Brazil's Drive to Become World's Bread Basket Blamed for Amazon Land Violence

Three decades after settling in the remote rainforest to clear brush and grow cocoa under the shadows of towering jungle trees, Luis Domingues da Silva is starting to see the first hints that Brazil's booming agribusiness industry is heading his way.

ANAPU, Brazil — Three decades after settling in the remote rainforest to clear brush and grow cocoa under the shadows of towering jungle trees, Luis Domingues da Silva is starting to see the first hints that Brazil's booming agribusiness industry is heading his way.

There are rumors a nearby stretch of the Trans-Amazon Highway will be paved, which would open the area for rapid-fire development and mechanized agriculture. There are plans for a controversial dam nearby to supply hundreds of thousands of people from Amazon towns like Anapu with electricity. There are migrants building rickety houses in the hopes of finding jobs in the growing town of 7,000.

And then there's what da Silva considers the clearest indication that development is finally headed to Anapu: the killing a week ago of Dorothy Stang, the 73-year-old American nun who was trying to protect this corner of the Amazon from loggers, land speculators and agribusiness which is rapidly transforming the wild jungle into orderly fields of grain.

Brazil has been breaking production records every year for valuable export goods ranging from soy to beef, and environmentalists say a government keen on turning the nation into the world's bread basket has turned a blind eye to the problems of development in places like Anapu.

Like environmentalists and advocates for peasants who blame the country's relentless drive to boost agricultural output for violence spiraling out of control, da Silva's biggest fear is that flat stretches of forest will be bought up and stripped bare for huge combines to harvest endless fields of soybeans.


The cocoa he grows is one of the least damaging crops in the Amazon because it grows best shaded by big trees.

"I sincerely think soy will be a huge disaster," da Silva said from his small farm along the muddy Trans-Amazon as tropical downpours filled refrigerator-sized potholes. "The only thing that sustains a man in the forest is cocoa."

Just five days after Stang's killing, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva tried to mute claims he favors agriculture over the environment, creating a huge environmental protection zone surrounding Anapu and freezing development along an Amazon highway that the government plans to pave.

But in speeches, the president repeatedly praises the agribusiness industry, which brings in valuable foreign reserves and has turned Brazil into the world's largest beef exporter and the second-largest soy exporter, after the United States.

"As far as agribusiness and the government surplus is concerned, this is a huge success. People are ecstatic and grinning from ear to ear," Bishop Tomas Balduino, head of the Roman Catholic Church-linked Land Pastoral group, which helps landless farmers, told reporters this week. "But the death of Dorothy was almost preordained. The stronger agribusiness is, the more severe the violence."

Antonio Ernesto da Silva, who heads The National Confederation of Agriculture, called Balduino's comments "totally biased."

"Violence only reigns where the government is absent, where the government is weak," he told the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo.

Environmentalists blame both. They say decades of lax government oversight in the Amazon have allowed logging companies and investors intent on profiting from cattle to push steadily deeper into the world's largest rainforest, which sprawls over 1.6 million square miles (4.1 million square kilometers) and covers more than half the country. Development, logging and farming have destroyed as much as 20 percent of the rainforest.

The survival of the Amazon rainforest is key to that of the planet. The jungle is sometimes called the world's "lung" because its billions of trees produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Silva took office two years ago as Brazil's first elected leftist president amid predictions by investors that the country would default on its mammoth debt and nose-dive into depression. At the time, agriculture was Brazil's only bright economic spot, and experts believed strong agricultural exports were the main factor that prevented a recession.

Environmentalists understand that the president needed to support agriculture to help the economy, but said he sent the wrong message by heaping so much praise on the industry.

"It was, `Grow at whatever rate you can grow,'" said Roberto Smeraldi, director of the environmental group Friends of the Earth Brazil. "It was not a message of, 'Let's improve productivity, let's improve the way we can use already degraded land.'"

Besides creating the conservation reserves in Anapu, Silva also declared environmental protection zones in three other Amazon states.

He ordered a six-month moratorium on new logging, land clearing and development on a tract of land in the state of Para almost the size of Portugal, located near another jungle road scheduled to be paved in an area environmentalists say is already rife with deforestation.

Paving the road, known as BR163, would give farmers in the top soy-producing state of Mato Grosso access to an Amazon River port in Para for cheaper shipment abroad. The road is now impassable to heavy trucks for much of the year because of rain.

Cargill Inc., the Minneapolis-based agricultural giant and Brazil's largest soy exporter, built the $20 million port three years ago but believes that enough soy can be planted to satisfy worldwide demand on Brazilian land that has already been cleared, such as old rubber plantations.

"Our analysis was that the terminal ... made economic sense even if the road was never paved," Cargill spokeswoman Lori Johnson said. She added: "In Brazil and the United States, sustainable economic development and environmental protection should go hand in hand."


EDITOR'S NOTE -- Alan Clendenning contributed to this report from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Source: Associated Press