Battle for the Amazon From wild rivers to Tapajós industrial waterway

Brazil’s soy farmers, international commodity traders, and Brasilia want to turn the Tapajós river basin into a huge export corridor for commodities

Sue Branford and Mauricio Torres

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, railways, waterways and port complexes, and turn the Basin into a huge 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 are travelling there, and over coming weeks hope to shed some light on a controversy that continues to shape the future of the Amazon.

Despised for centuries, the cerrado – a vast tropical savannah in central Brazil – has become in the last 15 years the pride of Brazilian agribusiness, achieving the world’s highest levels of productivity. But it struggles with a very poor transport system, having to take its harvest over poor roads for 1,500 miles to the ports of Santos in São Paulo state and Paranaguá in Parana state.

Sorriso (MT), which calls itself the Brazilian capital of agribusiness, has the country’s largest production of soybeans.

So agribusiness in the north of the state of Mato Grosso has three dreams: to pave the BR-163 highway, that links Cuiabá to Santarém; to build a railroad parallel to the BR-163, already nicknamed Ferrogrão (Grainrail); and, most ambitiously of all, to build the Teles Pires-Tapajós industrial waterway.

Jorge Baldo, President of the Regional Development Association for the Conclusion of the BR-163, said that his plan for creating a road exit to the north, which he thought up in 1994, was long regarded as a “fantasy”. “We had to recruit people, one by one, and finally we formed this organization and won the government over”, he told Mongabay. Today the area around Sorriso, where he lives, has become the country’s main soybean pole, with 3.5 million hectares under cultivation. He says the BR-163 is essential: “Our region is not viable without it”. And now, to his great satisfaction, the road is being paved. Work is underway on the final 110 kilometre (68 mile) stretch so soon all of the highway from Cuiabá to the port of Miritituba, on the opposite side of the river to Itaituba, will be asphalted.

Ferrogrão, too, is beginning to happen. One of the first actions of the new Michel Temer government was to include Ferrogrāo as a priority infrastructure project, with bidding for the contract expected in 2017. The final project – and the most controversial of all -- is the industrial waterway, for which there are as yet no firm plans (see map 1).

Roads and infrastructure projects. Drawn by Mauricio Torres

But Carlos Fávaro, president of Aprosoja, Brazil’s largest soybean cooperative, has spoken of the Tapajós glowingly 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 when tamed, will allow for the transport of crops by barge and container ship from the cerrado to the Amazon River and on to ports on the Atlantic Ocean — dramatically shortening and cheapening export routes to Asian 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 traditional river communities and indigenous groups, for whom the rivers are sacred sites. These have a very different view about the future of the region.

Third Juruena Vivo Festival in Juara in Mato Grosso, attended by seven indigenous groups, among others.

The Third Juruena Vivo Festival, which took place in the town of Juara in the Juruena river valley in late October, was a space in which voices generally absent in decision-making about the destiny of Amazonia’s rivers were heard. Representatives of the Apiaká, Kayabi, Munduruku, Manoki, Myky, Nambikwara and Rikbaktsa people, along with people from river communities, peasant settlements, researchers and NGOs, were among the 300 participants.

Candido Waro speaking at the conference.

Among the speakers was a Munduruku Indian, Cândido Waro, who, with tears in his eyes, described what is happening to his people: “Two large dams, 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 dirty. Our children are dying of diarrhoea. There are very few fish left. We didn’t want the dams but the government didn’t listen to us. They are destroying us.”

Ironically, the event that was celebrating a rebellion against what is seen as a modern form of colonialism was happening in the central square of Juara, beside a large “Statue of The Coloniser” (see picture). Erected in 2010, the statue has an inscription, which states that “our history began here because it was at this very spot that Zé Paraná and other members of Sibal [Real Estate Society of the Amazon Basin] began their trek into the forest in the midst of the cinders of the first felling ”.

“The Statue of the Colonizer”, in Colonizer Square in Juara marks the beginning of the take-over of the territory by non-Indians.

Andrea Fanzeres, from Operação Amazônia Nativa (OPAN), an NGO which works with indigenous people, organised the event, and she told Mongabay that they 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 “history that began”, which wiped out the history of the local people, was itself the result of another story of exclusion and expropriation that had happened thousands of miles away in the south of the country. Zé Paraná was one of the beneficiaries of the military government’s land colonization programme, which was created to provide “land for the landless” in the south and centre-west of the country.

It divided a vast swathe of land in the north of Mato Grosso among a few ‘owners’: Juara belonged to Zé Paraná, just as Sinop belonged to Énio Pepino and Alta Floresta to Ariosto da Riva and so on. These new ‘owners’ sold plots of land to peasant families, who had been left landless from the government’s support for large-scale farming and its failure to carry out a national programme of agrarian reform.

As the inscription notes approvingly, those “who began history” set about doing what they knew best: felling and burning the forest, and planting crops. In the beginning the families from the south found everything hard – the different climate, the infertility of the soils, the lack of hospitals, the lack of support and so on. Many went back home but, as they say in the region, “the pig-headed remained”.

But these courageous families, who were struggling hard to survive in this alien ecosystem, were part of a process that imposed a high price on indigenous communities. The cycle of expropriation continued. For, contrary to the government’s slogan for the land colonisation programme, that the Amazon was “a land without people for a people without land”, much of the forest was already occupied by indigenous groups and traditional fishing communities. Serious land conflicts soon erupted.

In truth, until the progressive 1988 Constitution was promulgated, the indigenous people were struggling for their very existence, for under earlier constitutions the Indians were only allowed to stay on their land until they were “assimilated” into national society.

Even though today they have won far greater rights, the Indians have continued to lose land all over the country and their epic and centuries-long struggle continues. In the Mato Grosso section of the Tapajós valley, they are often confined into ‘islands’ (see map 2) and, as will be shown in later articles, agribusiness’s ambitious new plans for infrastructure now threatens many of their remaining territories.

Indigenous land and built and planned hydroelectric plants in the northern portion of the Tapajós basin in the state of Mato Grosso. Drawn by Mauricio Torres.

It is not only the Indians who are struggling to survive. Landless peasants flocked to the region in the early years of this century, hopeful that the newly elected, left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) government would deliver on its pledge to carry out an extensive programme of agrarian reform. But this did not happen and today landless families, Indians and traditional communities are all struggling to survive as extensive soy monocultures, in the hands of big farmers, are moving in from the south.

More and more people in the region are being assassinated, with the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission recording 19 deaths in the countryside in the state of Parâ in 2015. Some speak of these deaths as if they are a normal part of everyday life, as happened in the UN’s Climate Conference in Marrakesh on 17 November 2016, when to the dismay of Brazil’s human rights activists Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, himself one of the world’s largest soybean farmers, attributed the high level of deaths in the countryside to “problems of personal relationship”.

But for most in the region these deaths are the result of serious territorial conflicts. Fernanda Moreira from the Catholic Church’s Missionary Council (Cimi) told Mongabay: “while the frightening level of violence in the countryside against Indians, peasant families and leaders of social movements indicates the ethnocide character of these struggles, it also demonstrates the intensity with which these people are resisting.”

Sue Branford travelled along the Transamazônica Highway for the first time in 1973 and since then has filed many reports on the region for The Guardian, The New Scientist and Mongabay, among others. In 1985 she published, with Oriel Glock, The Last Frontier, Fighting over Land in the Amazon (Zed Books). In 2004 she received the Vladimir Herzog prize for Cutting the Wire: the Story of Brazil’s Landless Movement, which she wrote with Jan rocha.

Mauricio Torres has a doctorate in Human Geography from the University of São Paulo, with a thesis on territorial conflicts in the Amazon. He was one of the editors of, and contributed to: Amazônia Revelada: os descaminhos ao longo da BR-163); and Ocekadi: hidrelétricas, conflitos socioambientais, e resistência na bacia do Tapajós.

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