Soy Invasion Poses Imminent Threat to Amazon

Featured image: Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso. On the side of the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest once dominated, one sees little except soybeans and the large silos owned by transnational commodities companies. Photo by Thaís Borges

     by Sue Branford and Maurício Torres / Mongabay

Over the last 40 years the north of the state of Mato Grosso has profoundly changed. This far-reaching transformation — matched almost nowhere else in the world — is largely due to the rapid expansion of industrial agribusiness, particularly soybean production, which has destroyed huge swathes of savanna and tropical Amazon rainforest.

“There are certain regions, near Brasnorte [to the west of Sinop], for example, where you can look completely around, 360 degrees, and not see a single tree,” says anthropologist Rinaldo Arruda, a lecturer at the Catholic University (PUC) in São Paulo.

Map showing the extensive deforestation occurring in the northern part of Mato Grosso between 1986 and 2016. In just 40 years, the advance of agribusiness has radically reduced forest coverage. Map by Maurício Torres

There is much talk about the prosperity that agribusiness has brought to Mato Grosso state, but, according to Andreia Fanzeres, coordinator of the indigenous rights program at the NGO Opan (Operação Amazônia Nativa), the traditional communities, which had inhabited the region for centuries, were not consulted, nor have they benefited from the rise of soy: “The indigenous communities and the family farmers, rural communities in general, were always outside the decision-making process as to what type of development they would have”.

“Agribusiness blackmails the country”

Soybeans arrived in the state of Mato Grosso with startling speed: the area under its cultivation jumped from 1.2 million hectares (4,633 square miles) in 1991, to 6.2 million hectares (23,938 square miles) in 2010 and to 9.4 million hectares (36,293 square miles) in 2016.

According to Antônio Ioris, lecturer in human geography at the University of Cardiff, who has carried out research into the advance of agribusiness in Mato Grosso, the start of this growth period was heavily supported by the federal government’s agricultural research body, Embrapa: “New technologies developed by Embrapa produced solutions for the acidic [nutrient-poor tropical] soils and other problems. The farming sector went through a crisis in the 1980s. Then soy arrived and ‘rescued’ it”.

The large-scale meteoric expansion of soy came at the end of the 1990s, when, Ioris says, “it benefitted from both the [global] commodities boom and the liberalization of the [Brazilian] economy”. Soy production is highly mechanized, and works most efficiently on very large plantations, so that led to the concentration of land ownership in Mato Grosso state among a small number of wealthy companies and individuals.

Where savanna and rainforest once stood, now only soybeans grow. The Brazilian ruralista agribusiness lobby’s goal is for large-scale soy plantations to penetrate even deeper into the Amazon rainforest. Photo by Thaís Borges

Then as commodities like soy boomed on the world market, the Brazilian economy became increasingly dependent on the millions of dollars brought in by soy exports. Ioris explains: “This gave the [large-scale Mato Grosso] soy farmers enough political clout to demand the paving of the roads and the creation of further logistic support, including waterways.” He concludes: “Today agribusiness blackmails the country”.

Driving along the BR-163 highway through the largely depopulated Mato Grosso countryside, one sees evidence of the new bosses in the region — the multinationals, who sell the farmers their seeds and chemicals, and who buy the farmers’ produce. Rising above a sea of soy are the occasional soybean silos, emblazoned with the logos of the multinational commodities companies that now control the region: Bunge, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill.

There too are silos belonging to Amaggi, a powerful Brazilian commodities player. The Amaggi company was built by André Maggi and is now run by his family, including his son, Blairo Maggi. Once known as the “Soy King” and formerly the governor of Mato Grosso state, Blairo Maggi was chosen last year as Brazil’s agriculture minister by President Temer. Maggi’s rise in influence has paralleled the rise in power of the bancada ruralista, the industrial agribusiness lobby that today holds sway over much of the National Congress.

After accumulating a fortune through planting, processing and exporting soy, Amaggi has now joined the big players on the international market, cultivating a particularly close relation with Bunge, with which it jointly owns grain terminals in Miritituba, the new commodities port on the lower Tapajós River. The soy crop now flows by truck from north Mato Grosso down newly paved BR-163, to Miritituba, where the commodity is transferred to barges for the trip down the Tapajós to the Amazon River and on to foreign ports, especially in China.

On the side of the BR-163, one sees little except soybeans and the large silos owned by multinational companies, as well as those of the largest Brazilian soybean farming group, Amaggi. Much of the soy crop is bound for China. Photo by Thaís Borges

Agribusiness as usual

Some credit soy production with bringing “modernity” and “development” to Mato Grosso. Aprosoja, the soy farmers’ trade association, speaks of “the positive socioeconomic impact of soy farming”. It claims that for each person directly engaged in soy farming, another eleven jobs are created, “taking into account all the employment produced along the whole productive chain”. Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, when he was a senator for Mato Grosso state in 2012, told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper: “If it weren’t for soy, Mato Grosso would still be backward.… Today the soy farmer gets a 30 percent return on the capital he has invested.”

But for others, the 40-year soy expansion serves as just one more example in a long historical process in which the Brazilian rainforest has been cut down and rural indigenous and traditional populations disenfranchised — replaced by agribusiness monocultures owned by a very few who make the lion’s share of profit.

The sociologist José de Souza Martins, whose writings have become essential reading for Amazon scholars, showed that, while the military government in the 1970s spoke a great deal about attracting landless farmers to the Amazon (under the slogan “the land without people for the people without land”), powerful economic groups were the main beneficiaries of the money it poured into the region.

While the generals spoke of “occupying the empty land”, many large-scale landowners set up large cattle ranches that drove out many more people — including the “invisible” indigenous communities, rubber-tappers, and fisher folk — than they ever brought into the region.

Cândido Neto da Cunha, an agronomist employed by INCRA (the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform), believes that what is happening with soybeans now is, to a large extent, just a continuation of the military programs. “Though ‘development’ has replaced ‘national security’ as the ideological driving force, the state is creating the same negative social consequences — rural exodus, deforestation and precarious labor conditions — through its support for agribusiness.”

Land ownership concentration in just a few hands, caused by the arrival of industrial agribusiness in the region, even impacts lands that were once set aside for agrarian reform, creating tension between small-scale and large-scale farmers. Photo by Thaís Borges

Soy’s unlevel playing fields

In its march north, soy appears in some surprising places. One of these is at the Wesley Manoel dos Santos agrarian reform settlement, created by INCRA in 1977. Located 70 kilometers (43 miles) northwest of Sinop, this settlement exemplifies the serious challenges faced by Brazil’s small family farms.

The land was originally bought up by the Brazilian subsidiary of the German company, Mercedes Benz, at the end of the 1960s. According to research by Odimar João Peripolli, a lecturer at Mato Grosso State University, the company set up ten separate subsidiary companies to get around the legal limits on land ownership. Each subsidiary bought “40,000, 50,000 or even 60,000 hectares, so that in the end it [Mercedes Benz] had acquired about 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres). The whole large estate became known as Gleba Mercedes (the Mercedes Holding)”.

The company was able to use its clout as a large-scale landowner to gain hefty federal benefits, mostly tax rebates from SUDAM, the Amazonia development agency. This money was supposed to be invested into the land, but wasn’t, according to testimonies gathered by Peripolli. The company’s vast holdings were “never, effectively, occupied by the company.” Mercedes eventually sold Gleba Mercedes to a São Paulo company, which in turn sold it to INCRA, which created an agrarian reform settlement with plots for 507 families.

But it’s not easy for a small-scale farm settlement to compete economically in a remote region where the government is actively promoting large-scale agribusiness. Lacking sufficient federal technical assistance, the settlement’s 500+ families tried several survival strategies. In the beginning, they reared dairy cattle and sold milk and cheese in the town of Sinop. Though this was the nearest market, it still took three hours to transport dairy products there — and that was when it wasn’t raining.

The venture went well at first, but then ran into government obstacles. Settler Jair Marcelo da Silva, known as Capixava, relates how the small-scale dairy farmers were very careful with hygiene, because it was their principle to only sell products that they themselves consumed. However, their common-sense approach didn’t satisfy the authorities. “The food safety bodies don’t think like ordinary people, they think very differently”, says Capixava.

To prepare the land for mechanized agribusiness, the forest 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 largely gaining control of the land for soy production. Photo by Thaís Borges

The authorities made unrealistic regulatory demands on the small-scale farmers, and when they couldn’t satisfy those demands, the settlers were banned from selling their produce in Sinop. It was the end of their dreams. “I had six cows, from which I took on an average 90 liters of milk a day”, explains Capixava. “What was I supposed to do with this milk [if the federal authorities wouldn’t let me sell it]? What do you think? We gave it to the pigs! Just imagine that!”

The settlers tried rearing pigs and chickens, but once again they fell afoul of food safety regulators. Lacking any other income, some settlers trained to operate the sophisticated machines used by the large-scale farmers who had the money to comply with government health and safety rules. Others worked as day laborers. Women found jobs as maids in Sinop, leaving their husbands to look after the children.

In time, all attempts to use their land to earn a living were largely abandoned.

A sign welcomes drivers to the city of Sorriso, Brazil’s agribusiness capital. While soy production has brought prosperity and development to some in Mato Grosso, it has brought misery and poverty to others, including the indigenous and traditional people who lived here when the land was covered in rainforest and savanna. Photo by Thaís Borges

Partially republished with permission of Mongabay.  Read the full article at Soy invasion poses imminent threat to Amazon, say agricultural experts.

(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)

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