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Will the Amazon Rainforest become a commodity?

Construction of mega ventures in Amazonia for the export of soya puts communities, traditional peoples and the environment at risk



Almost two centuries ago two leading British naturalists and explorers, Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, spent three years studying animals and insects in the region of Lago do Maicá (Maicá Lake) in the municipal district of Santarém in the Brazilian Amazon. Despite hardship, the men revelled in what they called the “glorious forest”. It is estimated that by the end of their three years they had collected more than 14,000 species of animals and insects. It was part of a long and demanding trip that led eventually to the publication of Bates’s “The Naturalist on the River Amazons”, still regarded as a classic. So what would the men make of the recent decision by the Santarém Municipal Council to change their policies so that part of the lake can be turned into a private port for soya transhipment? We can only imagine what they would have thought. But in the last session of the year, on 11 December 2018, the Santarém Municipal Council hastily and secretively altered the final review of the Participative Master Plan (Plano Diretor Participativo – PDP), a legal document drawn up in accordance with the city’s statutes and approved after a participatory process involving Santarém civil society in November 2017. The aim of their lightning decision is to make it easier for companies to build private port complexes for soya transshipment on the Lago do Maicá. The decision invalidates months of discussions including work groups and audiences with representatives from the most diverse sectors – the business community, academics, public entities and social organizations – and it violates Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO). The holding of the special plenary session came as a complete surprise to traditional populations, inhabitants and social movements in Santarém and Amazônia. The big new port will be built in the Lago do Maicá region, an area of great environmental complexity, inhabited by traditional communities, fishing communities and around 400 Quilombola families. Altogether about 1,500 families live there. Maicá is an ecological sanctuary, a natural cradle for unique species of aquatic fauna and Amazonian bird life. Besides being a tourist attraction, the lake is also a source of income for the families who live primarily off fishing and provide about 30% of the fish consumed in the town.
Lake Maicá. Photo: Marcos Colón
Archaeologist Anne Rapp Py-Daniel of the West Pará Federal University (UFOPA) says he is worried about the impact of the passage of large ships on the lake:

Lago do Maicá is an extremely rich, but also very fragile, ecosystem with a large-scale geological formation dynamic [land fall, land in formation, drill holes, etc.]. The presence of large ships will provoke significant water displacement and alter the dynamics of the fluvial currents, and will lead to accelerated destruction of the lower wetlands, where many traditional communities live. Monitoring has already been carried out on the Madeira river, another wetland region, showing the harmful impact of ships and barges.

Furthermore, the Maicá region is extremely important for archaeology, as it houses the oldest known archaeological site in the municipality, Sambaqui de Taperinha, which is 8,000 years old. We also have a large number of more recent sites [between 2,000 and 500 years old] that are still being mapped, many of which are identified by traces of Terra Preta [dark, fertile, anthropogenic soil created by Amazonian indigenous communities]. On the higher ground we also have the presence of indigenous communities. The history of this region doesn’t stop there: Quilombola occupations have been present since the 19th century, with the addition of nine territories recognized by the Palmares Cultural Foundation on the banks of Maicá/Ituqui.

Lago do Maicá is an extremely rich, but also very fragile, ecosystem — Anne Rapp Py-Daniel of the West Pará Federal University

Centuries of History

Santarém is one of the oldest cities in the interior of Amazônia. Located in front of the meeting point of the Tapajós and Amazonas Rivers, it was founded by Jesuit priests in 1661, when the Portuguese were colonizing the region. Since then, Santarém has been a strategic production centre, commencing with the production of cacao, carrying on with livestock, extractivism, rubber, jute, and currently soya monoculture. Located 475 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, its geographical position is strategic for the flow of soya production, whether the crop arrives by road on the BR-163 or by barge on the Tapajós. It then travels along the Amazon river to the Atlantic. The building of the port zone in the Lago do Maicá region is part of the strategy of the region’s soya farmers and trading companies for the flow of grains from Mato Grosso up to the north of the country, more precisely through the Tapajós-Teles Pires axis. Pedro Martins, from Terra de Direitos, a human rights organization, observes: “Soya farmers appear to have started a process of usurping the lands of the rural dwellers. These farmers, generally arriving from other states, have begun to plant soya in large plantations in the region of the Santarém Plateau. This is how Embraps arose, through the arrival of soya farmers from the region of Mato Grosso, who want to facilitate the export of soya through Santarém, but also see enormous profit potential in the construction of ports in the region.”
Lake Maicá hydrographic basin
For Amazonian priest and activist, Edilberto Sena, the process began with the decision of Cargill, a multinational company, to build a terminal in 1999:

It saw that Santarém was a strategic place for cheapening the cost of soya exports from Brazil’s central-west region. Local politicians and even part of society mistakenly believed that the multinational’s port would bring jobs, income and development. But this was a trap for the population, for all it did was seriously harm Santarém society. The people living on the outskirts of the city – Pérola do Maicá, Área Verde, Jaderlândia, Jutaí and five others – are now going to have to deal with a massive new highway. As it will have the capacity to handle 800 trucks a day, you can imagine the number of accidents and other problems that will be created. If these populations don’t get organized, if we are not together with them in resistance, the destruction of our city will get worse, because the authorities have no respect for human life. This port of Embraps may be useful for the businesses but will bring serious harm to the environment and to the inhabitants of Santarém, as has already happened with the Cargill port.

Local politicians and even part of society mistakenly believed that the multinational’s port would bring jobs, income and development. — Edilberto Sena, Amazonian priest and activist
Three companies aim to build port complexes in the municipal district – Grupo Cevital, from Algeria, the CEAGRO company, and Embraps. The case of Embraps is significant, as the Environment Secretary of the State of Pará suspended its environmental license after a court action. The lawsuit arose when traditional peoples and communities living in the Lago do Maicá region, with the support of the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) and the State Public Ministry ( MPE), both independent state bodies, sued Embraps. Embraps’s environmental license has been suspended until it carries out a prior free and informed consultation with the Quilombola communities and other traditional peoples and communities that will be affected by the venture. Embraps appealed to the Regional Federal Court of the 1st Region (TRF1) but the injunction was maintained and the environmental license for the port remains suspended.
Santarém civil society approved the Participative Master Plan in November 2017 (photo by Daniel Gutierrez Govino)
The West Pará Federal University (UFOPA) carried out a study and produced a Technical Report on the deficiencies in the Environmental Impact Study (EIA) of the Lago do Maicá Transshipment Station, carried out by Embraps. Contrary to the Embraps study, the multidisciplinary team from UFOPA said the magnitude of the environmental and human damage would be such that, if it were not remedied, the fish and phytoplankton populations of Lago do Maicá would be at risk, with irreversible damage to human and non-human life in the region. Jackson Rêgo Matos, a lecturer in the Institute of Biodiversity and Forestry (Ibef/Ufopa), also has environmental concerns:

Our great concern about the construction of the port is not only with its impact on Lago Maicá, but what it will mean for the entire city of Santarém and the region of the Tapajós river as well. These areas, including the Alter do Chão beach, will have their landscapes negatively affected, by traffic congestion caused by both trucks circulating throughout the city as well as by convoys of barges in the river. This logistical movement will certainly mean more atmospheric, visual and noise pollution, as well as the loss of archaeological heritage, as Santarém is the oldest pre-colonial city in Brazil and houses one of the most significant archaeological sites in the Americas. It should also be emphasized that the Tapajós Basin is the fifth largest tributary basin in the Amazon and covers approximately 492,000 km2. This alone means that we must have public policies that guarantee the maintenance of this unique heritage for the enjoyment of the population. The mayor Nélio Aguiar says that the policies will create a source of revenue for businesses, as if this is enough to justify the disrespect that the councilors are showing for the constitutional formalities of the master plan constructed with popular participation. But this is not enough.

Our great concern about the construction of the port is not only with its impact on Lago Maicá, but what it will mean for the entire city of Santarém and the region of the Tapajós river as well. — Jackson Rêgo Matos, a lecturer in the Institute of Biodiversity and Forestry

Autonomous Voices

As was pointed out in a report in the Brasil de Fato website, the way of life of the communities living in the region is being endangered to achieve something that they don’t need – a shorter route for Brazilian soya to leave the country. With the construction of the port, it would be possible to reduce, by around 800 kilometers, the distance that harvests leaving Mato Grosso have to be transported by road for export, as currently most of the crops are taken south to the Port of Santos. If the crops were brought to the Port of Maicá in Santarém, the journey undertaken by the ships to reach Europe would be shortened by a week. However, according to Mário Pantoja, Quilombola leader in the region of Lago do Maicá, the voice of the local populations needs to be heard: “The main beneficiaries from the construction of the port are precisely big businessmen. People speak as if we are impeding progress, whereas really we are helping to promote sustainable development and progress. Why? Because we work with fishing. And, once the port is built, fishing is going to end.” This talk of progress is outdated in any case, says environmental activist, Father Guilherme Cardona. He points out that “this model of development is creating unsustainable cities when the dynamic we have today, all over the world, is how to create sustainable cities so that the population and development can go hand in hand.” Despite being presented as projects that will develop the region, the ports will negatively affect nine districts in the city, inhabited by traditional communities who now live in the urban area because public policies failed to protect them and they were evicted from their old homes. Dona Sebastiana, who fishes in the Lago do Maicá, says: “Nobody agrees with this [the creation of the port]. Because we need the lake. Because soon we won’t have any more fish to catch, because the land here will be reclaimed and the fish will disappear”. The same point was made by Quilombola João Lira: “The question is – why a port in the Maicá area? Who does it benefit? The people of the region? I believe it brings no benefits, zero benefits, to them”.
How long will the fish survive? (Photo by Marcos Colón)
Father Edilberto Sena believes it is necessary to consider the future of the Amazon region within the framework of the environmental, social and cultural threats facing the region with the virulent aggression of outside capital. He says: “The dispute for territory [land, forest, rivers, subsoil and people] is becoming more and more aggressive. Our region, the west of Pará state, is an example of what is happening all over Amazônia. We have a 70,000-hectare, soya crop invasion with the intensive use of pesticides. We have an invasion of grain ports for the export of soya from Mato Grosso. There are 23 ports either built or under construction on the Tapajós river, a 930 kilometre railway being planned to run between Cuiabá and Miritituba on the Tapajós river, and seven hydroelectric dams planned for the Tapajós river. Finally, the city of Santarém, a centre for all this exploration, is being occupied by 20 warehouses, which will expel inhabitants from the centre to the periphery.” How long will economic power corrupt the executive and legislative powers so that international laws are broken on behalf of an insignificant number of shareholders who do not respect the Amazonian biomes and people? How long will the Amazon rainforest be at the mercy of councilors, politicians and businessmen who formulate laws in the dead of night to harm society, assaulting communities, traditional peoples and the environment, and bring the devastating impact of the toxic monoculture of the soya bean, with the excuse of boosting the national trade surplus? We can be sure that Bates and Wallace would not have approved of the decision taken by the Santarém Council Chambers, After spending 11 years documenting the beauty of the tropics, Henry Bates said: “In the end, I was obliged to conclude that the contemplation of nature is not enough for human minds and hearts”. Or as Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha would later say, on describing the region during his visit in 1905, “The Amazon is the last page of Genesis yet to be written”. If it depends on Santarém’s councilors, all that remains of the last havens of the world’s biodiversity will soon be found only on the bookshelves in the records of the natural science books of Bates and Wallace.
  • Marcos Colón is Teaching Assistant (TA) at Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and Graduate Associate at Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE) of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; he is also the director and producer of Beyond Fordlândia: An Environmental Account of Henry Ford’s Adventure in the Amazon.

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