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Soy in the Amazon

ISSUE:  Fall 2007
Soy Fields and Jungle
Soybeans and rainforest collide in the Brazilian Amazon.

We caught a predawn flight out of Cuiabá. The plane headed north in darkness, vaulting over the invisible mesas and out across the vast tablelands of the planalto. The sun came up on a flat expanse of red earth checkered with dense scrubland and enormous clearings, the boundary lines cut as sharp and straight as hedgerows. Only the forested banks of the rivers and streams followed lines at all natural, and yet they seemed all the more alien for it, like weeds in an otherwise immaculate garden. The plane touched down on a desolate runway surrounded by soybeans, the crop rows stretching dead-level to the horizon. Kory and I were the only passengers to disembark. There was no terminal to speak of, just a deserted hangar housing two small planes, the rafters filled with birds, their calls echoing in the cavernous metal enclosure. Kory unclipped the cell phone at his belt and, pointing to a large grain elevator rising in the distance, said: “That’s Lucas.”

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Kory Melby is a freelance farm consultant and soy expert from northwestern Minnesota who now makes his home in Goiânia, in Brazil’s Center-West region. His clients include farmers, fund managers, reporters—anyone who seeks a guide to the region’s agriculture. In his late thirties, with a high pale forehead, jutting jaw, and a beach-ball gut that strains the buttons of his shirts, Melby describes himself as a lost Viking, who through some quirk of fate wound up blessed, as he puts it, with a wife and child in Brazil. In answer to my first e-mail he had written, Dear Pat: I am a Brazil/Mato Grosso fanatic. I love the pioneer spirit, the wide-open spaces, and positive attitude among the dynamic farmers in the area. Lucas do Rio Verde, Mato Grosso, is the Garden of Eden in my opinion. My friends there are a pioneer success story. Marino moved to Lucas in 1988 when it was a shantytown. His brother Paulo joined him after he finished university in Iowa. Now Marino is mayor of a 30,000-person town in the middle of “soybean ground zero” on the whole planet.

Grain Bin
Looking across field and forest from atop a grain bin near Sinop.

Wide-open spaces are, in fact, a new feature of the landscape. The name Mato Grosso translates as “dense forest,” but in recent years, the state has been subject to some of the most rampant deforestation on Earth, with land being cleared in a mad rush to graze cattle and grow crops—principally soybeans.

Located in the heart of South America, Mato Grosso figures prominently in the annals of twentieth-century exploration: Teddy Roosevelt came to the remote territory in 1914 (after he was president) to explore an uncharted Amazon tributary, along with the great Brazilian explorer, and Mato-grossense, Cândido Rondon; it was here that the enigmatic Colonel Fawcett pulled his great vanishing act in 1925, during his search for the Lost City of Z; and, in the late 1930s, Mato Grosso provided the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss both the material and setting for what would become his luminous masterpiece, Tristes tropiques. The place still sounds like the back of beyond to most Brazilians, the majority of whom are crowded into the coastal areas of the southeast. More than twenty million people live in the city of São Paulo, as compared to fewer than three million in all of Mato Grosso, a state larger than Texas. When I tried to get by on a tourist visa for my trip, the woman at the consulate looked at my application and asked, “What kind of work will you be doing there?” How did she know I wasn’t a tourist? Sliding the forms back across the counter, she smiled at me through the Plexiglas. “No one goes there for tourism,” she said.

In truth, I was going to Mato Grosso to see for myself what I imagined to be the front line in the march of civilization, a place where the epic theme of Man versus Nature had finally assumed some awful clarity: on this side, industrial-scale monoculture; on that side, the paragon of biodiversity—a line in the jungle you could step across. Now here I was, thirteen degrees south of the equator, at the southern fringe of the Amazon, looking across a sea of soy to the town of Lucas do Rio Verde. Soybean ground zero. The Garden of Eden.

*  *  *  *  

The annual destruction of the Amazon rainforest is tallied every August and announced to a world sadly accustomed to the idea that its greatest tropical forest is being wiped off the face of the Earth. Invariably, the area of destruction is so large that the loss is expressed in terms of states or countries—a Vermont here, an Ireland there—roughly equivalent measures meant to make the scale of the catastrophe more readily apprehensible, as if all of us could say, for example, that this many Connecticuts make a Texas or that there are so many Switzerlands to a France. Oddly, the effect of the news seemed to be a lulling of concern, as if the Amazon could go on disappearing indefinitely, without ever actually doing so. Just as the rallying cries of Save the Amazon faded to background noise, however, the alarm sounded again. From August 2002 to July 2003, the rate of deforestation suddenly spiked, jumping 40 percent from the previous year. Satellite data revealed that fully 10,000 square miles of rainforest—a New Jersey’s worth—had gone up in smoke. Mato Grosso accounted for nearly half that total. The following year, it happened again. Another year, another New Jersey. Poof. Gone. Now it is estimated that 20 percent of the Amazon’s 1.6 million square miles has been lost to human development.

The usual suspects in the deforestation of the Amazon are logging and, to a much greater extent, subsistence-level slash-and-burn agriculture. Fire is the main tool of clearing, the flames surrendering the nutrients of the forest to the notoriously poor Amazonian soil. Crops and cattle follow the flames, the ruminants grazing the hard-won pasture until the nutrients leach away and the soil is exhausted. In a few years, after the land is rendered sterile, the process repeats itself and moves deeper into the forest. So it has gone, year after year. But how to explain the sudden and dramatic increase in destruction? In September of 2003, New York Times reporter Larry Rohter provided some answers in a story headlined, “Relentless Foe of the Amazon Jungle: Soybeans.”

Rohter, the Gray Lady’s man in Brazil, explained that an unexpectedly small soy harvest in the US, the world’s leading exporter, combined with surging worldwide demand, had sent the price of soybeans soaring. Demand came from two directions simultaneously—China and Europe—and none of it had to do with tofu or tempeh, soy milk or miso. Despite its reputation as the “poor man’s meat” and a vegetarian staple, the vast majority of the world’s soy production is consumed at the trough, not the table—as feed, not food. What makes soy a desirable component of livestock rations is the same thing that makes it desirable to vegans and vegetarians; namely, its remarkably high protein content (40 percent by weight), which serves to bulk up poultry, pigs, and cattle quickly and cheaply.

In Europe, increased soy demand resulted from the Mad Cow scare, as farmers, prohibited by law from feeding their animals rendered carcasses, were forced to find a nonanimal protein substitute. To complicate matters, the EU shunned genetically modified soy, which accounts for more than 85 percent of US production.

In China, where soybeans originate, soy imports increased by a factor of ten between 1999 and 2003, largely as a result of the country’s growing affluence and a corresponding shift in diet. According to UN figures, per capita meat consumption in China more than tripled between 1981 and 2002, from 33.1 pounds per person to 115.5 pounds. (That still pales in comparison to US appetites; the average American eats more than 250 pounds of meat each year.)

Brazil is one of the few places on Earth where agriculture can expand to meet this new demand. Little stands in the way but forest. In fact, not even that; it’s true that plenty of land was converted directly to soy production, but for the most part, Mato Grosso’s soy growers took over areas that had already been cleared for pasture. As land prices rose, however, cattle ranchers were quick to capitalize and move their herds deeper into the frontier. In this way, explains forest ecologist Daniel Nepstad, soy agriculture has “greased the skids” for Amazon deforestation. In a 2006 paper entitled “Globalization of the Amazon Soy and Beef Industries,” Nepstad borrowed the term teleconnections from climatology to explain the explosive growth of agriculture in Mato Grosso. Just as torrential rains along the arid coast of Peru and searing drought in Australia occur as linked but distant manifestations of the same meteorological phenomenon—namely, El Niño—so the surge in deforestation rates could be seen as part and parcel of global consumption patterns, the market signals emanating from Chinese woks and French sauté pans reverberating through the Amazon in the form of falling trees.

*  *  *  *  

The role of soy in Amazon deforestation came to wider attention in the spring of 2006, after Greenpeace released a damning report titled “Eating Up the Amazon.” With four pages of references and nearly 300 endnotes, the 64-page report is thoroughly documented and well written, laid out with just-the-facts-ma’am efficiency: the Crime, the Scene of the Crime, the Criminals, the Partners in Crime. It’s Greenpeace as ecocide detective.

The leading culprits in the report are the multinational corporations ADM, Bunge, and Cargill, which together control the global soy trade. Cargill, in particular, is accused of illegally constructing a soy facility in the Amazon port city of Santarém, and thus attracting industrial-scale agriculture to the heart of the rainforest. McDonald’s is another target, conveniently singled out for feeding its European customers chicken fattened on Amazon soy. But the real face of evil in the Greenpeace report is not Ronald McDonald but Blairo Maggi, the governor of Mato Grosso.

The single largest soy grower in the world, Maggi is commonly referred to in the Brazilian press as “O Rei da Soja.” The King of Soy. As villains go, he is made-to-order. A picture in the report shows him striding imperiously, flanked by sycophants, beady eyes darting from a round, fleshy face, the head bursting from the collar of his oxford without benefit of a neck. More than his swinish aspect, however, it is Governor Maggi’s statements to the foreign press that have made him the personification of ecological depravity. In the New York Times story by Larry Rohter, Maggi is quoted as saying: “To me, a 40 percent increase in deforestation doesn’t mean anything at all, and I don’t feel the slightest guilt over what we are doing here . . . . We’re talking about an area larger than Europe that has barely been touched, so there is nothing at all to get worried about.”

Few politicians anywhere are as openly disdainful of environmentalists. In their book, The Last Forest: The Amazon in the Age of Globalization, Mark London and Brian Kelly record a 2003 conversation with Maggi in which he discussed the selection of his environmental secretary. By his own account, the governor included environmentalists in the process, asking them for a list of their most-desired candidates as well as those they abhorred. “I studied their lists,” Maggi recalled, “and then I chose my environment secretary—the person they most did not want me to appoint.”

In June 2005, a federal sting brought down an illegal logging ring operating in the Amazon. Of the eighty-four people arrested, half reportedly worked for IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental agency responsible for enforcing logging restrictions. One of those busted was Moacir Pires, Maggi’s environment minister, who was charged with receiving kickbacks. The month before the arrests, Maggi had called a press conference in response to a profile that had appeared in the British tabloid The Independent—the headline: “The rape of the rainforest . . . and the man behind it.” With the microphones on and cameras rolling, the Soy King proclaimed his innocence: “I am not the rapist of the rainforest.” To environmentalists, of course, the governor was guilty as charged, and Greenpeace, in a well-publicized bit of theater, bestowed upon him the Golden Chainsaw, awarded to the person most culpable for Amazon deforestation.

*  *  *  *  

Forest is slashed and burned to create pasture for cattle. In pushing cattle ranching deeper into the Amazon, soy agriculture effectively greased the skids for deforestation.

By the time I arrived in Brazil last November, deforestation rates had dropped as sharply as they had risen. While the government in Brasilia pointed to its enforcement efforts as a leading cause of the decline, most observers believed the trend had more to do with economic factors, including the price of soy, which had plummeted in tandem with the mood of Mato Grosso’s farmers.

“Euphoric hysteria,” Kory Melby intoned in his not-so-euphoric prairie drawl. “That’s what you had here in Mato Grosso back in June of 2004, at what I would call the peak. From that to shitty times, just like that.” We were sitting in the lobby of the Amazon Hotel in Cuiabá before leaving for Lucas, Kory sprawled in a deep rattan chair, giving me his analysis. “So, what happened? Well, we had the soy price drop over 50 percent in a year and a half. That in itself we could have dealt with. But on top of it, we had the currency exchange go from around three reais to the dollar to more like two reais per dollar, so the farmer was now getting less for his crop. Then we had Hurricane Katrina and the whole crude oil situation, which meant that fertilizer and energy costs suddenly tripled. And all this led to a credit crisis and land devaluation. And there was one more thing. Gosh, what was my fourth point?” Kory, who had found his angle of repose in the rattan chair, suddenly sat upright and rubbed his chin. “Uh, let’s see: soy prices, currency exchange, inputs . . . oh yeah, and Asian rust. That’s the fourth factor: The continued chronic pressure of Asian rust—ferrugem asiática. Those four things hit ’em all at the same time, and it just literally cut their nuts off.”

Every crop has its scourge, and Asian rust is soy’s. In the humid tropics, the leaf blight found an ideal environment in which to proliferate and is now epidemic in the region. Although farmers have so far managed to control the problem with repeated applications of fungicide, the effort takes another slice from already thin profit margins.

For all the challenges the farmers faced, however, Kory thought the worst had passed. After striking growers brought trucking to a halt, farm debts were rolled forward one year, and the government stepped in with minimum-price guarantees. For many producers, no doubt, it was too little, too late. For those who hung on, the outlook for agriculture in Mato Grosso remains bright. New biodiesel plants, which will turn soybean oil to motor fuel, are coming on line in response to government regulations requiring a 5 percent mix at the pump. At the same time, President Bush’s newfound infatuation with ethanol means that American farmers are planting more acres to corn, fewer to soy. “So what’s going to happen?” Kory asked. “Is the US going to concentrate on corn and let Brazil take over world soy production?” No one is waiting for the question to become settled. Private investment is pouring into the region as it diversifies not only into biofuels but also confined livestock and poultry operations, the idea being to raise animals on locally grown feed and slaughter them in situ. Vertical integration. Value-added production. These are the magic words, incantations to ward off further recession.

But perhaps the greatest cause for optimism in northern Mato Grosso came in the lead-up to last year’s presidential runoff election, when Blairo Maggi met with the incumbent, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was in trouble in the polls amid a string of corruption scandals. At the last minute, Maggi threw his support behind Lula in exchange for a promise of one billion reais in federal funds to improve Mato Grosso’s woefully inadequate infrastructure. The bulk of that money would go to paving BR-163, the 1,000-mile-long Cuiabá–Santarém Highway, roughly half of which is still dirt. Also known as the Soy Highway, the unpaved road turns to axle-deep paste in the rainy season—eight months of the year. Farmers in Mato Grosso have some of the lowest production costs in the world, but their transportation costs are exorbitant. More than any other development, producers view completion of BR-163, which would shave hundreds of miles off the trip to port, as the lynchpin to further development.

Environmentalists see a different picture. In their view, to finish BR-163 is to finish off the forest. And they have good reason to think so. Historically, deforestation and roads have gone hand in hand, with research showing that 85 percent of Amazon deforestation occurs within 30 miles of a road. To address that concern, Lula’s administration has decreed a huge, 32,000-square-mile reserve on the western flank of BR-163, which it says will protect the corridor from the ravages of past development. Environmentalists point out, however, that the government can’t enforce the laws in existing reserves, so what hope is there for new, more remote ones? Undeterred, Maggi is forging ahead. The governor has formed a consortium of growers to get the project done with or without federal assistance.

*  *  *  *  

Mato Grosso’s soy producers are largely dependent on trucking to deliver their crop to Atlantic seaports. Trucks arrive loaded with fertilizer and leave filled with grain.

“We don’t need roads to cut down forest. All we need is sawmills and cattle, as you’ll see when you go north.”

Plinio Silva was speaking with Kory and me in the hotel lobby in Cuiabá. A swarthy, barrel-chested man with thick eyebrows and a broad smile, he struck me as both imposing and avuncular. In contrast to Kory, who has a way of melting into chairs, Plinio assumed a posture of stone-like rectitude in his. A city planner and civil engineer who had designed whole towns in the frontier from the ground up, he now serves as organizer of the state council of mayors. When I asked him whether he was familiar with the Greenpeace report, Plinio answered in slow, purposeful English, which, he apologized, was rusty from lack of use. “First of all, let me say that I am a supporter of Greenpeace. I think they do very important work. But it does not seem to us that they are reporting our reality. Honestly, I don’t see them asking us how things are. They are beating on us.” He smiled. “They are beating on us and we don’t know why. What do they want?”

Ultimately, I said, what the environmentalists want is for the clearing to stop.

“I think we can live with that. Honestly, we already have enough land to work with. This will be best for all of us. Not just us, but for our neighbors and the whole world. If there was a consistent policy, I think most Mato-grossenses would support it. But some points have to be considered first: Why are people cutting down forest? Because they like to? No. Brazil is a poor country. We have to develop.

“Most people here in Mato Grosso know they have to maintain the Cerrado, the Amazon, and the Pantanal. But there is a lack of social commitment and a lack of common sense in people. This is the major difficulty.” He paused while I scribbled in my notebook. “Tell people we want partners, people with something to bring to the table who are committed to finding results. We don’t need more critics.

“I have a dream,” he said finally, his face breaking into a knowing smile at the invocation of Dr. King. “I have a dream that we can get there and we can get there with dignity.”

*  *  *  *  

Technically speaking, the entire state of Mato Grosso is Amazon; that is, Legal Amazon, an administrative designation comprising nine states and an area larger than Europe. In reality, slightly less than half the state lies within the Amazon Basin—that is, in the Amazon drainage. Basin may also give a false impression, as the rivers of northern Mato Grosso flow to the Amazon from an upland plateau, 1,000 feet above sea level.

Cerrado is a shortened form of campo cerrado, which means “closed country.” A scrubby mix of gnarled woodland and tropical savanna, it is an unlovely and unloved place. When Claude Lévi-Strauss set out to explore the long-forsaken badlands in the 1930s, he first made inquiries around Cuiabá. Everyone, he wrote, offered the same “dismal lament: ‘Um pais ruim, muito ruim, mais ruim que qualquer outro’ (‘vile country, absolutely vile, viler than any other’).” Cerrado covers one-fifth of Brazil and is the country’s second-largest ecosystem after the Amazon rainforest. Although considered a “biodiversity hotspot,” less than 2 percent of the Cerrado currently enjoys permanent protection, and efforts to conserve more of it play second fiddle to higher-profile rainforest campaigns.

As for the Pantanal, the word is Portuguese for “swampland.” Said to be the world’s largest inland wetlands, it straddles the borders with Bolivia and Paraguay and is renowned for its spectacular fishing and wildlife viewing. The woman from the consulate notwithstanding, the Pantanal is in fact a world-class tourist destination. If you want to see animals, they say, skip the Amazon. See the Pantanal.

*  *  *  *  

BR-163 runs through Lucas do Rio Verde in four lanes of fresh blacktop, separated by a wide, palm-dotted median. The town is laid out in an orderly grid near the banks of the namesake river; in the town’s middle is a long strip of forest park. The streets are in good repair—no washouts, no broken sidewalks—and anyone accustomed to the usual Latin American insouciance about litter will be struck by the general cleanliness. The effect is Iowa in the tropics, Council Bluffs with palm trees

Upon arrival, we took a driving tour with Michael Boz. In his midtwenties, Boz owns a tire store on the highway that deals exclusively in rubber for farm machinery—tractors, combines, and the like. He came to Mato Grosso two years ago from Paraná after scouting other agricultural centers. Lucas struck him as the land of opportunity. “I arrived on a Tuesday,” he said. “By Thursday, I had a deal.” Boz drives a four-wheel-drive pickup, which may as well be the official state vehicle: not the hulking three-ton monsters of the American roadway, but midsize Mitsubishi turbo-diesels and Toyota HiLuxes. As he drove, Boz pointed out the newest developments: the high school, the courthouse, the hospital. All spanking new. “Everything you see here,” he said, “the government didn’t build this. It was the people, the farmers.”

Brazil is infamous for having the greatest wealth disparity in the Americas, but Lucas feels solidly middle-class. Certainly, there are no favelas yet, as the ramshackle slums of Brazil’s teeming cities are called. In much of Latin America, a man’s home is his fortress, the perimeter walls bristling with shards of broken glass to ward off intruders. In Lucas, the homes are, so far, innocent of any such defense, their front doors open to the street. As Kory noted in his first e‑mail to me, the town currently has about 30,000 inhabitants, but the population has been growing by as much as 18 percent each year, with no signs of stopping. Boz said the figure is projected to hit 150,000 in ten years. If it does, Lucas will have nearly double the population of present-day Decatur, Illinois—the headquarters of Archer Daniels Midland—whose residents have come to think of their hometown as the Soybean Capital of the World.

We rolled to a stop at the riverbank, the Rio Verde boiling past. A low wooden bridge connected the thickly forested banks, the tall trees on either side forming a green wall of jungle foliage. At this point, I must have said something about the Amazon, because Boz wagged a finger and said, No, this is mata. Só mata. Just forest. To see the true Amazon rainforest—Floresta Amazônica—you have to go much farther north, close to the border with Pará. Everything up to there, he insists, is Cerrado or mata. “The Europeans will say this is rainforest, that we are cutting down Amazon. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

I myself was incredibly slow to grasp this simple fact of geography—that you could be standing in the Amazon Basin and yet not be in the Amazon rainforest. Boz was right. In Lucas, we’re still squarely in Cerrado. The high-canopied trees along the river make up what ecologists call gallery forest, which is found only in riparian zones. As for mata, the term suggested “bush” and was used rather indiscriminately to signify transitional forest—something between Cerrado and full-fledged Amazon. The distinction is not academic. Although the law is often flouted and enforcement weak, farmers who own Cerrado are legally allowed to clear up to 80 percent of their land, with 20 percent kept in reserve. In the Amazon, the ratio flips. Eighty percent must be preserved; only 20 percent can be cleared. Transitional forest is a much-contested middle ground. Depending on whom you asked, you could clear anywhere from 35 to 50 percent. As to where the transitional area ends and the rainforest proper begins, it seemed that everyone had an opinion but that no one could rightly say.

*  *  *  *  

“My brother Marino is a true pioneer,” said Paulo Franz, talking between bites at the Restaurante Hanover. “He came in 1988 to research rice with the government. Back then, no one thought you could grow soy here.”

Trim and broad-shouldered, his hair combed flat as a schoolboy’s, thirty-eight-year-old Paulo Franz is a gaúcho. The term derives from the famed cowboys of the Pampas, but in modern Brazil, gaúcho (pronounced gah-OO-sho) commonly refers to people from the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. More broadly, it signifies the European cultures—primarily German and Italian—that have persevered there since Dom Pedro I, the first emperor of Brazil, encouraged a wave of European settlement to his shores in the early nineteenth century. The immigrants flocked to the more temperate south where many became tenant farmers. Paulo, who grew up on six acres in the town of São Carlos, said his own ancestors came from southern Germany in the 1880s. “They were very poor, I think. Mining people.” Having gone to university in Iowa on a farm exchange program, Paulo speaks fluent English, albeit with an accent: a German one. He and his wife, Leandra, speak German with each other and with their young daughter, Camilla. Their youngest, Paulinho—a towhead with missing front teeth—can understand them, but when he opens his mouth, only Portuguese comes out.

As we got in Paulo’s truck for the short drive to the restaurant, he popped a disc into the CD player. The speakers began to blat out a strange Portuguese-inflected oompah, and Kory turned to me nodding. “Polka!” he shouted. Clearly, not his cup of tea.

There are an estimated 12 million German Brazilians—around 7 percent of the population—and I have to confess, their existence was a surprise to me. In my mind, Brazil was the land of Pelé and Carnival, samba and bossa nova—a New World amalgam of Portugal and Africa. But in Lucas, there were hardly any black, or even dark, faces to be seen. In the restaurant, pale-skinned waiters popped by every couple minutes with another skewer of glistening beef. Half the room appeared to be blue-eyed, and one redheaded adolescent was livid with freckles. As a group, they seemed ill suited to life under the tropical sun, and, considering the milieu, I was struck by the irony of our timing; as chance would have it, we arrived in town on a national holiday—O dia da Consciência Negra. Black Awareness Day.

*  *  *  *  

Field Hand
His hat brim as his only refuge, a field hand swelters in the broiling mid-day sun.

Paulo came to Lucas in 1996, eight years after Marino. “There was nothing here then. No electricity, no plumbing, no asphalt. When I brought my wife, she wanted to escape.”

“No, I never thought of going home,” Leandra said, sitting down to her churrasco, as the gaúcho-style barbecue is called. A lovely woman in a sleeveless dress, she sawed at her beef with lean, tanned arms. “I never cried. What good would it have done? When we first came, I was eighteen and pregnant with Camilla. We had all our belongings on the bus. Two of everything: two plates, two cups, two towels. Before we arrived, Paulo said to me, ‘There’s something I need to tell you.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘The house is not ready.’ I said, ‘Mein Gott, what is missing?’ He said, ‘The roof. The walls.’ We came to town. Everything was dirt. He showed me the grocery store. There was dust everywhere and cats sleeping on the shelves. Paulo was working so hard then. He left before sunrise and came home in the dark. We never saw each other in daylight.”

Today, the Franzes have a roof overhead and walls all around, plus a small pool on their back patio. The house is comfortable if modest, and like any upwardly mobile couple anywhere, the Franzes are looking to trade up.

*  *  *  *  

Writing in his book The Staffs of Life—a “biography” of the world’s staple crops—the late E. J. Kahn Jr. observed that few American farmers considered themselves soy growers, even if they harvested prodigious amounts of the stuff. They were wheat growers or corn growers, but never soy growers. In Mato Grosso, the opposite is true. Everybody’s a soy farmer, despite the routine rotation of the crop with corn, rice, cotton, and sorghum. In Kahn’s book, the chapter on soy is called “The Future of the Planet,” and it tells of the many high-profile boosters who have sung the praises of “the miracle bean”—powerful men such as Henry Ford, who was known to wear suits of “silk” spun from soy, and Dwayne Andreas, the longtime head of Archer Daniels Midland, renowned for carrying samples of soy foods with him and foisting them upon the executives and dignitaries he met with. Both these ruthless capitalists felt it unconscionable, in a world where millions were undernourished and starvation was common, that soy should be fed to livestock. Despite the widespread adoption of margarine and the stealth proliferation of soy in processed foodstuffs, however, their efforts fell short. Soy never really caught on at the American table.

Glycine max, the soybean, was a latecomer to the Americas. Although botanists had experimented with the curious legume since the late eighteenth century, scant acreage was planted with it before the First World War. During the Second World War, however, imports of vegetable oils were sharply curtailed and the government encouraged a new focus on soy. As Illinois is roughly the same latitude as Manchuria, the beans adapted easily to the Midwest and the crop quickly gained prominence throughout the Corn Belt. With the introduction of new varieties, including many genetically modified ones, soy now grows across a much wider geographic area, including the far north of Minnesota, where Kory and his family raise it, in rotation with wheat.

*  *  *  *  

Soy is thought to have come to Brazil via Japanese immigrants, who first arrived in the early twentieth century (today Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan). While the beans grew well enough in the temperate south, soybean harvests were negligible until the early seventies, when the Peruvian anchoveta fishery, then a critical protein source for the global feed industry, collapsed, sending shock waves through the world’s commodities market. In response, the US briefly embargoed soy exports, and countries such as Japan, suddenly cut off from a major supplier, looked to Brazil to fill the vacuum. By 1989, Brazil’s yield of soybeans was 24 million tons, up from just 1.5 million in 1970.

That first wave of expansion swept southern Brazil but barely touched the Cerrado, which was then considered an agricultural wasteland, due to acid soils that were both poor in nutrients and saturated with toxic levels of aluminum. That it has now emerged as the breadbasket of South America is more than just a triumph of the pioneering spirit. It is, as one government agronomist in Mato Grosso told me, a “miracle of science.”

A year after Greenpeace presented Blairo Maggi with the Golden Chainsaw Award, the World Food Prize—agriculture’s Nobel—was awarded to two soil scientists (one Brazilian, one American) and a former Brazilian minister of agriculture, whose combined efforts, in effect, made the Maggi empire possible. Their research showed that heavy applications of dolomitic lime (as much as five tons per hectare) and the addition of phosphate-rich fertilizers could render the Cerrado, blessed as it is with abundant sunshine and rainfall, incredibly productive. Where a farmer in Iowa may plant soy one year and corn the next, in Mato Grosso they sow even as they reap. When harvest time comes, the planters are deployed right behind the combines. It’s standard practice to harvest two crops per year.

Even correcting for poor soils, however, soybeans were an unlikely cash crop for the Cerrado. A temperate-zone domesticate, soy did not fare well in the low latitudes. More than the heat and humidity, it was a lack of seasonality that hampered production. In the higher latitudes, flowering coincides with the summer solstice, when the plants reach their maximum height. The first soybeans planted in the Cerrado, however, flowered early and, deprived of long summer days, remained stunted. As a scientist at the Cerrado Research Center explained to journalist Mac Margolis, “It’s sort of like a ten-year-old getting pregnant. She may be able to deliver but neither she nor the baby will be well-developed.” For soy agriculture to take root in Mato Grosso, therefore, it was first necessary to develop a “tropical soybean”—one that would flower later, giving the plants more time to fully mature. The feat was accomplished after years of laborious crossbreeding by scientists within Embrapa, the respected research arm of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture.

Kory and I attended an Embrapa field seminar outside Sinop. Government agronomists were promoting a form of integrated agriculture that involves no tilling (a practice that looses carbon from the soil), and a planting cycle that rotated from soy to corn and finally to a cover crop. Typically some type of grass, the cover crop would inhibit soil erosion, while also furnishing cattle with fodder. Provided the land was fenced, you could bring the herd right into the field to graze before beginning the process over again. The land would be in constant production, in other words, with beef, in effect, being the third crop in the cycle. Agronomists hoped the regime would increase yields, thereby lessening the pressure on farmers to clear more land.

The presentations took place out of the sun, under tents supplied by the agribusiness giant Syngenta, maker of “crop protection” products—herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides—as well as many transgenic seed varieties. In my hotel room that night I turned on the tv news. Demonstrators were camped outside the Bayer CropScience offices in São Paulo. They had put up large yellow banners on the building that read: milho transgênico: no nosso prato não! Transgenic corn: Not on our plate! The young protesters wore gas masks and bright yellow hazmat suits, the name Greenpeace stenciled in blue letters across one breast.

*  *  *  *  

Paulo and Marino Franz’s farm, Fazenda Mano Julio, was named for a brother who drowned at fifteen. Like many of the farms in the region, it’s huge—20,000 acres, all contiguous. When they bought the land five years ago, people laughed, Kory said. The soil wasn’t great and it was too far from paved road. Today, no one’s laughing. The brothers are expanding and diversifying at an incredible rate, building what looks poised to become a small empire. Already, they have their hands in every aspect of the region’s agriculture, from fertilizers to financing, seed storage to livestock. Soy, it seemed, was the least of it.

“These guys are on steroids,” Kory said. “They reinvent themselves every six months. Every time I come, there’s some new wrinkle in their operation, some new thing they’re into.” One of the newest wrinkles is the cattle-finishing operation. Crowded into a huge corral next to a red barn that looked as though it might have been airlifted whole from Topeka, 5,000 head of humped zebu cattle are spattered in mud and manure up to their dewlaps, their baggy white hides gleaming in the harsh midday sun. I wondered at this. Brazil, which has long boasted the largest cattle herd in the world, has more recently, with the systematic eradication of foot-and-mouth disease, become the world’s leading exporter of beef. One of the great attractions of Brazilian beef to the European consumer is the fact that it’s grass-fed. Grass-fed beef has been widely touted as better for you and better for the environment than antibiotic-laden feedlot beef, which is fattened on grains. Now here was evidence that at least some Brazilian cattle are being finished in the agro-industrial style. And yet, it seemed preferable, ecologically speaking, to the alternative; namely, cattle grazing in newly cleared rainforest.

*  *  *  *  

Farmer in Profile
Ismael Gross manages Fazenda Mano Julio, a 20,000-acre farm in Mato Grosso.

From the barn and corral we drove a few miles across dusty access roads to a construction site, where we donned hard hats and toured a series of large reinforced concrete structures that would soon be home to thousands of sows and piglets—an Amazon swinopolis. Around the perimeter of the compound, a crew of sunburned workers was busy planting thousands of eucalyptus seedlings. “For hygiene,” explained Ismael Gross, the Franzes’ grizzled and sweat-blanched farm manager. The trees, he told me, would create a barrier to disease. Additionally, employees would be required to “shower in and shower out” each day, and the trucks that brought feed to the site would not be allowed to enter the grounds. Instead, the cargo would be offloaded to another truck designated for travel only within the confines of the piggery. “Total quality control,” Gross said, carefully enunciating each syllable as I jotted down the letters TQC in my notebook, followed by a question mark. Who, exactly, was demanding this level of quality? “Europe,” he answered. Just that morning, he said, auditors from Mitsubishi Bank had come to make sure that their investment in Brussels-bound pork chops would ultimately receive the EU stamp of approval.

Of course, all this livestock is a massive waste producer, and I asked Gross how Mano Julio coped with the effluent. He assured me that the waste pits they used to collect the manure were lined in plastic, despite the fact that the pits were made of clay and thus largely impervious to seepage. More impressive was the biodigester. Basically a big plastic sheet thrown over a waste pit, the digester contains anaerobic bacteria that convert the manure to organic fertilizer and methane gas. The Franzes were flaring off the methane—a potent greenhouse gas—until a small power plant could be installed to generate electricity. “We want to be totally energy independent,” Paulo said. “I don’t want to pay for any electricity.”

In late afternoon, we arrived back at the farmstead. A cherry-red plane was making its final passes at the fields, spraying fungicide as a soy-rust preventative and pesticide to control insects. The crop duster was an Embraer, a Brazilian-made plane, and as it banked over the trees, Paulo pointed and shouted, “It’s running on álcool.” That is, ethanol—made in Brazil, distilled from the country’s prodigious supply of sugarcane. Finally, the sun went down and everything slowed. Paulo sat in a lawn chair and sipped mate through a metal straw. The buzz and drone of the crop duster subsided and was replaced by the scuffling progress of a pickup soccer game in an adjacent yard. At our feet, a blond baby—child of one of the workers—squirmed contentedly on a blanket on the grass. “This is the best time on the farm,” Paulo said, as he passed the mate gourd. The scene was undeniably peaceful—an agrarian idyll marred only by the faint tang of neurotoxins hanging in the still, nighttime air.

*  *  *  *  

Kory had this soliloquy that he delivered to customers who came to Brazil with him. It went something like this: I could have tried to explain all this to you but it wouldn’t have done any good. You have to see for yourself the level of diversification, the speed of development, and the spirit of entrepreneurship. You have to see that the land is actually perfect for this kind of intensive agriculture. Yeah, they had to clear some trees to do it. But look at the end result. This is some of the most productive land on Earth. They get eight months of rain and plenty of sunshine. They plant continuously. They easily harvest two crops a year. With irrigation—just pull a little water off the river—you can make it three. Compare that to where I’m from, where farmers are subsidized and we’re lucky if we get one crop, or places in America where the water’s coming from underground. Then ask yourself, Is this wrong what they’re doing here? Because if it is, then maybe my neighbors back in Minnesota should just pack it in. You know, let the land revert to prairie.

*  *  *  *  

From the El Dorado myth onward, the story of Amazon development is a narrative of failure. Students of the region need only point to the crumbling opera house in Manaus, relic of the rubber boom, or the lonely remnants of Henry Ford’s ill-fated Amazon rubber plantation to drive the point home. If you want to leave the Amazon with a small fortune, they say, then you’d better arrive with a big one.

The apparent success of the cidades da soja, the cities of soy, stands in sharp contrast to this abject storyline, and one can’t visit the region without wondering whether the curse may have finally lifted. But failure haunts the soy business as well. Take the example of Olacyr de Moraes, the former Rei da Soja (Maggi wasn’t the first). Once counted among the wealthiest men in the world, de Moraes’s holdings included rock quarries and sugar refineries, a power plant, a construction company, and a bank. That was before the soy mogul embarked on his dream of building a 3,000-mile “soy railroad” to connect the producers of the burgeoning Center-West with distant ports on the Amazon and the Atlantic. Nearly twenty years later, the Ferronorte is only half-finished, its primary architect besieged by creditors. In trying to transform the region through privately financed infrastructure, de Moraes bet everything and lost his shirt, sinking more than a billion reais into the venture. Early last year, he met with President da Silva and, in what must have seemed a very rich twist of fate for both men, the once-mighty empire-builder begged assistance from the former union radical turned head-of-state. A tearful supplicant, de Moraes reportedly exclaimed in anguish, “I paid the price of pioneering.”

The people whom I met in Mato Grosso all felt they had reaped the just rewards of their pioneering efforts. But, even with their clean streets and safe homes and bright outlooks, the future success of their communities is far from assured. Indeed, success itself is suspect, as to some extent they’d already fallen victim to it; in expanding as quickly as it did, Brazilian agriculture dumped so much soy on the global marketplace that prices in Chicago hardly justified planting it anymore. As a grower we met in Sorriso lamented: “Soy brings its own problems. Now we’re totally dependent on the crop, but for the last two years, soy is not a positive element. Prices are suffocated and our costs are too high.” Sorriso means “smile,” and, according to Kory, the city of 60,000 is the largest soy-producing municipality in the world—the center of the “most productive flat spot on Earth.” But market pressures were pushing many of Sorriso’s soy growers to plant more profitable crops such as cotton and fast-growing eucalyptus trees, which could be sold as fuel used to dry soy or claimed for carbon credits. Until the underlying economics changed, the man felt, soy wasn’t worth beans. His bitter appraisal was corroborated in the local press. The day after we spoke, the Cuiabá newspaper, A Gazeta, reported that Mato Grosso’s growers had lost 2.9 billion reais on soy in 2005—close to one billion dollars. The value of Sorriso’s total production fell by more than 40 percent in the space of a year.

*  *  *  *  

Settlement of the Brazilian Amazon was sparked by the paranoia of the military government. The generals who ran the country for two decades worried that their unsettled borders and vast empty interior would tempt foreign encroachment on Brazilian soil. Occupar para não entregar. That was the slogan. One of many. “Occupy so as not to surrender.” Another was, “Land without men for men without land.” The generals built roads to encourage migration, then did little to manage how the process unfolded. In retrospect the results seem predictable enough. Settlers with no knowledge of the land slashed and burned their way deeper and deeper into surrounding jungle. Destruction fanned out from the roads in a classic fishbone pattern readily discernible in satellite photos, the main road as the spine, the clearings coming off it like ribs—a strange order to the chaos.

Even today, an undercurrent of paranoia runs through Brazilian society when it comes to the Amazon, their sense of threatened sovereignty stoked in part by the ill-considered comments of well-meaning politicians such as Al Gore, who once insisted that, “Contrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property. It belongs to all of us.” One need only imagine how Americans would feel if foreign leaders made similar pronouncements about, say, Alaska. Not long before I arrived in Brazil, David Miliband, the British environment secretary, was touting a proposal—one enthusiastically supported by Tony Blair—to set up an international trust that would effectively buy a vast portion of the Amazon and manage it as a preserve. The Brazilian response to the idea was swift and unequivocal. President da Silva issued a resounding demurral. “The Amazon,” he said flatly, “is not for sale.”

On a long bus ride across the Cerrado, I sat next to a schoolteacher on vacation and a pastor who was returning to his flock. The teacher was thin and wiry and endearingly pugnacious. She leaned close and, looking me in the eye, said: “I am going to ask you a question. Don’t answer if you don’t know.” I assented. “Is it true that America believes the Amazon belongs to it?” I assured her that such was not the case but added that many Americans, including myself, worried that Brazil was not doing enough to protect the rainforest. While reclined in his seat, the young pastor, who was as cool and languid as the teacher was feisty, turned his head toward me and said, “Tell me, why do Americans worry so much about our forest when they cut theirs down in the name of progress?”

In one form or another, I’d had the question put to me many times in Brazil. My first impulse was to respond defensively. For one thing, I didn’t think of my country as completely destroyed. We hadn’t cut down all our forest. For another, the most heedless progress had occurred in a benighted age, when many people still believed in the biblical concept of man’s dominion over the earth, and Americans were wedded to Manifest Destiny, the ludicrous idea that the conquest of the continent was God’s will. We too had conjured empty slogans to goad settlers into the frontier. “Go West, young man!” And, “Rain follows the plow!” But the pastor had a point. What difference did it make that our frontier had closed a century ago? All that meant was that our ancestors did the dirty work for us. And dirty work it was. In conquering the continent, North American settlers had exercised every kind of depravity. We dammed and straightened and diverted our rivers and riprapped their banks. We overgrazed our prairies and drained our wetlands. We cut down our old-growth forests and introduced alien species that grew like weeds in their stead. We hunted down and poisoned predators because they ate our livestock and “our” game. We killed off most of the bison and decimated the salmon. Even now, we’re draining our aquifers, blowing the tops off mountains to get at the coal seams, sinking wells in the gas fields of the West as fast as we can. And how did it all look from Brazil? The United States exploited its resources with a vengeance, and it was rich, the most powerful country in the world. To Brazilians, our high-minded concerns about the rainforest were the rankest sort of hypocrisy—or worse, a conspiracy to keep Brazil from developing into a major economic force in the hemisphere.

Near the end of my trip, Kory and I spent a morning in Sinop being lectured to by the president of the rural syndicate (a coalition of local farmers and loggers). Antonio Galvan is an irascible man with steely eyes, the build of a wrestling coach, and a voice like a broken horn. He was clearly annoyed by the presence in his office of two meddlesome gringos, and, after one question, set off on a tirade that lasted the better part of an hour. His rant was peppered with the words absurd and ridiculous, each point punctuated by a forearm pounding the desk. If you don’t want me to farm, then pay me, Galvan cried. Bam. No one else in the world produces and preserves at the same time! We leave 80 percent of the Amazon untouched! We leave the forest along the rivers standing! Bam. Who else does this? Don’t tell me about how many football fields of Amazon are disappearing every minute. It’s absurd! Bam. Ridiculous!

We left the office a little dismayed, holding in our hands a compact disc containing a document that laid out the syndicate’s vision for Mato Grosso’s future, complete with maps and charts and yield projections. When I finally opened the document back at home, I saw the title page bore another of the great slogans of settlement. In big bold letters it read: A AMAZÔNIA É NOSSA.

The Amazon is Ours.

*  *  *  *  

Contrary to the widely held assertion, the Amazon does not function as the “lungs of the world.” In fact, scientists say, the forest consumes as much oxygen as it creates. Still, the Amazon has other functions that may prove similarly vital. Most notably, it seems the rainforest creates much of its own precipitation through a process called evapotranspiration, the trees acting like a humidifying pump, sending moisture into the jungle air, which falls again as rain. Clear too many trees and the fear is that the whole system will collapse and the forest will convert to a much drier state, like the Cerrado—savanna rather than forest.

Anti-Greenpeace Sticker
A farmer’s truck expresses support for Mato Grosso’s governor and scorn for his most vocal critics. “Greenpeace Out,” the top sticker reads. “The Amazon belongs to Brazilians.”

Already there are indications that the region’s climate may be headed this direction. In 2005, nearly the entire Basin was gripped by extreme drought. Rivers dried up, leaving villages isolated, their boats high and dry. Fish died en masse, and the burning season, when farmers clear land, got out of control, the runaway fires cloaking the forest in a pall of acrid smoke.

Brazil is now the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and some 70 percent of its emissions are attributed to deforestation. It’s possible that the drought of 2005 was simply an aberration, but many fear it was a preview of what is in store for the rainforest and, ultimately, the world, as the global climate system comes unhinged.

*  *  *  *  

I never did find the line I was looking for in Mato Grosso, the one between industrial agriculture and the Amazon. There were plenty of lines separating forest and field, but each was only a fragment in the larger patchwork. And anyway, it was never as simple as a line you could stride across. Exposed to the tropical sun, the edges of clearings quickly became overgrown and the forest closed itself shut the way a wound scabs over. To gain entry, you’d have to bushwhack your way in with a machete, hacking at the imposing tangle of hanging vines and creepers. Better to stand amid the crop rows and contemplate from a distance, or to climb the silos, as I did at a farm near Sinop. Kory had touted this particular farm as a “beautiful piece of land,” which I took to mean that it was productive rather than aesthetically pleasing. From the catwalk atop the silo, however, I saw that it was surprisingly beautiful, grand in scope and stunning in color, the forest along the fringes adding contrast and counterpoint to the composition.

Farmers look at forest differently than the rest of us do, and certainly differently than environmentalists do. What the farmer calls “unimproved” the environmentalist calls “pristine.” Where the nature lover sees beauty and abstraction, the farmer sees soil and utility. But while the worldviews may be at odds, they do not cancel each other out. No man wants to blot out nature any more than he wants to starve. Driving down a jungle road one day in Mato Grosso, our driver—a rancher and developer—stopped the car where the forest opened into a clearing planted with soy. It was a common enough scene, but for whatever reason he felt moved to comment. “Look,” he said, “this for me is the best. You have soy, then forest. If it’s just soy, it’s no good, just green desert. But you have crops, then forest, like this, it’s beautiful.”

As for Blairo Maggi, all indications are that he sleeps fine at night. And why shouldn’t he? No one is a villain in his own heart, perhaps least of all Maggi. As he sees it, he’s giving people jobs while feeding the world. “Do you want trees and hunger?” Maggi challenges his critics. No doubt, many would dismiss that as a false dichotomy, but there’s no getting around the ugly realities of feeding a population that now stands at 6.5 billion people and is headed for 9 billion by midcentury. If all of us want to eat meat; if the world hopes to grow not only its food but also its fuel; if we want to see Third World countries develop viable economies in a globalized world—then something, somewhere has to give.


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