The following was written as a response and in order to provide context for a Pulitzer Center-supported story, "The Dream of a Jungle Train Loaded With Soy (Portuguese)."
The EF-170 railroad project, also known as Ferrogrão, is slated for construction in one of the most diverse and threatened regions of the Brazilian Amazon, closing its eyes to the complex context of socioenvironmental conflicts along its path. Ferrogrão is considered a national priority by the federal government, which has used it to showcase its new program of investments for the country, but the railroad is riddled with uncertainties and illusions.
Extending almost a thousand kilometers, from Sinop (Mato Grosso) to the Port of Miritituba (Pará), the project will be built on the high ground (interfluve) between the Xingu and Tapajós River basins, with a view to consolidating the new commodities export corridor in the Amazon. The building of the railroad is expected to intensify land disputes and exacerbate the socio-environmental impacts associated with deforestation and incursions into Indigenous Lands and Conservation Units along its path.
The Tapajós-Xingu interfluve region is one of the areas most impacted by deforestation in the Amazon. Data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) show that five of the 10 most deforested Conservation Units in 2020 are located there, and that the National Forest of Jamanxim, in Pará, sits atop this grim ranking. The same occurs with the most deforested municipalities: five of the 10 most devastated for the period are located in the region.
The municipality of Novo Progresso, which ranks as one of the most deforested in 2020, made international headlines last year for being the backdrop for the “Day of Fire,” and origin of the criminal arson perpetrated in the Amazon. In the region, moves have been made to weaken protections for Protected Areas and reduce their size, in places like the National Park of Jamanxim, this year’s fifth most deforested Conservation Unit, which lost a portion of its territory to make way for the Ferrogrão. The illegal reduction of this fully protected area is one of the reasons for the judicialization of the Ferrogrão project.
In Mato Grosso, the farming region of Sinop is also one of the largest deforestation fronts in the Amazon. Illegal deforestation in forest remnant areas has intensified since 2018 and around 40 percent of the headwaters of the Xingu River have already been destroyed. Between 2012 and 2017, over a quarter of the deforestation in the state occurred inside soybean farms, 95 percent of which was illegal, despite the Soybean Moratorium.
With the Ferrogrão, this scenario is expected to worsen. A simulation conducted by the Climate Policy Initiative showed that the expansion of the farming frontier in the municipalities of Mato Grosso potentially benefited by the reduced shipping costs would lead to the deforestation of at least 204,000 hectares of forest, the equivalent of U.S. $1.9 billion in carbon emissions.
The planned construction of the railroad terminal in Matupá is expected to drive the use of MT-322 and the building of a bridge over the Xingu River for a highway that would pass 80 kilometers inside the territory of the Kayapó people (Capoto Jarina Indigenous Land) and the Xingu Indigenous Land. The MT-322 cuts east-west across 26 million hectares of continuous forest between the states of Mato Grosso and Pará, encompassing 21 Indigenous Lands and 9 Conservation Units.
The illusion of sustainability of the Ferrogrão fades as the socio-environmental and land use context is revealed. With the threats facing their territory, Indigenous peoples of the Tapajós-Xingu interfluve region have mobilized continuously since the announcement of preliminary studies for the project, in 2016, for their right to be consulted.
In 2017, the administration, already notified by federal prosecutors of their obligation to conduct a Free, Prior and Informed Consultation with the Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, committed themselves to a public hearing to be held before moving forward with the concession plan and auction for the railroad. The administration did not honor its commitment and in 2018 started the environmental licensing process for the railroad without discussing the technical viability studies with the Indigenous and traditional communities, while leaving the Kayapó, Panará, Kayabi, Yudjá, and other people out of the environmental impact studies for the railroad and denying these people their right to a free, prior and informed consultation.
The result of interest from a consortium of international and domestic agricultural commodity trading companies, the EF-170 railway project appeared on the government agenda as a strategic investment for Brazilian agribusiness. In their eagerness to convince investors, the administration and interested groups have engaged in a discourse of sustainability regarding the investment.
But behind this narrative of “sustainability” the administration has taken advantage of formal limitations in Brazilian environmental legislation, by invoking Interministerial Ordinance no. 60/2015, which limits the assessment of socio-environmental impacts to a 10-kilometer strip on either side of the planned railroad. The administration makes use of a regulation with fragile technical justification to legally disregard the real extent of the impacts of the enterprise, which will befall the various Indigenous Lands and Conservation Units, in addition to ignoring the pleas of Indigenous peoples to observe their right to consultation.
The choice was made to suppress the socio-environmental context of the region and continue with the investment project despite the various complaints lodged by the Xingu and Tapajós while also ensuring an insufficient ceiling for spending on measures to compensate and mitigate socio-environmental impacts, and stipulating that any amount exceeding this threshold would be borne by the federal government. In other words, Brazilians are the ones who will pay the unaccounted socio-environmental costs for a private enterprise whose liabilities will certainly fall to public coffers.
The so-called legal certainty that the Brazilian government says safeguards potential investors is a pipe dream. Uncertainties surrounding the impacts and the size of the socio-environmental impacts of the enterprise on the Indigenous and riverside people of the Tapajós-Xingu interfluve region alter the risk profile of the project, whose concession period is 65 years. The illusion of the Ferrogrão could prove costly in the present and for future generations of Brazilians, and above all for the people of the Amazon forest.
André Villas Bôas, executive secretary of Rede Xingu +, coordinating 22 organizations of Indigenous and riverside people and civil society joined in the defense of the Xingu Corridor (www.xingumais.org.br).