The paved highway petered out more than 100 miles back, but roadside billboards still sprout across a landscape of interminable green fields — proclaiming the presence of multinational 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 dust hauling fertilizer in and huge tree trunks out.
Nowhere is the doubled-edge thrust of soybeans more apparent than in this dusty boom town on the rainforest’s southern edge.
“The farmers are cutting down everything to make way for soy and that’s good business for me,” said Ivo de Lima, a lumber man who moved here recently.
A new variety of soybean developed by Brazilian scientists to flourish in this punishing equatorial climate is good for farmers, too, putting South America’s biggest country on the verge of supplanting the United States as the world’s leading exporter.
More forest cover lost
But, to the horror of environmental activists, soybeans are claiming increasingly bigger swaths of rainforest to make way for plantations, adding to the inroads by ranching. The Amazon lost some 10,000 square miles of forest cover last year alone — 40 percent more than the year before.
“After cattle ranching, soybeans are the main driver of Amazon destruction,” said Roberto Smeraldi of Friends of the Earth Brazil. “Today, we have lots of areas being cut down by small holders with the idea of selling them to soybean farmers and in other areas pasture is being converted to soy.”
With soybean prices at a five-year high, thanks to a smaller than expected crop this year in the United States, Brazilian farmers are rushing into the jungle to take advantage of cheap land.
A bag of soybeans sells for about $11.85, allowing a good profit because soybeans cost $6 to $7.50 to produce, said Anderson Galvao Gomes, director of the Celeres agricultural consulting firm.
“The price would have to drop considerably for the expansion to stop,” he said.
National park nearby
The front line of the soybean advance is in Querencia, a municipality of nearly 6,800 square miles that includes the Xingu National Park — a near pristine slice of rainforest where 14 Indian tribes live in much the way they have for thousands of years.
Indians say the soybean boom is beginning to change all that.
“The soy is arriving very fast. Every time I leave the reservation I don’t recognize anything anymore because the forest keeps disappearing,” said Ionaluka, a director of the Xingu Indian Land Association.
The area around Xingu lost about 500 square miles of forest last year.
“Across the state, deforestation increased by 30 percent between 2001 and 2002. This year, I don’t know about the whole state, but in the region of Querencia I believe the numbers for deforestation will certainly grow,” said Rodrigo Justus Brito, director of forest resources for the state environmental agency.
Indians fear deforestation will dry up the rivers that run through the Xingu reservation and the chemicals used to keep lizards and termites off crops will poison their fish.
Satellite photos reveal that the southern half of the 10,800-square-mile reservation is almost completely surrounded by farm fields.
Governor is soy farmer
Environmentalists fear that is a picture of the Amazon’s future.
Soybean producers are lobbying to pave roads through the jungle and Cargill recently opened a major port in the Amazon River city of Santarem.
Critics say that if left unchecked, soybean cultivation will eventually eat up large swaths of rainforest and wreck the environment.
Gov. Blairo Maggi of Mato Grosso state, who also is one of the world’s largest soybean producers, calls those fears are unfounded. He argues damage can be kept to a minimum if the state’s strict environmental rules are followed and he accuses environmental groups of stirring unnecessary worry.
“Behind the environmental concerns are economic interests,” Maggi said. “They are trying to impede or slow the growth of Brazilian production.”
Maggi said that ideally 40 percent of his state’s 349,807 square miles will be devoted to agriculture and 60 percent will be preserved.
He hopes that by the time he leaves office in 2007, Mato Grosso will be producing 100 million tons of soybeans a year, five times the state’s current crop and equal to all of Brazil’s harvest in 2002.
The state does have strict environmental regulations as well as Brazil’s most advanced system for monitoring and preventing Amazon destruction, but critics question whether they will be enforced. The state remains Brazil’s leader in agricultural burning and forest fires.
There’s no evidence that deforestation is drying up the Xingu River or that pesticides have killed a single fish, but the Indians say the soybean boom is just starting and they want to protect themselves before it’s too late.
“Our Xingu is not just what’s here. It’s a very long thread, and when it rains the soy brings venom down the same river that passes by our door,” said Jywapan Kayabi, a chief at the Capivara Indian village.
Kayabi said the effects of deforestation are apparent in the region’s rivers. In 1994, a large deforestation project 200 miles away muddied waterways and making it impossible to fish in the traditional way with bow and arrows.
Indians also worry about the pesticides that come in large drums with warnings not to reuse the containers and that steam fumes into the air when poured out on the ground.
Brazil’s federal environment minister, Marina Silva, says soybean production doesn’t have to spell the end of the rainforest.
“In Mato Grosso alone there are 12 million acres of abandoned land,” Silva said. “You just make an effort to intensively use those areas that are already devastated and avoid advancing into areas that still have forest cover.”
Land cheap compared to U.S.
Cheap land is one factor in the Amazon’s soybean boom.
Jay Edwards, an Indiana farmer who manages an 11,115-acre farm in Querencia for an American farm cooperative, said operating costs in Brazil are about the same as in the United States, but the land is considerably cheaper.
“You see your return about four or five years after you clear the land,” said Edwards, who arrived in 1994.
He said farmland cost about $40 an acre when he got here, and today sells for about $650 an acre.
Environmentalists say that even with such farmland available, uncleared forest is even cheaper, at $41 an acre, making illegal deforestation especially tempting.
“They say soy is planted only in degraded pasture, but we have evidence that it’s not that way,” said Rosely Sanches, a biologist working with the Institute for Society and the Environment in Sao Paulo. “There is a search for land because the price of land in soy-growing areas has gotten very expensive.”