When U.S. grain giant Cargill opened a $20 million port in this Amazon River city three years ago, it expected to cash in on the rising global demand for soybeans that had become Brazil's richest agricultural export.
Instead, the Minnetonka, Minn.-based company today is under fire from residents, environmentalists and federal prosecutors, who say the port is illegal and are suing to shut it down.
Soy has become a villain for Amazon defenders and has turned environmentalists against the Brazilians who, like Cargill, see it as the only product capable of raising Santarem out of poverty.
In May, Greenpeace activists were arrested after shutting the Santarem port down for three and a half hours and hanging a banner reading "Cargill Out" from the port's grain loaders.
"We're not against Cargill. We're against soy in the Amazon. It's the wrong development model. The federal prosecutors are the ones against Cargill, we're just trying to alert everyone to the fact that soy isn't good for the Amazon," said Paulo Adario, director of Greenpeace's Amazon campaign.
Not prepared for backlash
Soy farming has overtaken cattle ranching and logging as the worst destroyer of the rainforest. The Amazon lost 6,950 square miles of rainforest between 2003 and 2004. Some 4,633 square miles of soybeans were planted during that time, making Brazil the world's No. 2 producer of soy after the United States. Brazil has so successfully adapted soy to the tropics that it exported $10 billion dollars worth last year — more than sugar and coffee combined.
Aware of the soy boom, Cargill thought it had found a multimillion dollar opportunity a decade ago at the end of a neglected dirt road running from Brazil's heartland state of Mato Grosso — Brazil's biggest soy producer — to Santarem.
Cargill figured it could cut shipping costs by some $15 a ton if the road was paved. But it wasn't prepared for the backlash — and the road never was paved.
"All I can say is that Cargill did everything the state told us we needed to do to open up the port," said Antenor Giovannini, the port's administrative manager.
Prosecutors say Cargill failed to comply with federal regulations by not conducting an environmental impact assessment for the port and by building it on top of sensitive a pre-Colombian archaeological site.
Cargill did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the charges.
Shift in public opinion
In February, Brazil's second-highest court gave Cargill six months to carry out the environmental survey. The company and Para state, where Santarem is located, are appealing while the port's fate awaits the study's results.
"We are close to shutting down the port," said federal prosecutor Felicia Pontes Jr. "Public opinion has turned against Cargill. Four or five years ago the situation was different, the public supported the port. But now they see they aren't getting jobs. Someone is getting rich and it's not the people of the forest."
Pontes says the port's very existence has sped deforestation in the area around Santarem, known for its proximity to pristine rainforest, as farmers cut down jungle to grow soybeans mostly because they have somewhere to ship them from.
Lack of local jobs
Greenpeace says much of that deforestation is illegal, because soybean farmers routinely ignore environmental regulations requiring landowners in the Amazon to leave 80 percent of their forested areas standing. Local soy growers, in turn, have paid for billboards and bumper stickers reading: "Greenpeace go home. The Amazon is Brazilian." Many local residents have soured on Cargill, too, because the expected jobs never materialized.
"They complain about Cargill because of the way it was sold by the politicians, they created the expectation the port it would bring millions of dollars and millions of jobs. We never promised that," Giovannini said.
The company also has tried to clean up its environmental image. Giovannini said for the next harvest the company could require soy farmers who sell to Cargill to present certificates that their soybeans were grown in accordance with Brazilian environmental laws.
Giovannini denies that Cargill now faces a boondoggle — "Instead of recuperating our investment in six or seven years it may take 10," he said — but foreigners have a long record of failing to make it in the Brazilian jungle.
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