Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: Soy Production Spreads, Threatens Amazon

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 10 1999 (IPS) - The expansion of soy cultivation to northern Brazil is a new threat to the forests and biodiversity of the Amazon region, warned a network of 430 non-governmental organisations Friday.

The alert, released by the Amazon Work Group (GTA), refers to a new surge in soy production by a private group called Maggi in the southeastern part of Amazonas state. The project could mean the deforestation of one million hectares, according to GTA.

The issue also worries the Brazilian Environmental Institute, the government environemntal authority, which has already verified the deforestation of nearly 50,000 hectares by Maggi.

Amazonas is Brazil’s largest state with an area of 158 million hectares in the heart of the Amazon region. It is also the state with the least destruction of its forests by human activities like farming and logging.

The fear of the GTA is based on their studies showing that “soy is not sustainable in the Amazon,” because the soil there is fragile, and quickly loses its fertility.

Isa dos Santos, GTA secretary general, told a Rio de Janeiro press conference that the soy crop, which requires the intensive use of pesticides, would need even more chemicals to grow in the Amazon.

Most of Brazil’s soy is produced in the south, but it is increasingly being planted in the country’s north and west. More than 20 percent of the soy planted in 1997-1998 was in the Amazon, according to data from the agricultural ministry.

The Maggi group, which is leading the soy campaign in Amazonas state, is Brazil’s largest soy exporter, shipping its own production as well as that of other farmers. The Amazon waterways are the hub of the group’s business strategy.

The Maggi group built a port in Humaitá, where the Madeira River waterway begins, and another in Itacoatiara on the Amazon river, where soy and other local products are loaded for export.

The ports are key for the new soy cultivation centre, which would extend from Humaitá to Apuí, along 400 km of the Trans-Amazon highway, said Dos Santos, who observed that the use of waterways reduces the cost of transport to external markets by 30 percent.

It is the low transportation costs that makes soy production in the Amazon competitive, explained Blairo Maggi, head of the family business and also a substitute senator.

This decade’s governmental policies, which led to the appearance of “export brokers,” have promoted the expansion of soy cultivation in the Amazon, stated Dos Santos, a sociologist who worked many years with the region’s local traditional communities.

A four-year investment programme announced by president Fernando Henrique Cardoso last week would create several waterways and highways that would move agriculture beyond its current borders in the Amazon.

The project is the opposite of what the GTA recommends as a development strategy for the region, which is based on the sustainable extraction of fruits, wood and other forest and river products.

Soy cultivation employs just 1.7 workers per hectare compared to 30 per hectare on a family farm, said Dos Santos. Rubber extractions employs 1.5 million Amazon families, while the port of Itacoatiara, with its advanced technological equipment, has just 17 employees, she added.

Soy has already arrived in Maranhao state, on the eastern border of Amazonia, benefiting from the Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research that developed soy varieties adapted to the nation’s different soils and climates.

Soy is “the cheapest source of protein,” and the source with highest productivity given that 100 percent of the grain’s derivatives become food for human or animal consumption, stated Flavio Francia Junior, an agricultural market analyst.

The spread of soy cultivation throughout Brazil will be limited over the next three years by weak international prices resulting from the subsidised soy production in the United States. But it will pick up afterwards, predicts Francia.

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