This past January, I read the book Amazon Besieged: By dams, soya, agribusinees and land grabbing. This book is a compilation of articles originally posted on Mongabay by veteran reporters Mauricio Torres and Sue Branford. Since I read this compilation, I’ve read numerous other articles by Branford, Torres and others posted by Mongabay and a variety of other sources. (Please, if you’re not familiar with Mongabay, please visit their website and please also consider making a contribution to their organization).
Recently too, I’ve spoken with agro-foresters from both the Cerrado and the Amazon regions of Brazil. A few years back I spent a few weeks in the Pantanal region of Brazil as well as in Sao Paulo and Porte Allegro, But I’ve never visited the Cerrado or the Amazon. So I have no direct first hand experience with these regions. Consequently I have had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head, plus have had a hard time differentiating fact from fiction. Without seeing first hand what exactly is occurring, I’ve been reluctant to share my opinions especially since there’s also a danger of just looking for or at information that confirms particular biases. So recently I reached out to Sue Branford through Mongabay, and she was kind enough to take the time to provide the detailed answers to my questions below.
How long have you been in Brazil and writing about deforestation and development issues in the Amazon and Cerrado?
A long, long while. I first came to Brazil in the 1970s, as correspondent for the Financial Times. Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship and it was beginning to open up the Amazon basin, building huge highways and bringing settlers from the south and northeast of the country to occupy the Amazon basin, which was seen as “empty”. Of course, the Amazon wasn’t empty – there were thousands of rubber-tappers, fishermen, peasant families and Indians living there but they didn’t count, they weren’t seen as “real Brazilians”. The Indians were particularly vulnerable, as many hadn’t had contact with the outside world before. During the 25 years of military rule, hundreds of Indians died, mainly from diseases brought in by outsiders but also massacred by land-grabbers who wanted them off the land they were claiming. It was later calculated that 8,000 Indians died during the military dictatorship. At the time, I had no idea that so many were dying but I’ll never forget my first trip in 1974 when I got a glimpse of the human suffering and environmental damage that the “opening up” of the Amazon was causing, I saw emaciated Indians begging by the roadside, and witnessed peasant families fighting to remain on their small plots of land, now claimed by powerful companies from the south, many of them multinationals, attracted to the region by tax incentives. Volkswagen and General Motors both had big ranches.
Are you based in these regions?
Not anymore. I went back to the UK in the 1980’s, after spending nine years in Brazil, and worked for a long while for the BBC World Service as a Latin America analyst. I traveled a lot throughout the region. I took early retirement and since then have been back to the Amazon a lot. I think I’ve done my most rewarding reporting since I’ve been “retired”, as I can go on longer trips, travelling deep into the Amazon forest and discovering extraordinary stories, never reported on before. I travel with Brazilian colleagues and use local networks to find out what is going on.
Over the period of time you’ve spent in these regions, how have you seen them transform?
It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for the region over the decades I’ve been reporting on it. First, there was the period of brutal repression under the military. But in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s most of Latin America got rid of its military dictatorships and reinstated civilian governments. It was a time of great optimism. But then came the debt crisis, when interest rates on the world market soared and one after another Latin American countries defaulted on their debts and had to call in the IMF. It led to what is called “the lost decade”, with much belt-tightening. Then, at the beginning of the new millennium, Latin America entered a new period, with progressive governments voted to power in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay and elsewhere. It seemed for a while that Latin America was overcoming its age-old problems of social exclusion and huge disparity between the very rich and the very poor. It grew fast, boosted by high commodity prices, and began distributing income to the poorer sectors. It was easy in the beginning because wealthy governments could help the poor without hurting the rich, but then the commodity bubble burst and the old elites reasserted their power. Popular unrest grew, as life became more difficult. Recently, a series of right-wing populists have to power in various Latin American countries, blaming “politicians” for the problems already people have been facing. The most extreme case is Jair Bolsonaro, the new president of Brazil, who has successfully presented himself as an outsider”, even though he has been a career politician. Closely allied with the old rural elites, who are the biggest group in Congress, he has been dismantling rapidly many of the exciting social advances that have occurred in Brazil since the military stepped down in 1985. With the progressive 1988 Constitution, drawn up in the excitement of the early days after the end of the dictatorship, indigenous people, peasant families and Afro-Brazilians all gained important new social, political and economic rights. It seemed that Brazil had entered a new epoch finally moving on from its old, slave-owing past. But now Bolsonaro is moving fast to put the clock back. In alliance with the rural elites and agribusiness, he is trying to drive Indians and traditional populations off their land. Already the rate of forest destruction is rising rapidly in the Amazon forest and in the Cerrado, another precious ecosystem. Today we know that, along with the suffering it will cause, this will exacerbate the global climate crisis and could even push the world over a dangerous “tipping point’ where it becomes impossible to revert runaway global warming. It’s heart-breaking to see.
Given all the violence directed toward indigenous nation people, peasant farmers and environmentalists, do you feel safe as a news reporter? Have you ever been threatened due to anything you wanted to cover or due to something you’ve reported?
I think I am fairly safe. The Brazilian journalists I travel with are more at risk. But those who are most at risk are the local people we interview, the people telling us what is going on. Occasionally someone we have interviewed has been killed later, though not, I hope, because of our interview. It happened last year when a rural trade unionist who’d told us about a massive land grab in the Amazonian state of Pará, was assassinated. He was already suffering death threats, when we spoke to him, and was wearing a bullet-proof jacket. A few months after we spoke to him, six gunmen brazenly marched into his office and shot him in the head. And, as far as I know, no one has been punished.
Now looking more at drivers, the four always noted as the most impactful are soy, cattle, timber and mining. Is that a correct assessment?
The loggers come first and take out the valuable timber. Then the land thieves come and clear the land. A cleared acre of land is worth a lot more — up to 200 times more — than an acre of virgin forest. It’s an upside down world because tropical forest, with its huge abundance of life of all sorts — plants, trees, mammals, insects, fish — should be worth much, much more than barren, cleared land where there is almost no life. But the cleared land can be sold on to ranchers, who are prepared to pay a lot, partly because they believe that the dangerous phase, when rival gangs squabble over who controls the land, is over. The ranchers clean up the land, pulling out tree stumps. After they’ve reared cattle for a while, they often sell it on to soy farmers, though the terrain has to be flat to allow mechanized agriculture, and soy farming isn’t possible in all areas of the Amazon. Mining has a somewhat different dynamic, with impoverished small-scale miners usually moving in first, and then being displaced by companies if they find a rich seam of minerals.
Though these drivers and others, namely infra-structure, seem to be interconnected. For example, in your book you noted how after the soy moratorium was imposed, land in the Amazon already deforested could be planted in soy. So did that happen, and more land then was deforested for cattle? Was there a time frame on this when it stopped or was supposed to have stopped?
The soy moratorium is an agreement between environmentalists and the big trading companies that they won’t buy soy cultivated on land that was recently Amazon forest and was felled to plant the soy. It was supposed to put a complete end to soy cultivation in the Amazon. But farmers in the region are quite canny and they didn’t want to see a fall in their income. So, after the moratorium was declared, some moved their soy farming into the Cerrado, another precious ecosystem but one that isn’t covered by the moratorium. Other farmers found ways of getting around the soy moratorium in the Amazon region itself. Most farmers plant other crops too, along with soy, and also rear cattle, so one way around the moratorium is to cultivate the soy on land cleared for ranching or for growing other crops, like corn. Then the farmers clear more land but use it first for ranching, which is permitted. I think this kind of ruse will only be eliminated when there is far better monitoring by the authorities. And that won’t happen in the near future, certainly not under Bolsonaro.
Also with soy, it seems, most just moved to the Cerrado after the moratorium, but some land in the Amazon now cut down and used for cattle eventually does get flipped then to soy a few years later. So it doesn’t seem like the rules are enforced after a couple years. Is that correct?
After a few years land cleared for cattle ranching is no longer considered “recently cleared” so, yes soy can be grown on it. But even though the moratorium is being broken a lot, I still think it’s worthwhile, as it’s an expression of concern by consumers, particularly in Europe and the USA. The next step is to work with Brazilian activists and environmentalists to put pressure on the Brazilian government to enforce it properly. There are huge areas of cleared land that are available for arable farming. Brazil doesn’t need to clear more forest. But it is still cheaper to clear intact forest rather than recuperate abandoned land. This makes no environmental sense and farmers must be made to use this land and not fell more forest. It may mean that soy becomes more expensive on the world market – and that our beef and pork cost more in supermarkets. But that’s the price we have to pay for preserving the Amazon. And that’s a far cheaper option than destroying the forest and then having to tackle all the problems of climate havoc on a global scale that the destruction of the Amazon could well cause. In recent years scientists have been discovering the absolutely crucial role that the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical forest, plays in stabilizing world climate.
Cattle ranching in the Amazon obviously is a significant factor in deforestation, but is it also fair to say that maybe too much of the focus is made on cattle, and that cattle have become the scapegoats (scapecows?) that take attention or focus away from all the other factors leading to and causing deforestation like bauxite mining? To a certain degree, it seems cattle are merely place holders until land can be sold for more lucrative uses like soya production or mining. Is that a fair assessment? My understanding is that cattle isn’t the most profitable use of land, and that soya is more lucrative. So is land speculation and ‘”flipping” the land for more money really the driver behind the driver?
Large-scale mining is a big driver of dam construction and thus of the damage that dam construction does but not of deforestation directly. It doesn’t lead to huge areas of forest being cleared, though there is considerable damage. You’re right ranching has become a bit of a scapecow (like that!!) in that the final objective is soya, often cultivated in conjunction with cotton — both cash crops for export. Ranching is generally a step on the way, after logging and before soya. Sometimes it stops at ranching, particularly if the terrain is hilly. Brazil is a leading exporter of beef, but more often than not the final use of the land is arable farming.
From some research articles I’ve read, it also seems like for large projects like hydro-electric dams, roads are built to access the areas where these dams are built, and then deforestation for timber, mining and agriculture is facilitated by all this new infra-structure. In your book, you noted most deforestation happens within 30 miles of roads. Is this a correct assessment?
Yes. Governments often promise that they will make sure that the building of a big dam does not spark off a disorderly influx of economic activities, but they never manage to achieve this. At least, not in Brazil. I recently asked Tarcisio de Freitas, the minister of transport, if he could give an example of a big development project in the Amazon that has not caused serious environmental damage and he couldn’t think of a single case.
How long does it take to build a dam?
How many workers do they need to build a dam?
Where do these workers come from?
Do they stay after the dams are built?
It takes about ten years to build a dam. If it’s a big one, several thousand workers are employed in the first few years. And just the influx of such a large number of men often causes havoc. Take the case of Altamira, the town close to the giant Belo Monte dam, the second largest in the world, that was built on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon. Its population grew exponentially, public services were overwhelmed, and the town suffered from an explosion in violence and other social problems. The men generally don’t stay in the region but move on to the next big development project. They are a huge itinerant labor force, moving around the country.
How many more dams are still planned to be built?
Where does the electrical power generated from these dams go?
Doesn’t seem that the power is used for rural electrification, seems like the power is used for energy intensive mining of bauxite for aluminium, iron ore, etc. Is that correct?
Well, the Brazilian government has plans to build another 80 dams or more in the Amazon region. But I don’t think it will happen. Climate change is already affecting the region, making it unlikely that the rivers will be able to sustain the level of water needed to make the hydro-power stations operate efficiently. A lot of engineers are already questioning that viability of big dams in tropical conditions like the Amazon. A couple of years ago Brazil announced that it would no longer be building big dams in the Amazon but the decision was later reversed. Bolsonaro certainly seems keen to push ahead with them. Local people don’t benefit much. As you say, most of the energy goes to be industrial projects like Alcoa, for processing bauxite into aluminium – a process that demands huge amounts of energy. What always amazes me is how little solar energy is generated in the Amazon, despite all the sunshine it gets. Making it easy for people to buy solar-powered showers would lead to a considerable fall in electricity consumption, as nearly all homes have electric showers.
In your book, you make it clear that protections and court decisions against dam building are superseded by injunctions that allow the dams to be built during the time it takes for court decisions to be processed. So it seems like the legal process is something of a charade, correct?
Yes, that’s exactly right. Local communities, protesting about the failure of the authorities to consult them properly about a big dam, as they are legally required to do, can go to court and win all the way up the legal chain until the highest court and then the executive government uses an exceptional power, inherited from the years of military rule, to overrule the legal judgements. It doesn’t have to argue its case, just say that a matter of “great public interest” or “public security” is involved. The communities can appeal and may eventually win but, by then, the dam is built. It is very undemocratic and very frustrating for the communities. But even so-called progressive governments, like ones run by the Workers’ Party (PT), have used this tool.
Also seems like dam building is a great way to launder money, so that’s another reason why they’ve been built, correct?
It’s not really money laundering, it’s more the deal-making required by Brazil’s corrupt political system. The big Brazilian engineering companies, like Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez, provide political parties with millions of dollars for their electoral campaigns and then, if the party wins, the new government needs to give the engineering company a big lucrative deal in which it can make a lot of money and recoup its investment. Dams are a useful way of doing this. Several eminent jurists think that this was the main reason why the huge Belo Monte dam when ahead, because it was already clear before it was built that the dam would face very serious environmental, economic, social and, yes, even engineering problems.
Is most of the investment money for all of these dams coming from China? Or from other countries and corporations?
China only arrived recently so the big dams already built were not funded by the Chinese. But China is fast becoming the biggest investor in the Amazon, particularly in big infrastructure projects and highways needed to get Brazilian soy to the ports. It’s expressed interest in building a huge rail network and this is an area where Brazil, long dominated by the US, has invested little. Brazil has overtaken the US as China’s leading supplier of soy and other products. It’s a relationship of mutual dependence – China needs Brazil’s raw materials and Brazil needs the Chinese market. With Trump’s trade war with China, the relationship is getting even closer.