10/7/09

Today is our final day on the boat and I have so much to update you all on. I only wish that I had gotten the opportunity to write a few days ago as well! Hopefully you can bear with me J First and foremost I have to share some of the very real experiences that I have had learning about some of the most pressing issues facing the Amazon and it’s communities. Upon leaving our rural homestays we travelled for two days straight by boat observing the deforestation and development visible along the Amazon River. It was definitely surprising at first to see community after community dotted with small-scale cattle pastures and agricultural fields lining the river banks where I had initially expected to see untapped rainforest. Understanding that especially along the rivers development was an inescapable reality was an important realization in dispelling misconceptions and understanding the dynamics of the Amazon.

We arrived in Juruti Velho (Old Juruti), a relatively small town which served as one of the most important for local communities in the area. It was here that we were first exposed to the establishment of a major ALCOA mining project and the detrimental impacts that it was already having on Juruti Velho and the surrounding area. ALCOA, an American aluminum mining company had acquired the mineral rights to a huge area of land in order to set up a bauxite mine. This project, which began construction in 2004 and includes the mine itself, an exportation port in Juruti Novo (New Juruti), and a railroad connecting the two areas, has recently begun operation and while creating a substantial number of temporary jobs for the area has threatened or displaced 44 local river communities with around 10,000 residents and will continue to degrade the rainforest and river at a staggering rate. We had the opportunity to speak with members of ASCOJUVRE, an organization joining a large number of those 44 communities together to fight for their legal rights including the compensation they deserve, and we quickly realized the multitude of issues that this project had caused. To expand our knowledge, we travelled to Juruti Novo the following day to do our own community-based research at the growing port city. We gained many interesting perspectives interviewing people on the streets about their experiences with the ALCOA project, specifically that many Juruti Novo residents were pleased with the establishment of the mine because ALCOA had done a substantial amount to improve city infrastructure (undoubtedly because improving Juruti Novo would directly benefit ALCOA whereas improving the local river communities would not). A few of us concluded the day by approaching the ALCOA office in Juruti Novo and speaking with the sustainability coordinator there about ALCOA’s efforts to work with the community. All in all it was rewarding to gain a substantial amount of knowledge about a sector of environmental issues in the Amazon that I had never learned about previously.

But that wasn’t our only interaction with the work of large corporations in Amazonia. The next day we made it to Santarem back in Para state – port city of one of the top three soy-production giants in the world – Cargill. I had been greatly anticipating this day because, while I knew in the back of my mind that large-scale mono-culture agriculture was a serious issue especially in places like Brazil, I was excited to learn about the process of soy production and to the complexity of the situation. Shockingly our academic director had scored us a lecture with a Cargill representative and even a tour of the port facilities. We watched a few short films to get a background on the soy process and even at that point I was astonished to learn how expansive the deforestation was in order to create soy fields (increasing staggeringly each year), the number of local communities being literally kicked off of their lands having their homes and infrastructure burned down and claimed by soy farmers, and additionally the incredible demand for soy that exists around the world as soy oil is found in countless food products, soy grain is fed to all types of animals used to create the meat that we buy in the supermarkets, not to mention the amount of soy being used as is in many vegetarian and other alternative products. Needless to say I was pretty interested to hear what a Cargill representative had to say about all of this.

The port itself was impressively large to me, especially because this was the first real large-scale agricultural facility I had ever seen. It basically comprised of a barge-loading area in the river, a large building of offices, and a huge storage area complete with processing capabilities. We were informed that the soy beans exported from the Santarem port were primarily arriving by barge and truck from the Mato Grosso region (an extremely controversial state in Brazil given that it has been largely occupied by soy plantations) and that they export around 2 million tons of soy bean per year from just this one port. Although this number is kind of hard to comprehend, the effect I felt after walking inside their storage building which can hold up to 60,000 tons of soy bean and seeing the enormity of the pile of grain that was inside, it must have been two stories high despite that we were informed that the storage building was “almost empty” gave me a sense of the situation’s scale. It was so interesting, too, to be interacting with one of the largest corporations in the world – I definitely noticed that this influenced the degree to which our questions regarding subjects like local communities in soy-affected regions were addressed. Being an agricultural corporation in an age of growing environmentalism, Cargill did make a few claims to sustainability. This included participating in the Soy Moratorium, an agreement among soy companies not to by soy beans harvested from areas that had been deforested for fewer than two years, and most surprising to me Cargill explained a relatively substantial relationship with the Nature Conservancy. Hearing about these “sustainability efforts” just made me want to research this issue in more depth because while it is not necessarily fair to assume that Cargill inherently has no concern for the environment, it is equally as important not to allow yourself to be “green-washed” and believe everything that is told to you.

The whole experience related to Cargill showed me that large-scale agricultural development has become the biggest deforestation issue facing the Amazon today. This was a vital realization to come to as I had primarily been thinking of deforestation in the context of logging and development. With this knowledge in hand I feel more prepared than ever to continue working for justice in the rainforest.

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