Soy invasion poses imminent threat to Amazon, say agricultural experts

Mongabay
February 8th, 2017
By: Sue Branford and Maurício Torres

ver 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.

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.

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.

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