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Brazil’s Indigenous groups demand a voice in new soybean railway project

SourceMongabay

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  • The Ferrogrão railway project was conceived with a view to reducing transportation costs between the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Pará, where soybeans are one of the main export products.
  • The railway has been met with resistance from the region’s Indigenous peoples, who will be impacted by the socio-environmental risks associated with the project.
  • A study by the Federal University of Minas Gerais highlighted that the Ferrogrão railway line will cross several Indigenous territories in the Xingu River Basin, something that could see more than 230,000 hectares (568,000 acres) of rainforest lost to deforestation in Indigenous territories in the state of Mato Grosso by 2035; more than half of this would be in the Xingu Indigenous Park alone.
  • After the project was suspended by Brazil’s Supreme Court in 2021, it has since been marked as a priority by the current government and its future will be decided by the Court’s plenary session in May this year.
  • This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brasil team and first published here on their Brasil site on February 21, 2023. It has been translated into English by Matty Rose.

The resumption of work on the controversial EF-170 railway project — also known as the Ferrogrão — in the Brazilian Amazon has sparked demands for a proper consultation process from leaders of the Indigenous groups who will be directly impacted by the railway line’s construction. The same leaders have also stated that they will fight for reparations for the impacts being felt on their territory because of the project, even though it has yet to come to fruition.

The railway has a planned trajectory of 933 kilometers (580 miles) stretching from the city of Sinop, in the state of Mato Grosso, to Miritituba, in the northern state of Pará, a strategic region for the flow of agribusiness commodities that has seen high levels of deforestation. The Ferrogrão was highlighted as a priority project in the portfolio that the Brazilian government’s Ministry of Transport presented to the press Jan. 18.

During the press conference, Transport Minister Renan Filho stated the goal of increasing the size of the railway sector in Brazil’s transport system to 40% by 2035 from its current standpoint of less than 20%. Filho also told the press that he intended to change the regulatory framework for railways and to hold talks with Marina Silva, the environment and climate change minister, to “unlock” the Ferrogrão project.

Marina Silva, the environment and climate change minister, to “unlock” the Ferrogrão project.

Recent debates about the positive economic impacts that the Ferrogrão project could have on regional logistics have been accompanied, however, by renewed warnings about the socio-environmental risks of this megaproject, especially in the territories of the Kayapó, Munduruku and Panará Indigenous peoples. The proposed route of the Ferrogrão runs parallel to another infrastructure project with a controversial history, the vast BR-163 highway, stretching from southern Brazil to the northern city of Santarém.

Proposed trajectory of the Ferrogrão/EF-170 railway line (in yellow).

Deforestation could lead to $1 billion in losses, study warns

policy brief by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) detailed how the Ferrogrão railway line will cut through the middle of a number of Indigenous territories in the Xingu River Basin, and with it caused severe socio-environmental damage. The authors of the study also highlighted the impacts on the Tapajós River Basin, another key area for the protection of water resources, rainforests and the traditional populations of the Amazon region.

The researchers also warned that impact assessments for the Ferrogrão project must also take into account the fact that plans for other infrastructure projects in the region have been put forward. These include the construction of a transshipment terminal in Matupá, Mato Grosso, a bridge over the Xingu River and the paving of a stretch of the MT-322 highway, which runs close to the northern border of the Xingu Indigenous Park.

Heavy traffic of vehicles transporting soybeans in the area surrounding the park “will not only increase pressure on forested areas being made available for agriculture,” but would surely also “accelerate the invasion, and consequently the deforestation, of Indigenous territories in the region,” according to the study.

“In the event of the Matupá transshipment terminal also being implemented, economic losses from CO2 emissions from deforestation would be in the range of US$1 billion (US$10/ton CO2) for the Indigenous territories alone,” the experts working on the study warned. The study estimated that the construction of the Ferrogrão railway line would lead to the loss of more than 230,000 hectares (568,000 acres) of land on Indigenous territories in Mato Grosso by 2035. More than half of this would take place in the Xingu Indigenous Park alone.

“Added to this is the reduction in annual rainfall that in some regions has already fallen by 48%, with this leading to reduced agricultural productivity and reduced power generation from the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, which could fall to 25% of maximum capacity,” the study added, as well as the major risks of “an incalculable loss of ecosystemic services and the rich socio-biodiversity of the region.”

The implementation of the Matupá terminal could potentially lead to the splitting up of contiguous blocks of well-preserved rainforest in the Xingu Indigenous Park and the Capoto Jarina Indigenous Territory, something that has led the researchers to warn that “any environmental impact analysis of the Ferrogrão project should consider the entire zone of influence of the enterprise, not just the 10 km [6 mi] on either side of the line.”

The latest warnings added ballast to those from another UFMG policy brief, from 2020, which at the time already drew attention to the socio-environmental risks that the Ferrogrão railway would entail and reiterated the need to respect the consultation rights of Indigenous peoples.

Kokoba Mekrãgnotire, leader of the Indigenous village of Mekrãgnoti Velho, during a protest that blocked the BR-163 highway in August 2020. Image courtesy of Instituto Kabu/divulgação.

“I want to see if they’ll lay the tracks over our heads,” Kayapó leader states

In an interview with Mongabay that took place in the final weeks of ex-President Jair Bolsonaro’s government, Doto Takak-Ire — an Indigenous leader from the Kayapó Mekrãgnoti people and head of public relations at the Instituto Kabu — said that a lack of dialogue with Indigenous groups by public officials had characterized the Ferrogrão process as a whole.

“We’re not against development. All the government needs to do is obey the law,” Takak-Ire said. A hearing held at the Brazilian Congress’ lower chamber in December gave Indigenous leaders whose people will be affected by the project the opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to fight the project. “As I said at the hearing, if the Supreme Court justices decide to push the Ferrogrão process forward, we will fight it. We’re going to have to create a village right in the path of the train’s route. Then I want to see if they’ll lay the tracks over our heads,” Takak-Ire said.

The Kayapó leader added that efforts have focused the demand for the right to consultation, which is enshrined by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), of which Brazil is a signatory, in cases where territories belonging to traditional populations are affected by works such as those of the Ferrogrão project.

Since the project was first conceived in 2017, there have been issues with the consultation process. Takak-Ire recalled how public hearings have even been suspended by the indigenous peoples who were not consulted before the events were held. He also recalled how Alexandre Porto, president of the public hearing held in Brasilia in December 2017, promised to the Kayapó Indigenous leaders of the Baú and Mekrãgnoti Indigenous territories that there would be prior consultation, as the ILO’s Convention 169 stipulates. “But that still hasn’t happened,” the Indigenous leader said.

In June of that same year, Kayapó leaders had sent a letter to the Transport Ministry to bring attention to the Indigenous rights that are enshrined and guaranteed by this international framework, which had yet to be fulfilled.

Doto Takak-Ire, Indigenous leader of the Kayapó Mekrãgnoti people. Photo courtesy of Raissa Azeredo/Instituto Kabu.

Mistakes of the BR-163 must not be repeated with the Ferrogrão

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José Boeing, a priest, activist and member of the Center for Human Rights and Advocacy of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesiastical Network (REPAM-Brazil) has warned that, in the case of the Cuiabá-Santarém stretch of the BR-163 highway, the interests of powerful economic actors hold sway, in detriment to the voices of the traditional peoples and communities that have been impacted by the construction of the highway. Reparations for the damage to their territory and way of life have never been paid.

Boeing has worked as a lawyer, missionary and representative of REPAM-Brazil on the Campaign for the Self-Protection of Threatened Communities and Leaders — “Life on a String” (A Vida por Um Fio), as well as actively monitoring countless human rights violations in the region. He said he feared the same mistakes that were made in the construction of the BR-163 highway will be repeated with the Ferrogrão project, “because the economic vision has prevailed in the debate about the railway, despite the strong resistance of Indigenous peoples.”

Boeing argued that the Amazon region needed to pursue a different developmental model, one that holds the natural world and the culture of the region’s peoples as factors that are able to generate long-term socio-economic progress. “This railway line is going to create an export corridor that will only benefit the agribusiness industry. And agribusiness is not sustainable,” Boeing said.

Melillo Dinis do Nascimento, a lawyer from the Insituto Kabu and a representative for a number of other organizations in the Ferrogrão case, has said that this new infrastructure proposal “must not repeat the tragedy that the BR-163 was.” He argued that the Ferrogrão railway project “does not stand up from either an economic or engineering standpoint because it is being built upon Indigenous territories.”

“At the Instituto Kabu, we argue that the law should be enforced. We can’t agree with this latest mistake in the Amazon in order to serve the interests of commodity producers,” do Nascimento said.

Representatives from the Kayapó Indigenous people during a protest in August 2020; on that occasion, Indigenous protesters blocked the BR-163 highway, demanding their right to consultation over the Ferrogrão project. Photo courtesy of Fernando Sousa/Instituto Kabu.

The reasons behind the suspension of the Ferrogrão process by Brazil’s Supreme Court

In March 2021, Alexandre de Moraes, the Brazilian Supreme Court justice, granted an injunction in the Direct Action of Unconstitutionality (ADI 6553) filed by the Socialism and Freedom Party (Psol), thereby suspending the effects of a piece of legislation (Law 13,452/2017) that proposed the removal of 862 hectares (2,130 acres) from Jamanxim National Park, in the municipalities of Itaituba and Trairão, in the state of Pará, in order to allow the passage of the Ferrogrão railway line.

Since then, any cases involving the proposed railway line have been paralyzed and will remain so until the process is judged in the Supreme Court’s plenary session. Scheduled for May 31, the referendum could unlock ongoing lawsuits.

Moraes accepted the arguments put forward in the Direct Action of Unconstitutionality, namely that the park’s boundaries could not be altered by using a law that originated from a piece of provisional legislation from former President Michel Temer’s administration (Provisional Measure 758/2016), which caused great controversy at the time.

“We went all the way to the Supreme Court because we had exhausted all avenues for dialogue. And we are confident about the vote because the Supreme Court has proved itself to be a serious defender of Indigenous rights,” do Nascimento concluded.

A meeting held by the Kayapó Indigenous people in the Kubenkokre village, in the Menkrãgnoti Indigenous Territory, in the state of Pará. Photo courtesy of Instituto Kabu/divulgação.

Lawsuits already filed by Federal Public Ministry against the Ferrogrão project

Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry (MPF) has confirmed that two lawsuits were filed in Pará relating to recommendations and technical notes on the Ferrogão project. In both cases, the courts have ruled in favor of “paralyzing the concessions of the railway due to insufficient socio-environmental studies and because the Ferrogrão project can only be discussed if the Indigenous consultation protocols are respected.”

Appeals were lodged against these court decisions, and the processes are awaiting judgment. “One of them is on hold until the Supreme Court reaches a final decision on the process related to the ADI 6553,” the Pará branch of the Federal Public Ministry stated.

According to the Federal Public Ministry, “the Federal government has been disregarding the Constitution and a series of laws, norms and treaties.” Furthermore, “the disregard for the right of Indigenous people to free, prior and informed consultation and consent from the initial planning stage onward has caused the costs of the project to be underestimated.”

The federal body also highlighted that “reports published by the National Land Transport Agency (ANTT) in 2020 indicated that, if implemented, the Ferrogrão project would affect 48 Indigenous territories and other conservation units, causing a series of synergistic and cumulative impacts on biodiversity and local populations.”

The Federal Public Ministry’s statement to Mongabay’s reporters concluded by underlining that “the ANTT promised the Indigenous people [of the region] that it would respect the right of ethnic groups to free, prior and informed consultation and consent; however, not even an initial consultation was carried out.”

Speaking via its communications team, the ANTT told Mongabay, “The process [of the Ferrogrão project] has gone through extensive social participation, with a number of in-person sessions.” It also stated that “the social participation process specific to Indigenous people will be carried out in the environmental licensing phase.”

Over the course of the social participation process, the agency said, subsidies and adjustments relating to the project were made, and the documents related to the public hearings held in the cities of Cuiabá, Belém, Sinop, and Brasília were available online. “Following this, the Concession Plan was approved by the Ministry of Infrastructure and sent to be analyzed by the TCU on July 10, 2022.”

Although the aforementioned consultation with Indigenous peoples, based on the guidelines of ILO Convention 169, is scheduled to take place, “it will be necessary to wait for the regularization of the process with the Supreme Court, for the subsequent resumption of the licensing process with IBAMA [Brazil’s environmental agency], [and] for the continuation of the Environmental Impact Study of the Indigenous Component, where the procedure established by Funai [Brazil’s federal agency for Indigenous affairs] and IBAMA should be followed,” ANTT said.


 Main image: Representatives from the Kayapó Indigenous people during a protest in August 2020; on that occasion, Indigenous protesters blocked the BR-163 highway, demanding their right to consultation over the Ferrogrão project. Image courtesy of Fernando Sousa/Instituto Kabu.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brasil team and first published here on their Brasil site on February 21, 2023.