have been conducted.
Greater socio-economic inequality
The new railway would undoubtedly reduce the transportation costs of big national and transnational companies operating in Amazonia, thus increasing their competitivity on the world market. But evidence suggests that, unless wide-ranging consultations are carried out with local communities, and the project modified to assuage concerns, the railway could cause great environmental damage, plus economic and social harm to the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on healthy forests and clean waterways.
The vital importance of intact Amazon rainforest to local communities has been documented. The agronomist Raul Chucair told Brasil de Fato in November 2019 that he had studied the economy of Abaetetuba, a Pará municipality lying east of Barcarena. He investigated 13 Agroextractivist Projects, that is, settlements in which traditional populations are permitted to exploit forest resources sustainably. He estimated that agroextractivist activities in those settlements in 2014 brought in an income of R$36.6 million (US$16.6 million) — of which the collection of açaí, a palm berry, used to make a popular drink, contributed R$20.4 million (US$9.2 million); and fishing contributed R$8.3 million (US$3.8 million). These are important revenue sources for Abaetetuba families.
Historical cases suggest that, once Amazon railroads are built, it is difficult to curb the harm they do. For example, the 892-kilometer (554-mile) railway built in 1985 to transport iron ore from the giant Carajás iron mine to the port of São Luís in Maranhão state caused numerous socio-environmental problems. One study, carried out by the Center of Mineral Technology (CETEM), part of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, found that extensive deforestation occurred along the railway. Once deforested, that “area became an object of real estate greed, fed by the interest of ranchers and reforestation companies,” researchers wrote. “Land grabbing and attempts to take over Indigenous territory gained momentum.”
Riverine communities are also fearful that greatly increased rail shipments, moving from Pará’s interior to Barcarena on the Amazon River (with transhipment there onto ocean-going vessels for export) will increase the risk of industrial spills and accidents.
Many in Barcarena remember with horror the sinking of the Haidar on the Pará River in 2015. The vessel was carrying 4,965 live head of cattle for export to Islamic countries, which require cattle be slaughtered according to the halal tradition.
With the foundering of the boat, all the cattle died. Some 700 tons of fuel also ended up in the river. “It was like a horror film, with beaches full of rotting carcasses,” said the owner of a riverside bar, who preferred to speak anonymously. His tavern and restaurant saw heavy financial losses for many months after the accident, as people didn’t want to eat fish from the river, he said.
“What we get left with is financial loss, illness, death,” said Maria do Socorro, a Barcarena resident. She said that infrastructure-impacted traditional populations would carry on with their struggle to defend their rights.
“As the pollution from the mining scares off the fish, fishermen have to travel out of the bay into the [Amazon] River in search of fish, and then they risk being killed in an accident with a large vessel, a barge or a tugboat,” added Osnildo Cardoso.
Flávio Magno, another community leader in Barcarena, noted that the collapse of traditional livelihoods and the coming of industrial infrastructure had other impacts: “I often see young girls, just 15 or 16 years old, going down to the ports at night to work as prostitutes.”
All of this has led citizens to ask what kinds of progress the government is promoting with its big infrastructure projects, including the FEPASA railway. The collecting of açaí, fishing for river shrimp, and making of cassava flour “don’t damage the [natural] system,” notes Paulo Feitosa, from the Ribeirinhos Social Movement in the Pará River basin. But “What kind of development is this that kills rivers, people and livelihoods?” So far, the government has not consulted with him to answer that question.
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