December 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news -- Associated Press:
A new variety of soybean developed by Brazilian scientists
to flourish in this punishing equatorial climate is good for
farmers, putting South America's biggest country on the verge
of supplanting the United States as the world's leading exporter.
But, to the horror of environmental activists, soybeans are
claiming increasingly bigger swaths of rainforest to make
way for plantations, adding to the inroads by ranching. The
Amazon lost some 10,000 square miles of forest cover last
year alone - 40 percent more than the year before.
In Querencia, cowboy-hatted ranchers recently transplanted
from Brazil's prosperous south rub shoulders with Amazon Indians
as streams of tractor- trailers kick up dust hauling fertilizer
in and huge tree trunks out. Nowhere is the doubled-edge thrust
of soybeans more apparent than in this dusty boom town on
the rainforest's southern edge.
"The farmers are cutting down everything to make way
for soy and that's good business for me," said Ivo de
Lima, a lumber man who moved here recently.
The paved highway petered out more than 100 miles back, but
roadside billboards still sprout across a landscape of interminable
green fields - proclaiming the presence of multinational agribusiness
giants like Cargill and Bunge.
"After cattle ranching, soybeans are the main driver
of Amazon destruction," said Roberto Smeraldi of Friends
of the Earth Brazil. "Today, we have lots of areas being
cut down by small holders with the idea of selling them to
soybean farmers and in other areas pasture is being converted
With soybean prices at a five-year high, thanks to a smaller-than-
expected crop this year in the United States, Brazilian farmers
are rushing into the jungle to take advantage of cheap land.
A bag of soybeans sells for about $11.85, allowing a good
profit because soybeans cost $6-$7.50 to produce, said Anderson
Galvao Gomes, director of the Celeres agricultural consulting
"The price would have to drop considerably for the expansion
to stop," he said.
The front line of the soybean advance is in Querencia, a
municipality of nearly 6,800 square miles that includes the
Xingu National Park - a near pristine slice of rainforest
where 14 Indian tribes live in much the way they have for
thousands of years.
Indians say the soybean boom is beginning to change all that.
"The soy is arriving very fast. Every time I leave the
reservation I don't recognize anything anymore because the
forest keeps disappearing," said Ionaluka, a director
of the Xingu Indian Land Association.
The area around Xingu lost about 500 square miles of forest
"Across the state, deforestation increased by 30 percent
between 2001 and 2002. This year, I don't know about the whole
state, but in the region of Querencia I believe the numbers
for deforestation will certainly grow," said Rodrigo
Justus Brito, director of forest resources for the state environmental
Indians fear deforestation will dry up the rivers that run
through the Xingu reservation and the chemicals used to keep
lizards and termites off crops will poison their fish.
Satellite photos reveal that the southern half of the 10,800-square-mile
reservation is almost completely surrounded by farm fields.
Environmentalists fear that is a picture of the Amazon's
Soybean producers are lobbying to pave roads through the
jungle and Cargill recently opened a major port in the Amazon
River city of Santarem.
Critics say that if left unchecked, soybean cultivation will
eventually eat up large swaths of rainforest and wreck the
Gov. Blairo Maggi of Mato Grosso state, who also is one of
the world's largest soybean producers, says those fears are
unfounded. He argues damage can be kept to a minimum if the
state's strict environmental rules are followed and he accuses
environmental groups of stirring unnecessary worry.
"Behind the environmental concerns are economic interests,"
Maggi said. "They are trying to impede or slow the growth
of Brazilian production."
Maggi said that ideally 40 percent of his state's 349,807
square miles will be devoted to agriculture and 60 percent
will be preserved.
He hopes that by the time he leaves office in 2007, Mato
Grosso will be producing 100 million tons of soybeans a year,
five times the state's current crop and equal to all of Brazil's
harvest in 2002.
The state does have strict environmental regulations as well
as Brazil's most advanced system for monitoring and preventing
Amazon destruction, but critics question whether they will
be enforced. The state remains Brazil's leader in agricultural
burning and forest fires.
There's no evidence that deforestation is drying up the Xingu
River or that pesticides have killed a single fish, but the
Indians say the soybean boom is just starting and they want
to protect themselves before it's too late.
"Our Xingu is not just what's here. It's a very long
thread, and when it rains the soy brings venom down the same
river that passes by our door," said Jywapan Kayabi,
a chief at the Capivara Indian village.
Kayabi said the effects of deforestation are apparent in
the region's rivers. In 1994, a large deforestation project
200 miles away muddied waterways and making it impossible
to fish in the traditional way with bow and arrows.
Indians also worry about the pesticides that come in large
drums with warnings not to reuse the containers and that steam
fumes into the air when poured out on the ground.
Brazil's federal environment minister, Marina Silva, says
soybean production doesn't have to spell the end of the rainforest.
"In Mato Grosso alone there are 12 million acres of
abandoned land," Silva said. "You just make an effort
to intensively use those areas that are already devastated
and avoid advancing into areas that still have forest cover."
Cheap land is one factor in the Amazon's soybean boom.
Jay Edwards, 46, an Indiana farmer, who manages an 11,115-acre
farm in Querencia for an American farm cooperative, said operating
costs in Brazil are about the same as in the United States,
but the land is considerably cheaper.
"You see your return about four or five years after
you clear the land," said Edwards, who arrived in 1994.
He said farmland cost about $40 an acre when he got here,
and today sells for about $650 an acre.
Environmentalists say that even with such farmland available,
uncleared forest is even cheaper, around $41 an acre, making
illegal deforestation especially tempting. (DB)