- Prosecutors in Brazil say the findings from a Mongabay investigation were key to obtaining a court decision this week to probe the environmental impacts of pesticides used by oil palm plantations on Indigenous communities and the environment in northern Pará state.
- On Oct. 4, the Federal Circuit Court for the First Region in Brasília approved a forensic investigation into pesticide contamination and the socioenvironmental and health impacts in the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Territory and the production zone of the country’s largest palm oil operation in the Tomé-Açú region.
- The green light to carry out the expert report was finally issued eight years after the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) filed a lawsuit to hold palm oil company Biopalma — acquired by Brasil BioFuels S.A. (BBF) in late 2020 — accountable for environmental impacts.
- A 2017 University of Brasília study, contained in the Mongabay investigation, found traces of three pesticides (two of them typically listed among those used in oil palm cultivation) in the major streams and wells used by the Tembé people in Turé-Mariquita.
A Mongabay investigation into palm oil contamination in the Brazilian Amazon has helped federal prosecutors to obtain a court decision this week to scrutinize the environmental impacts of pesticides used by oil palm plantations on Indigenous communities and the environment in northern Pará state.
On Oct. 4, the Federal Circuit Court for the First Region in Brasília approved a forensic investigation into pesticide contamination and the socioenvironmental and health impacts in the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Territory and the production zone of the country’s largest palm oil producer Biopalma — acquired by Brasil BioFuels S.A. (BBF) in late 2020 — a long-awaited decision by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), which has been leading this legal battle for eight years.
“The Federal Public Ministry used your report. And it had an influence on the decision,” Felício Pontes Júnior, the federal prosecutor leading the case, told this reporter on Oct. 6 by phone. “Many judges seek information before judging, and your investigation was the most in-depth information that existed on the subject.”
In his ruling, Federal Judge Jamil Rosa de Jesus Oliveira, said that given possible health problems that palm oil production has caused to the Indigenous population, the forensic investigation requested by the MPF is necessary “to ensure the expertise of the effects of the application of pesticides used in oil palm monoculture in the streams and soil in the region in general, as well as in neighboring and bordering areas, and their effects on Indigenous people.”
Oliveira said this was a turnabout from a previous ruling denying the request under allegations that the MPF no longer had any interest in producing the evidence due to the fact that the object of the investigation had been exhausted. “The indication at this point is repeated situations of worsening health conditions of the local Indigenous people,” he said.
“The passage of time, far from making the expertise unnecessary, recommends it, in order to understand the state of facts and their effects on the health condition of the local Indigenous people,” Oliveira wrote of the case. “The anticipation of the required evidence is also important in the adoption of eventual precautionary and preventive measures for the environment, especially due to the perishing of the conditions of possible contamination of the waters, soil, and flora due to the passing of time.”
Pontes Júnior told Mongabay that the MPF has already reached the Instituto Evandro Chagas (IEC), a federal laboratory based in Pará he said is the best in Brazil to carry out the forensic investigation covering the whole hydrological cycle in the region for over a year.
In an emailed statement, BBF said it “will provide all the necessary support to carry out the expert report,” adding that the company was at the disposal of public bodies to provide “the necessary clarifications about such accusations, which date back to 2014, when the enterprise was managed by the former manager of the company Biopalma.”
BBF said it had a team specialized in monitoring and controlling its activities, including water and soil quality assessments, and monitoring the use of fertilizers in its plantations, whose information is used in reports of indicators issued by laboratories accredited by the National Institute of Metrology, Standardization and Industrial Quality in Pará.
Last year, Mongabay published an in-depth 18-month investigation revealing evidence of water contamination from pesticide use by Biopalma that has impacted not just the Tembé people of the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Territory in Tomé-Açú, but also in other Indigenous reserves, Afro-Brazilian Quilombola communities, ribeirinhos (traditional riverside communities) and small farmers. The investigation also unveiled other issues triggered by oil palm crops in the region: soil pollution, deforestation, scarcity of fish and game, along with health issues and social and land conflicts.
In 2019, Mongabay went to the Tomé-Açu region and heard countless claims from all these communities about issues in the aftermath of palm oil crops in the region.
“The oil palm only brought a lot of problems. First of all, it brought destruction of our fauna, our flora, our rivers,” Indigenous chief Lúcio Tembé said in 2019 as he looked out over the Turé River, close to the Turé-Mariquita reserve. “This water isn’t clean. But in the past we drank it. This river and the forest around it were like a supermarket for the population; it was where we fished, where we hunted.”
When contacted by this reporter on Oct. 6, Lúcio Tembé said the Indigenous communities still weren’t able to drink water from the river — they relied on water wells — because of the contamination. According to him, the situation was worse during the rainy season. “The Evandro Chagas [Institute] came here with the Federal Police last week and collected water [samples],” the chief told Mongabay in a phone interview.
A scientific study contained in the Mongabay investigation showed that even Turé-Mariquita’s groundwater had traces of pesticides.
A 2017 study authored by Sandra Damiani, a researcher from the University of Brasília, found traces of three pesticides (two of them typically listed among those used in oil palm cultivation) in the major streams and wells used by the Tembé people in Turé-Mariquita.
Among the pesticides found in surface and underground water in the reserve were glyphosate-based herbicides. Glyphosate has been shown to be carcinogenic and has been banned or restricted in more than 20 nations, although not in Brazil. Also detected in samples of surface water and sediments taken by the researchers was the insecticide endosulfan, a persistent organic pollutant banned in Brazil in 2010.
“This decision has to be celebrated,” Damiani told Mongabay in an audio message. She noted that her decision to do her research in the Turé-Mariquita followed the indication of “a series of very serious health symptoms” experienced by the Tembém people after 2010, when the palm oil companies were installed in the region.
“It was the first research in Brazil to show pesticide residues on Indigenous land surrounded by oil palm plantations,” she said. “For [at least] eight years this population has been subjected to a situation of exposure to multiple pesticides.”
Related listening: hear Mongabay’s reporter Karla Mendes discuss these issues along with researcher Sandra Damiani and federal prosecutor Felício Pontes Júnior on Mongabay’s podcast:
Editor’s note: The Mongabay investigation used by prosecutors in the court case won 2nd prize in the Society of Environmental Journalists Awards for Outstanding Investigative Reporting and 3rd prize in the Fetisov Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting.
Karla Mendes is a staff contributing editor for Mongabay in Brazil. Find her on Twitter: @karlamendes
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Damiani, S., Ferreira Guimarães, S. M., Leite Montalvão, M. T., & Sousa Passos, C. J. (2020). “All that’s left is bare land and sky”: Palm oil culture and socioenvironmental impacts on a Tembé Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian Amazon. Ambiente & Sociedade, 23. doi:10.1590/1809-4422asoc20190049r2vu2020l6ao
Kogevinas, M. (2019). Probable carcinogenicity of glyphosate. BMJ, 365, l1613. doi:10.1136/bmj.l1613