June 11, 2020


Soybean factory expands in Brazil's Amazon


As the COVID-19 outbreak reaches deep into Brazil's Amazon, a continuous stream of trucks has been transporting soybeans and construction workers to an expanding port complex in the middle of the forest, Reuters reported.


Indigenous activists have opposed the Itaituba port in Pará state for nearly a decade, even before shipments began there in 2014.


But now the pandemic and expansion works are fuelling new fears about the port's impact on traditional communities and the biodiversity riches of the Tapajós river.


"There's a flow of workers all the time. Nothing's changed. It's like the virus didn't exist," said Alessandra Munduruku, a leader of the Munduruku people who lives in Praia do Indio, a village within 10 km (6 miles) of the grain port.


Local indigenous leaders say the complex in Miritituba district is illegal because the companies involved did not comply with an international convention, enshrined in Brazilian law, requiring prior consultation with traditional communities.


"The companies never listen to us," Munduruku, who campaigns on indigenous rights throughout Brazil, said by phone.


Global agroindustry giants Bunge and Cargill are among about a dozen firms that use the Itaituba terminals to load grain grown as far as 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away in big soybean-producing regions such as Mato Grosso and western Bahia.


Bunge and Cargill told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they operate legally and have met all the licensing requirements set by Semas, Pará's environment secretariat.


As construction work moves forward on a new port area, just down the river from the current terminals, Munduruku said villagers worry that new roads and construction will encroach further on the forest and their way of life.


Josenaldo Luna de Castro, a community leader from the city of Itaituba, said the traffic of heavy ships on the river since the port complex was established had hurt fish stocks, forcing more than 70% of fishermen to abandon their profession.


Now COVID-19 is exhausting scarce healthcare resources in other Amazon cities, including hard-hit Manaus, and Luna de Castro said Itaituba's residents fear the long lines of truck drivers who arrive in the city each day could bring the virus with them.


"There's no inspection and no control," he said by phone from the city of about 100,000 people.


As Brazil's coronavirus death toll surges, Pará state alone has reported more than 3,800 fatalities, more than 30 of them in Itaituba.


Among Brazil's indigenous people there have been at least 2,600 infections and 247 deaths from COVID-19, according to an indigenous umbrella group, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil.


Ten Munduruku are among the dead, according to Alessandra Munduruku.


The Itaituba port terminals, which each year handle about eight million tonnes of grain destined for key markets in Europe and Asia, have been allowed to continue operating as normal during Pará's lockdown.


An association of port operators, Amport, said its members "comply with strict security protocols" to stem the spread of the virus but gave no further details.


A little way down river from the terminals used by Cargill and Bunge, the pandemic has not interrupted ongoing construction work on a port area being built by Rio Tapajós Logística (RTL).


Two indigenous villages, Praia do Indio and Praia do Mangue, lie close to the port complex.


But at least 140 villages and 14,000 indigenous people in the area will be affected by the expanded port, according to a consultation drawn up by the Munduruku people.


They say the company, and the others already operating in the area, are in breach of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which requires businesses to consult with indigenous communities before embarking on major projects.


Opponents of Itaituba port say the convention must be respected regardless of whether companies have been granted a license by state authorities.


RTL did not respond to several requests for comment.

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