DO ANFRIZIO, Brazil, August 22, 2004 -- CropChoice news,
KEVIN G. HALL, Knight Ridder Foreign Service, 08/21/04:
A stranger armed with a 12-gauge shotgun marched
in and set up his tent inside Francisca Soares' little
dirt-floored house on the bank on this remote tributary
of the Amazon River.
The stranger is a land squatter, and his presence is
the beginning of the end for a jungle teeming with wild
monkeys and macaws.
If experience is any guide, within a decade the jungle
that surrounds Soares, a 70-year-old grandmother, will
be transformed into millions of acres of soybeans growing
in fields as tame as those found in Kansas or Minnesota.
These 32,000 square miles of virgin rainforest, called
Terra do Meio — Middle Lands — is the last
ecologically pristine zone in the Amazon's eastern basin.
But Tarcisio Feitosa, the head of the Altamira office
of the Pastoral Land Commission, or CPT, a social welfare
arm of the Roman Catholic Church, believes the Middle
Lands are as marked for development as a jaguar in the
scope of a hunter's rifle is for death.
"What you're seeing is how the process of deforestation
and occupation begins," he said.
"The first thing is you expel the local inhabitants
… with intimidation and the power of weapons,
and then you open some paths in the forest to claim
your areas," he continued. "Then comes slave
labor, plus deforestation, plus illegal logging. It
is a coming together of ills that happens in sequential
The squatter who seized Soares' house works for a mysterious
Dr. Celso — his last name is unknown to locals
— who's betting that a dirt road through the thick
jungle about 30 miles from Soares' home will soon be
paved. If that happens, soybeans will be much easier
to market, and land values will soar. In the meantime,
Dr. Celso's squatters are taking over jungle land by
the cheapest possible method: seizing it at gunpoint.
It's hard to imagine the remoteness of the Amazon jungle
area that's drawing speculators. The nearest streetlight
and doctor are about 300 miles away in the riverfront
town of Altamira. Getting there takes two days in a
boat with a 40-horsepower outboard motor. By the ferries
that Soares and most other people use, it takes a week.
Yet teams of squatters, whose only claim to the land
is their audacity, are measuring and marking plots for
private sale here. You can buy Middle Lands rainforest
on the Internet, if you're not put off by Web sites
stating that no land title comes with the sale. The
ads stress that the land is flat. Translation: Ideal
for soybeans. Jungle acreage worth $50 a year or two
ago now sells for $200.
It doesn't seem to matter that the land involved is
government-owned and slated to become an ecological
preserve. In fact, most steps entailed in claiming,
clearing and developing Amazon jungle land are illegal.
What matters is that the new squatters are heavily armed
"Man, even the cook had a gun," said Jose
Pereira do Nascimento, 13, after he was detained briefly
at an encampment of men protecting a clandestine landing
strip a day's paddle from Francisca Soares' riverbank
home. Illegal mahogany loggers cut the strip out of
the jungle four years ago, locals said, but it was taken
over by soy-minded squatters in a recent gun battle.
The Brazilian government in April reported that between
August 2002 and August 2003, jungle equal in area to
the state of Vermont was lost to development. Since
the mid-1970s, an area more than one and a half times
the size of California has been deforested — about
16 percent of Brazil's Amazon rainforest.
The planet's ability to absorb carbon dioxide and resist
global warming also is threatened by the jungle's clearing,
as are species of plants and living organisms yet undiscovered.
Afonso Alves da Cruz, 68, employed by Brazil's equivalent
of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, is an outspoken
critic of the soybean revolution in the Amazon —
a position so embattled that after two foiled ambushes
and squatters' death threats, he travels only at night.
"This whole region is now under invasion,"
The main provocation is the proposed paving of a 1,071-mile
federal road known as BR 163. The road passes within
30 miles of parts of the Riozinho do Anfrizio river
and marks the western border of much of the Middle Lands.
The dirt road, which connects soy farms in northern
Mato Grosso State to the deep-water Amazon River port
at Santarem, was cut out of the jungle decades ago by
development-minded Brazilian military leaders who promised
to give "a land without people to people without
land." More than half of the road remains unpaved
and is virtually impassable during the rainy season,
which stretches from November until June.
Keen to pave the road and usher in year-round truck
traffic is a consortium that includes Minneapolis-based
commodities giant Cargill Inc., owner of a new $20 million
soybean export terminal in Santarem.
"If they pave it, the price of land will go up.
If it is paved, movement (of grains) will triple,"
predicted Helio Franco da Cruz, a soy farmer from Parana
in southern Brazil. He bought nearly 1,000 acres of
titled land outside Santarem in 2002.
Brazil, which exported less than 6 million tons of
soybeans a decade ago, aims to export 20.5 million tons
from its 2003-2004 harvests, ranking it second to U.S.
exports of 24.5 million tons.
Brazilian soybean exports, worth $8.3 billion last
year, are expected to surpass U.S. exports in the next
two years. The main reason is that while U.S. producers
have run out of land, Brazil still has plenty of Amazon
jungle land to exploit.
At Cargill's Minneapolis headquarters, spokeswoman
Lori Johnson disputed claims that Cargill's terminal
and road-paving consortium are sparking deforestation
in the eastern Amazon.
"I think that is attributing way too much to this
terminal. It was built primarily for the Mato Grosso
area and some local production around Santarem,"
Johnson said. "We believe there is room for soybean
expansion in an environmentally appropriate way."