- The Environmental Violence of Soy Cultivation in the Brazilian Amazon
An area of great environmental complexity, inhabited by ancient traditional fishing communities and around 400 Afro-Brazilian (Quilombolas) families, is about to disappear (Locatelli, 2016). I refer to the region of Lago do Maicá (Santarém, Pará, Brazil), an area inhabited by about 1,500 families. Maicá is an ecological sanctuary, a natural cradle for unique species of aquatic fauna and Amazonian bird life. It was here, almost two centuries ago, that two leading British naturalists, Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace, spent three years studying animals and insects. Despite hardships, the men reveled in what they called the “glorious forest” (Bates, 2009 , p. 371). It is estimated that by the end of their three years, they had collected more than 14,000 species of animals (mostly insects). Based on this long and demanding trip, Bates published his book The Naturalist on the River Amazons (Bates, 2009 ), which is still regarded as a classic. Today, besides being a tourist attraction, the lake is also a source of income for the families who make a living from fishing, providing about 30 percent of the fish consumed in town (de Matos Vaz, 2017).
Now part of the lake might be turned into a private port for soybean transshipment, which would make it easier for companies like the Brazilian Port Company of Santarém (Embraps) to export goods. The construction of large enterprises in this region will attack Indigenous ways of life and irreversibly damage the environment (Rajão et al., 2020). This will lead to accelerated destruction of the lower wetlands and the expansion of soybean monoculture and its associated high levels of toxicity (Karlsson Pollak, 2020).
Santarém is one of the oldest cities in the interior of Amazônia, located at the meeting point of the Tapajós and Amazon Rivers. It was founded by Portuguese Jesuit priests in 1661, as the Portuguese colonized the region. Since then, Santarém has been a strategic production center, first for cacao, then for livestock, the extraction of rubber and jute, and, more recently, for soybean monoculture. Located 500 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, its geographical position is strategic for soybean production, whether the crop arrives by road on the sealed highway BR-163 or by barge on the Tapajós River. Crops can be easily trans-shipped down the Amazon River to the Atlantic coast for eventual movement to overseas markets (Colón, 2018).
The port project was “sold” to the local population with the promise of generating income and employment in Santarém, in addition to significant taxes that would be collected by the state government. If history is a guide, this is unlikely to actually happen. [End Page 186] The Minnesota-based Cargill Corporation has operated a similar port nearby since the 1970s and stands as a clear example that this type of enterprise does not primarily benefit the local population. Further examples of this can be seen in my film Beyond Ford-lândia: An Environmental Account of Henry Ford’s Adventure in the Amazon (Colón, 2017), which examines the strategies used by these industries and explores the negative impacts that monoculture plantations can have on local populations.
The building of a new port zone in the Lago do Maicá region is just part of the region’s soy farmers’ and trading companies’ plans to expand the flow of grains from the Mato Grosso region up to the north of the country, through the Tapajós-Teles Pires axis. Although the plan was embargoed by the Brazilian Court for lack of prior consultation before making purchases, the Embraps Company strategy has been to purchase land and install small projects such as gas stations that will later be used to sustain the activities of the port.
How long will the economic power of corrupt politicians continue defying international laws (for instance the Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization) on behalf of a small number of mostly foreign company shareholders (see Colón, 2018)? How long will the Amazon rainforest be at the mercy of politicians and businesspeople who formulate...