Amazon rainforest’s final frontier under threat from oil and soya
Celso Carlos has made a modest living for 10 years growing manioc and coconuts and rearing poultry on a few hectares of lowland in Brazil’s northern Amazon.
But three years ago, out of the blue, Carlos was told by an Amapá state judge that he had to move because his land had been bought by a businessman living more than 1,500 miles away in São Paulo. Within months, fences had been put up, and Carlos and other assentados, or settlers, had been forced off their land.
Carlos’s land – along with hundreds of thousands more hectares across Amapá state – is the new frontier of global agribusiness. It lies unused for now but will almost certainly be sold on and used for soya production. The ubiquitous crop, which is part of most western diets and feeds billions of animals, will most likely be shipped as animal feed to the UK from a new Amapá port.
Having swept through Brazil and much of Latin America, causing ecological and social devastation by displacing people, ripping up the savannah and driving forest destruction, soya is now poised to do the same in Amapá, Brazil’s least developed and most forgotten state, says Sisto Hagro, a Catholic priest.
reef marked for
reef marked for
Hagro, who works with the Brazilian Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) to defend peasant farmers’ rights, blames government corruption and greed for what he calls a massive land grab. The state, he says, is illegally redistributing land bestowed on it by the federal government and moving existing smallholders to promote large-scale agribusiness. It is then legitimising its actions by changing its laws, he claims.
According to CPT research, businesses and speculators have, in just three years, registered more than 1,000 plots, making up 828,000 hectares (2,045,160 acres) of land, which was earmarked by federal government for smallholders but not registered. All will be turned to soya or fast growing eucalyptus trees for export to Japan and elsewhere, he suspects.
“The land registered by outsiders has increased vertiginously in a few years. It is a massive state-sponsored land grab. No one knows. No one is doing anything,” he says.
He worries that violence and land disputes will follow the land grab, just as it did in nearby Pará state when the forests were felled and agribusiness moved in.
“Already there are murders. I fear Amapá will become like neighbouring Pará state. In five to 10 years, if this continues, all the land will have been redistributed to speculators and soya farmers. Deforestation, land conflicts and violence will increase dramatically,” Hagro warns.
But Amapá is under threat from much more than soya, say grassroots groups. Although nearly 70% of the land is protected for indigenous groups or conservation, its pristine forests and conservation areas are being opened up to dams, gold mining and mega-developments, say anthropologists and academics.
In the next 18 months, BP, Total and Brazilian oil companies are expected to start drilling off the Amapá coast. They have identified a potentially vast new oilfield, holding 15-20bn barrels.
The prospect of oil exploitation scares Amapá’s 4,000 fishermen and many indigenous groups, who depend on clean water for survival and food. The companies claim that drilling will have no impact on the state, and that any pollution will be carried away by currents, but locals strongly disagree.
Yanomami Silva, an indigenous Aika leader, has interviewed many old people and those from fishing communities. They know the currents bring pollution in from the sea because they find bits of rockets fired out into the ocean from the European space port in French Guiana, a few hundred miles north, that are swept back into the coastal mangrove forests by the tides.
“We know about the tides and the currents in the sea and rivers. We know how any oil spill could lead to enormous problems. We know the water has no boundaries, that it comes and goes with the tides,” he says.
“The companies say there is no risk, but our traditional knowledge tells us this is untrue. We have four very important rivers and the sea has a huge influence on them. Fish populations and mangroves take years to recover from any contamination. BP and Total come here, but they never tell us anything. They must talk to us.”
Giberto Iaparra, an indigenous leader from Etuahi village, says: “Total had one meeting and about 50 people came. But it was not exclusively for indigenous people. They did a presentation, but there were no questions and answers. Only six people had permission to talk. There was no real consultation with the villages.”
BP, in a statement to the Guardian, said it had held many meetings and that any oil spilt would most likely be carried away from Amapá towards the Caribbean. “BP has held 47 meetings, engaging with almost 500 stakeholders including indigenous leaders from the municipality of Oiapoque and further consultation is planned. BP has been working with Funai [National Foundation for the Indians] and the NGO Iepé in the area to ensure participation of indigenous leaders in the consultations,” the company said.
Total told the Guardian: “There is no reef or any sensitive ecosystem on the licences that we operate. [We are planning] two deepwater exploration wells. The first is located 28km and the second 38km away from the nearest reef element.
“The drilling activities will only begin when Total receives the environmental license from Ibama [the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources], which is still under approval. Total rigorously sticks to the industry’s best practices in terms of safety, well design, drilling and environment protection.”
Greenpeace, which is challenging the oil companies, said: “Drilling for oil near the reef will affect the whole state of Amapá and the Amazon region itself. Any spill will endanger the fishing, the forests and the indigenous peoples. Using the oil will increase climate change and threaten the forest.”
Anthropologists say Amapá’s plans to develop agribusiness, oil and soya will only add to the state’s massive social problems. “The companies say exploitation will not impact on Amapá, but people will still come in search of work. Migration cannot be controlled. Alcohol and drugs will follow. They will inevitably bring violence,” says Amapá University anthropologist Bruno Caporrino.
Macapá, the state capital, was last year named the world’s 48th most violent city, following rapid urbanisation. “There has been a population explosion. The city has doubled in size in seven years, but there is no sanitation or services. Indigenous peoples are now living on the boundaries of the city. Many have no health or education,” says Caporrino.
According to the city authorities, the state is the most urbanised in Brazil, with more than 75% of its people living in its two largest cities. But public services are almost non-existent following a 17% reduction in income caused by Brazil’s economic crisis.
“Illiteracy and child mortality levels are the highest in Brazil. Only 3% of households have sanitation, and fresh water is scarce. There are a lot of problems with contaminated waste. People have come to think this normal. But it’s not,” says Silvana Grott, a lawyer in the public prosecutor’s office in Macapá, who is investigating land grabbing and potential oil developments.
According to José Tavares, coordinator of Frente Favela in Macapá, which works in the city’s slums: “The growth of Macapá is now out of control. People are coming from all over Brazil but young people are being abandoned on the edge of the city. There is no policing, electricity or fresh water. People move easily into violence and drugs.”
Social and environment groups warn that Amapá is hugely vulnerable to social chaos. Poverty is already high, with one recent study showing that more than 55,000 of Amapá’s 750,000 residents live in extreme poverty. “If oil and soya are developed in the state, the problems will only grow. This is the new frontier of oil and agribusiness. Both industries threaten life, destroy the natural world and impoverish people. Neither is sustainable,” says Paulo Adario, Greenpeace’s campaign director for Brazil.
State senators do not expect soya and oil to have a great impact but admit they will provide few jobs. “An oil spill could devastate fishing for the 4,000 fishermen and cause scarcity, even hunger, in communities,” says senator and former state governor João Capiberibe. “We [want] renewable energy like solar, wind energy with low impact in nature.
“Soya does not generate the jobs we need, and there is not enough land to produce soya for export. But in recent years, family farming has greatly diminished. If people cannot survive in the countryside they will migrate to the edges of cities. Macapá is a city where violence came and settled. Today, the state of Amapá is paralysed and has no idea how to address this problem.”
Poverty, not soya or oil, is the greatest threat to Amapá, says Senator Randolfe Rodrigues of the Network Sustainability party. “We can expand agriculture without any deforestation. We do not need to clear an inch to stimulate local agriculture,” he says. “The financing of family agriculture and rural settlements in Amapá has been insufficient and inefficient. We do need a new model of development.
“But I am worried about violence. The engine of violence is poverty and extreme inequality. Without developing the local economy, with sustainability, we will not win this battle.”
Caporrino says: “Amapá is at breaking point. The poor are getting poorer. The big soya farmers are moving in. The government says, ‘Let’s bring in soya and oil, let’s build new roads and big dams, let’s make it easier to to deforest protected areas.’ It’s happening fast. Amapá is the last frontier. If it goes, the Amazon becomes even more vulnerable.”