- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

QUERENCIA, Brazil — 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, ranchers in cowboy hats, 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 double-edge thrust of soybeans more apparent than in this dusty boomtown on the rain forest’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.

But to the horror of environmental activists, soybeans are claiming increasingly bigger swaths of rain forest. The Amazon lost some 10,000 square miles of forest cover last year alone — 40 percent more than the previous year.

“After cattle ranching, soybeans are the main driver of Amazon destruction,” said Roberto Smeraldi of Friends of the Earth Brazil.

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.

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 rain forest 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.

Indians fear deforestation will dry up the rivers that run through the Xingu reservation and the chemicals used to keep lizards and insects off crops will poison their fish.

There is 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.

Mr. Kayabi said the effects of deforestation are apparent in the region’s rivers. In 1994, a large deforestation project 200 miles away muddied waterways, making it impossible to fish in the traditional way with bow and arrows.

Satellite photos reveal that the southern half of the 10,800-square-mile reservation is almost completely surrounded by farm fields.

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 eventually will eat up large swaths of rain forest 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 unfounded. He says damage can be kept to a minimum if the state’s strict environmental rules are followed, and he says environmental groups have created unnecessary worry.

“Behind the environmental concerns are economic interests,” Mr. Maggi said. “They are trying to impede or slow the growth of Brazilian production.”

Mr. 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.

The state does have strict environmental regulations as well as Brazil’s most advanced system for monitoring and preventing Amazon forest destruction, but critics question whether they will be enforced. The state remains Brazil’s leader in agricultural burning and forest fires.

Brazil’s federal environment minister, Marina Silva, says soybean production doesn’t have to spell the end of the rain forest.

“In Mato Grosso alone there are 12 million acres of abandoned land,” Mrs. 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.”

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