QUERENCIA,Brazil The paved highway peters out more than 100 miles (160kilometers) back, but roadside billboards still sprout across a landscape ofinterminable green fields proclaiming the presence ofmultinational agribusiness giants like Cargill and Bunge.
In town,cowboy-hatted ranchers, recently transplanted from Brazil’s prosperous south,rub shoulders with Amazon Indians as streams of tractor-trailers kick up dusthauling fertilizer in and huge tree trunks out.
Nowhere isthe doubled-edge thrust of soybeans more apparent than in this dusty boom townon the rainforest’s southern edge.
“Thefarmers are cutting down everything to make way for soy and that’s good businessfor me,” said Ivo de Lima, a lumber man who moved here recently.
A newvariety of soybean developed by Brazilian scientists to flourish in thispunishing equatorial climate is good for farmers, too, putting South America’sbiggest country on the verge of supplanting the United States as the world’sleading exporter.
But, to thehorror of environmental activists, soybeans are claiming increasingly biggerswaths of rainforest to make way for plantations, adding to the inroads byranching. The Amazon lost some 10,000 square miles (25,476 square kilometers) offorest cover last year alone 40 percent more than the year before.
“Aftercattle ranching, soybeans are the main driver of Amazon destruction,” saidRoberto Smeraldi of Friends of the Earth Brazil. “Today, we have lots ofareas being cut down by small holders with the idea of selling them to soybeanfarmers and in other areas pasture is being converted to soy.”
Withsoybean prices at a five-year high, thanks to a smaller than expected crop thisyear in the United States, Brazilian farmers are rushing into the jungle to takeadvantage of cheap land.
A bag ofsoybeans sells for about 35 reals (US$11.85), allowing a good profit becausesoybeans cost 17.6 reals-22 reals (US$6-US$7.50) to produce, said AndersonGalvao Gomes, director of the Celeres agricultural consulting firm.
“Theprice would have to drop considerably for the expansion to stop,” he said.
The frontline of the soybean advance is in Querencia, a municipality of nearly 6,800square miles (17,600 square kilometers) that includes the Xingu National Park, anear-pristine slice of rainforest where 14 Indian tribes live in much the waythey have for thousands of years.
Indians saythe soybean boom is beginning to change all that.
“Thesoy is arriving very fast. Every time I leave the reservation I don’t recognizeanything anymore because the forest keeps disappearing,” said Ionaluka, adirector of the Xingu Indian Land Association.
The areaaround Xingu lost about 500 square miles (1,280 square kilometers) of forestlast year.
“Acrossthe state, deforestation increased by 30 percent between 2001 and 2002. Thisyear, I don’t know about the whole state, but in the region of Querencia Ibelieve the numbers for deforestation will certainly grow,” said RodrigoJustus Brito, director of forest resources for the state environmental agency.
Indiansfear deforestation will dry up the rivers that run through the Xingu reservationand the chemicals used to keep lizards and termites off crops will poison theirfish. Satellite photos reveal that the southern half of the 10,800-square-mile(27,648-square-kilometer) reservation is almost completely surrounded by farmfields
Environmentalistsfear that is a picture of the Amazon’s future.
Soybeanproducers are lobbying to pave roads through the jungle and Cargill recentlyopened a major port in the Amazon River city of Santarem.
Critics saythat if left unchecked, soybean cultivation will eventually eat up large swathsof rainforest and wreck the environment.
Gov. BlairoMaggi of Mato Grosso state, who also is one of the world’s largest soybeanproducers, says those fears are unfounded. He argues damage can be kept to aminimum if the state’s strict environmental rules are followed and he accusesenvironmental groups of stirring unnecessary worry.
“Behindthe environmental concerns are economic interests,” Maggi said. “Theyare trying to impede or slow the growth of Brazilian production.”
Maggi saidthat ideally 40 percent of his state’s 349,807 square miles (906,000 squarekilometers) will be devoted to agriculture and 60 percent will be preserved.
He hopesthat by the time he leaves office in 2007, Mato Grosso will be producing 100million tons of soybeans a year, five times the state’s current crop and equalto all of Brazil’s harvest in 2002.
The statedoes have strict environmental regulations as well as Brazil’s most advancedsystem for monitoring and preventing Amazon destruction, but critics questionwhether they will be enforced. The state remains Brazil’s leader in agriculturalburning and forest fires.
There’s noevidence that deforestation is drying up the Xingu River or that pesticides havekilled a single fish, but the Indians say the soybean boom is just starting andthey want to protect themselves before it’s too late.
“OurXingu is not just what’s here. It’s a very long thread, and when it rains thesoy brings venom down the same river that passes by our door,” said JywapanKayabi, a chief at the Capivara Indian village.
Kayabi saidthe effects of deforestation are apparent in the region’s rivers. In 1994, alarge deforestation project 200 miles (300 kilometers) away muddied waterwaysand making it impossible to fish in the traditional way with bow and arrows.
Indiansalso worry about the pesticides that come in large drums with warnings not toreuse the containers and that steam fumes into the air when poured out on theground.
Brazil’sfederal environment minister, Marina Silva, says soybean production doesn’t haveto spell the end of the rainforest.
“InMato Grosso alone there are 12 million acres (4.8 million hectares) of abandonedland,” Silva said. “You just make an effort to intensively use thoseareas that are already devastated and avoid advancing into areas that still haveforest cover.”
Cheap landis one factor in the Amazon’s soybean boom.
JayEdwards, 46, an Indiana farmer, who manages an 11,115-acre (4,500-hectare) farmin Querencia for an American farm cooperative, said operating costs in Brazilare about the same as in the United States, but the land is considerablycheaper.
“Yousee your return about four or five years after you clear the land,” saidEdwards, who arrived in 1994.
He saidfarmland cost about 300 reals a hectare (US$40 an acre) when he got here, andtoday sells for about 4,800 reals a hectare (US$650 an acre).
Environmentalistssay that even with such farmland available, uncleared forest is even cheaper,around 300 reals a hectare (US$41 an acre), making illegal deforestationespecially tempting.
“Theysay soy is planted only in degraded pasture, but we have evidence that it’s notthat way,” said Rosely Sanches, a biologist working with the Institute forSociety and the Environment in Sao Paulo. “There is a search for landbecause the price of land in soy-growing areas has gotten very expensive.”