Battle for the Amazon: Tapajós Basin threatened by massive development

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Foto: Ilustração: Foresti Design para The Intercept Brasil
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Brazil’s soy farmers, international commodity traders, and Brasilia want to turn the Tapajós Basin into an industrialized commodities export corridor, building dozens of dams, roads and a railway.


  • The Brazilian Amazon has systematically been deforested, dammed and developed by the federal government, river basin by river basin. The most recent to be so developed was the Xingu watershed. The next target, where road and dam construction has already begun, is the Tapajós Basin.


  • Plans by agribusiness and the government call for the paving of the BR-163 highway (almost complete); the building of a new railroad, nicknamed Ferrogrão or Grainrail (just given approval); and the building of the Teles Pires-Tapajós industrial waterway, requiring dozens of dams, plus canals.


  • As Mato Grosso soy plantations creep north deeper into the Tapajós region, agribusiness hopes to benefit from the rapid development of transportation infrastructure that will provide a cheap, fast northern road, rail and water route to the Atlantic for the export of commodities.


  • Indigenous groups, traditional river communities, environmentalists and social NGOs oppose the mega-infrastructure projects, which they say will bring deforestation, cultural disruption, and quicken local and global climate change. The conflict is over no less than the fate of the Amazon.



The Tapajós River Basin lies at the heart of the Amazon, and also at the heart of an exploding controversy: whether to build more than 40 large dams, a railway, roads, canals and port complexes, turning the Basin into a vast industrialized commodities export corridor; or to curb this development impulse and conserve one of the most biologically and culturally rich regions on the planet.


Those struggling to shape the Basin’s fate hold conflicting opinions, but because the Tapajós is an isolated region, few of these views get aired in the media. Journalist Sue Branford and social scientist Mauricio Torres travelled there recently for Mongabay, and over coming weeks hope to shed some light on the heated debate that will shape the future of the Amazon.


The cerrado — a vast tropical savanna rich in endemic species in Brazil’s central Mato Grosso state — was despised as worthless for farming for centuries. But over the last 15 years much of the biodiversity of this wide plain has been destroyed and, through the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, it has become the pride of Brazilian agribusiness, achieving the world’s highest levels of productivity.


Thanks in part to the Cerrado’s development, Brazil became the largest exporter of soybeans on earth in 2013 (though the US still produces more). Two years later, it achieved a 41 percent share of the global market, becoming very competitive with the United States.


But large-scale farmers in northern Mato Grosso are struggling to bring this bounty to market, as they are forced to truck their perishable harvest over hot, pothole-ridden roads via a circuitous 1,500-mile route to the Atlantic Ocean ports of Santos in São Paulo state, and Paranaguá in Parana state.


Agribusiness has three dreams for drastically reducing these high transportation costs: the paving of the BR-163 highway (linking the cities of Cuiabá and Santarém); the building of a new railroad parallel to that road (already nicknamed Ferrogrão, or Grainrail); and, most ambitiously of all, the building of the Teles Pires-Tapajós industrial waterway, a mega-infrastructure construction project requiring dozens of big dams, reservoirs, locks, canals and river ports.


Carlos Fávaro, president of Aprosoja, Brazil’s largest soybean cooperative, speaks glowingly of the Tapajós River as “Brazil’s Mississippi,” and as a “gift from God”.


Brazil, he declares, has been bequeathed by nature with the Juruena, Teles Pires and Tapajós rivers, which flow north and, when tamed, will allow for the transport of crops by barge and container ship from the country’s largest agricultural region in Central Brazil to the Amazon River and on to ports on the Atlantic Ocean — dramatically shortening and cheapening export routes to China, other Asian nations and European markets.


Of course, God has also graced the Tapajós Basin with staggering biodiversity — making it one of the most biologically rich regions of the Amazon. It is also home to a large number of indigenous groups and traditional river communities. These constituencies see a very different vision for the future.


They are destroying us”


The Third Juruena Vivo Festival, which took place in the town of Juara on the Juruena River in late October, provided a forum for voices of protest generally absent in Brasilia’s decision-making regarding the destiny of Amazonia’s rivers.


Three hundred participants gathered there, including representatives of the indigenous Apiaká, Kayabi, Munduruku, Manoki, Myky, Nambikwara and Rikbaktsa peoples; spokespeople from traditional river communities and peasant settlements; researchers and environmental NGOs.


A Munduruku Indian, Cândido Waro, with tears in his eyes, described how the dreams of Brazilian agribusinessmen are turning his home to nightmare: “Two large dams, [the] Teles Pires and Sāo Manoel, are being built on the very edge of our land. The dams are destroying our lives. The Teles Pires River is [now] dirty. Our children are dying of diarrhea. There are very few fish left. We didn’t want the dams but the government didn’t listen to us. They are destroying us.” Within weeks of the Juara meeting, an oil spill, possibly caused by construction on the Sāo Manoel dam, polluted the Teles Pires further, impacting indigenous villages.


Ironically, the Juara meeting, launched in rebellion against the industrialization of the Tapajós Basin — which the Indians see as just another callous act of colonialism — was occurring in the central square of Juara, beside the “Statue of The Coloniser”.


Erected in 2010, the big monument’s inscription reads: “our history began here because it was at this very spot that Zé Paraná and other members of Sibal [the Real Estate Society of the Amazon Basin] began their trek into the forest in the midst of the cinders of the first [forest] felling”.


Andréa Fanzeres, of the Operação Amazônia Nativa (OPAN), an NGO that works with indigenous groups, organized the October gathering. She told Mongabay that OPAN had deliberately chosen to hold the event in this square: “All the people who took part in the festival live here. They are people who have been made invisible, people who suffer prejudice, people excluded from urban life. It was really daring of us to bring these people to a public square, to a square called the Square of the Colonizers.”


The ongoing struggle to survive


The “history that began” alluded to on the Juara monument plaque is a story of Brazilian expropriation and exclusion that intensified thousands of miles to the south during the country’s infamous dictatorship period, lasting from 1964 to 1985. Zé Paraná and the Real Estate Society of the Amazon Basin were beneficiaries of the military government’s so-called land colonization program — created to provide “land for the landless” people living in the south by settling them in the Amazon.


The military government launched initiatives to encourage large companies to set up cattle ranches and colonization programs along the Transmazônica highway. It also divvied up swathes of land in the northern part of Mato Grosso state among just a few favored “owners’: Juara, for example, was given to Zé Paraná; Sinop to Énio Pipino; Alta Floresta to Ariosto da Riva; and so on.


These privileged “owners” in turn subdivided and sold small plots to peasant families who had been left landless in the south due to the government’s support for large-scale farming and its failure to carry out a national program of agrarian reform.


As the plaque inscription notes approvingly, those settlers “who began history” set about felling and burning the forest and planting crops. In the beginning, these colonizing families found everything hard — the alien climate, the soil infertility, lack of hospitals, and lack of government support. Many returned home but, as they say in the region, “the pig-headed remained”.