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Road to ruin

(Sunday, Aug. 22, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- A paved road may soon run through Brazil's Terra do Meio rainforest. That'll be only the beginning.

Knight Ridder Foreign Service, 08/21/04

A stranger armed with a 12-gauge shotgun marched in and set up his tent inside Francisca Soares' little dirt-floored house on the bank on this remote tributary of the Amazon River.

The stranger is a land squatter, and his presence is the beginning of the end for a jungle teeming with wild monkeys and macaws.

If experience is any guide, within a decade the jungle that surrounds Soares, a 70-year-old grandmother, will be transformed into millions of acres of soybeans growing in fields as tame as those found in Kansas or Minnesota.

These 32,000 square miles of virgin rainforest, called Terra do Meio Middle Lands is the last ecologically pristine zone in the Amazon's eastern basin. But Tarcisio Feitosa, the head of the Altamira office of the Pastoral Land Commission, or CPT, a social welfare arm of the Roman Catholic Church, believes the Middle Lands are as marked for development as a jaguar in the scope of a hunter's rifle is for death.

"What you're seeing is how the process of deforestation and occupation begins," he said.

"The first thing is you expel the local inhabitants with intimidation and the power of weapons, and then you open some paths in the forest to claim your areas," he continued. "Then comes slave labor, plus deforestation, plus illegal logging. It is a coming together of ills that happens in sequential fashion."

The squatter who seized Soares' house works for a mysterious Dr. Celso his last name is unknown to locals who's betting that a dirt road through the thick jungle about 30 miles from Soares' home will soon be paved. If that happens, soybeans will be much easier to market, and land values will soar. In the meantime, Dr. Celso's squatters are taking over jungle land by the cheapest possible method: seizing it at gunpoint.

It's hard to imagine the remoteness of the Amazon jungle area that's drawing speculators. The nearest streetlight and doctor are about 300 miles away in the riverfront town of Altamira. Getting there takes two days in a boat with a 40-horsepower outboard motor. By the ferries that Soares and most other people use, it takes a week.

Yet teams of squatters, whose only claim to the land is their audacity, are measuring and marking plots for private sale here. You can buy Middle Lands rainforest on the Internet, if you're not put off by Web sites stating that no land title comes with the sale. The ads stress that the land is flat. Translation: Ideal for soybeans. Jungle acreage worth $50 a year or two ago now sells for $200.

It doesn't seem to matter that the land involved is government-owned and slated to become an ecological preserve. In fact, most steps entailed in claiming, clearing and developing Amazon jungle land are illegal. What matters is that the new squatters are heavily armed and unopposed.

"Man, even the cook had a gun," said Jose Pereira do Nascimento, 13, after he was detained briefly at an encampment of men protecting a clandestine landing strip a day's paddle from Francisca Soares' riverbank home. Illegal mahogany loggers cut the strip out of the jungle four years ago, locals said, but it was taken over by soy-minded squatters in a recent gun battle.

The Brazilian government in April reported that between August 2002 and August 2003, jungle equal in area to the state of Vermont was lost to development. Since the mid-1970s, an area more than one and a half times the size of California has been deforested about 16 percent of Brazil's Amazon rainforest.

The planet's ability to absorb carbon dioxide and resist global warming also is threatened by the jungle's clearing, as are species of plants and living organisms yet undiscovered.

Afonso Alves da Cruz, 68, employed by Brazil's equivalent of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, is an outspoken critic of the soybean revolution in the Amazon a position so embattled that after two foiled ambushes and squatters' death threats, he travels only at night.

"This whole region is now under invasion," he said.

The main provocation is the proposed paving of a 1,071-mile federal road known as BR 163. The road passes within 30 miles of parts of the Riozinho do Anfrizio river and marks the western border of much of the Middle Lands.

The dirt road, which connects soy farms in northern Mato Grosso State to the deep-water Amazon River port at Santarem, was cut out of the jungle decades ago by development-minded Brazilian military leaders who promised to give "a land without people to people without land." More than half of the road remains unpaved and is virtually impassable during the rainy season, which stretches from November until June.

Keen to pave the road and usher in year-round truck traffic is a consortium that includes Minneapolis-based commodities giant Cargill Inc., owner of a new $20 million soybean export terminal in Santarem.

"If they pave it, the price of land will go up. If it is paved, movement (of grains) will triple," predicted Helio Franco da Cruz, a soy farmer from Parana in southern Brazil. He bought nearly 1,000 acres of titled land outside Santarem in 2002.

Brazil, which exported less than 6 million tons of soybeans a decade ago, aims to export 20.5 million tons from its 2003-2004 harvests, ranking it second to U.S. exports of 24.5 million tons.

Brazilian soybean exports, worth $8.3 billion last year, are expected to surpass U.S. exports in the next two years. The main reason is that while U.S. producers have run out of land, Brazil still has plenty of Amazon jungle land to exploit.

At Cargill's Minneapolis headquarters, spokeswoman Lori Johnson disputed claims that Cargill's terminal and road-paving consortium are sparking deforestation in the eastern Amazon.

"I think that is attributing way too much to this terminal. It was built primarily for the Mato Grosso area and some local production around Santarem," Johnson said. "We believe there is room for soybean expansion in an environmentally appropriate way."

Source: http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/news/nation/9457621.htm?1c