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 ”.