Lives
broken
by

SOYA

that
feeds
our
pigs

ARA has witnessed deforestation and conflicts over the land generated by soya fields in Brasil. A large part of this soya ends up in Catalonia, which imports huge quantities of it to make feed for pigs.

Sònia Sánchez López

Photos

Ruth Marigot Murillo

3 December 2021

Reporting from Brasil


With the support of NGO Grain

Pork Industry

Catalonia already has more pigs than people

PIGS

People

7,8

7,7

>

millions

millions

PIGS

People

7,8

7,7

>

millions

millions

PIGS

People

7,8

7,7

>

millions

millions

In the last 20 years, Catalan pork production has doubled

1999

2020

11,5

23,1

millions

millions

Slaughtered pigs

in Catalonia

1999

2020

11,5

23,1

millions

millions

Slaughtered pigs in Catalonia

1999

2020

11,5

23,1

millions

millions

Slaughtered pigs

in Catalonia

Over half of this production is for export

Pork Meat

1,79

millions of

annual tons

51,4%

to

export

for

Catalonia

0,92

11,18

millions of

annual tons

annual kg

per person

Asia

europe

64%

30%

especially France,

Italy and Poland

especially

China and Japan

Pork Meat

1,79

millions of

annual tons

51,4%

to

export

for

Catalonia

0,92

11,18

millions of

annual tons

annual kg

per person

Asia

europe

64%

30%

especially France,

Italy and Poland

especially

China and Japan

Pork Meat

1,79

millions of

annual tonsav

51,4%

to

export

for

Catalonia

0,92

11,18

millions of

annual tons

annual kg

per person

Asia

europe

64%

30%

especially France,

Italy and Poland

especially

China and Japan

Soya

Many tonnes of feed are needed to satisfy the high demand all this livestock creates

2020

5

millions

of tons

2020

5

millions

of tons

2020

2020

5

millions

of tons

A key ingredient in the production of feed is soya, a protein-rich bean

World soya

production

77%

for animal

feed

World soya

production

77%

for animal

feed

World soya

production

77%

for animal

feed

Yet the huge quantities needed make it more profitable to import GMO soya, whose cultivation is banned in the EU

soya consumption

in Europe

95%

imported

soya consumption

in Europe

95%

imported

soya consumption

in Europe

95%

imported

Import

That is why Catalan industry needs to import huge quantities of soya

Soybeans

Soybean

flour

2,4

1

millions

of tons

million

tons

equals

40%

Catalan

territory

in soybean

crops

Soybeans

Soybean

flour

2,4

1

millions

of tons

million

tons

equals

40%

Catalan

territory

in soybean

crops

Soybeans

Soybean

flour

2,4

1

millions

of tons

million

tons

equals

40%

Catalan

territory

in soybean

crops

And Brasil is the main soya exporter to Catalonia.

importation

52%

origin

Brazil

It arrives through the ports

of BCN and TGN transported

mainly by the large

multinationals Cargill and Bunge

importation

52%

origin

Brazil

It arrives through the ports

of BCN and TGN transported

mainly by the large

multinationals Cargill and Bunge

importation

52%

origin

Brazil

It arrives through the ports

of BCN and TGN transported

mainly by the large

multinationals Cargill and Bunge

Where does that soya come from?
As planting soya is no longer allowed in the Amazon – a moratorium was established in 2006 – it is now cultivated in the tropical savannah of the Cerrado, a truly unique biome.
The Cerrado comprises 200 million hectares across eight Brazilian states. Over 95 million have already been deforested by the agribusiness.
The region inside the Cerrado where this crop is expanding the fastest is Matopiba, made up by the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia
ARA has visited this region and seen the effects of this practice firsthand: deforestation and violence against local communities.
Fazenda Estrondo, Formosa do Rio Preto, Bahiaclose

Deforestation

Destruction
of a unique biome

"Thirty years ago we had a wedding and the bride's father couldn't reach us: we had to build him a bridge with wood so he could cross the river. Now cars can easily ford the river", says Guilherme Ferreira de Souza, who has lived his 64 years in the small community of Aldeia in the northwest of Bahia (Brazil). The tropical Cerrado savannah is the cradle of many of South America's rivers and is home to 5 per cent of the world's plant and animal species. But deforestation is depleting water resources and increasingly cornering these pockets of vegetation where these traditional communities live.
Guilherme Ferreira de Souza

Guilherme Ferreira de Souza

"They have deforested the trees that shaded the land, and this is drying out our rivers"

The Cerrado, a land of water

Fazenda Estrondo, Formosa do Rio Preto, Bahia play_circle

Soya bean fields stretch beyond the horizon. Thousands of hectares of bare land under the relentless sun of the dry season. " They've deforested the trees that used to shade the land and that's drying up our rivers," complains Guilherme Ferreira de Souza. He has has lived his 64 years in the small community of Aldeia in the northwest of Bahia (Brazil). He is a geraizeiro, as the traditional inhabitants of this tropical savannah are known, descendants of runaway slaves, gold prospectors and peasants who moved into the interior of Brazil in the 19th century. For these communities, the arrival of large soya bean farms has meant not only the loss of the vegetation on which they depend for their livelihoods, but also the direct threat of expropriation, in some cases violent expropriation.

Geraizeiros live in the valleys, the lowest part of the savannah, which still conserves its unique vegetation. It is a redoubt of wildlife which is increasingly being cornered. Above, on the high plateau, everything is cultivated. "Thirty years ago we had a wedding and the bride's father couldn't reach us: we had to build him a bridge made of wood to cross the river. Now cars can easily ford the river", Ferreira explains. The Cerrado is, in fact, Brazil's most important groundwater reservoir, home to eight of the country's twelve largest river basins. But farmers claim there is no problem.

Guilherme's family lives in Aldeia, on Fazenda Estrondo's land. / Traditional communities in the Cerrado also keep cattle.

"The impact of agriculture on water is very small," says Odacil Ranzi, president of the Association of Farmers and Irrigators of Bahia (AIBA), who welcomes us to his office in Luis Eduardo de Magalhãens, a town in western Bahia built in the wake of agricultural expansion and the only one in the area where Bolsonaro won in the 2018 elections. "The rivers have the same water all year round despite the fact that it doesn't rain at all for six months here. The groundwater is very abundant, we farmers could use much more water than we do," he says confidently. His vision could not be more different from that of the poor communities in the area, who talk about rivers that are drying up and swamps that are disappearing. The farmers' representative, on the other hand, states without blushing: "In 40 years I have not seen any climate change in this region.

However, several environmental reports note the impact of agribusiness on the ecosystems of the Cerrado, and confirm that river flows have been reduced. From the car window, it is clear that the region today is very different from the one encountered by the big farmers who, like Ranzi, arrived in the 1970s and 1980s from the south of the country and opened up the region to agribusiness. The expanses of fields ready for cultivation stretch as far as the eye can see. Columns of black smoke here and there warn of several nearby fires. Fire is one of the most commonly used means of clearing the land for new crops. However, in late September, at the end of six months of dry season and with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees Celsius, accidental fires also proliferate.

" Soya has wiped out all of nature. The water is running out, everything is deforested", laments Florentino Ferreira da Sousa, Guilherme's cousin. He welcomes us into his house, nestled in a remote corner of the valley, and explains that there are two jaguars roaming the area: they have already killed three calves. These are some of the dangers that communities living in the heart of the savannah have had to face all their lives, subsisting on small pastures and planting cassava, beans and other foodstuffs. Now, however, they face threats far worse than the jaguars.

The most biodiverse savannah in the world

Although not as famous as the Amazon, the Cerrado is the most biodiverse tropical savannah in the world. It covers 200 million hectares in eastern Brazil, an area equivalent to Spain, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom combined. It is home to 5% of the world's plant and animal species, of which more than 4,800 are endemic. Monocultures of soya - in addition to maize and cotton - have already deforested 95 million hectares, half of the savannah. According to a WWF report, only 20 per cent of the remaining vegetation can still be preserved. "This makes the Cerrado one of the most threatened natural areas on the planet," the report says, warning that "the rate of devastation in recent years is heading towards an unprecedented process of mass extinction".

The moratorium that has prohibited the planting of soya in the Amazon since 2006 has caused this crop to move to the Cerrado, and especially to the Matopiba region, which occupies the entire state of Tocantins and part of the states of Bahia, Piauí and Maranhão. It is in these 73 million hectares that soya monoculture is growing fastest to meet international demand, at the cost of destroying a unique ecosystem and expelling traditional communities. Matopiba is the new deforestation frontier due to soya.

The most biodiverse savannah in the world

"Deforestation-free", they say.

A survey of Catalan feed producers has found that the vast majority did not know whether their soya came from deforested areas or not, because the large importers from whom they buy it, such as Cargill and Bunge, do not provide this information, explains the director of the Catalan association of feed producers (ASFAC), Carme Soler. Cargill simply claims that the soya it imports from Brazil is 95.6% "deforestation-free". Why? Because it complies with Brazilian environmental regulations. Brazilian farmers say the same thing: "We comply 100% with Brazilian environmental legislation, which is among the strictest in the world," said the president of the Bahia Farmers' Association (AIBA), Odazil Ranzi. But there is small print in this legislation.

To begin with, in Brazil all deforestation that took place before 2008 is legal. The reform of the Brazilian Forest Code approved in 2012 by Dilma Rousseff's government "amnestied" all deforestation prior to 2008. As if nothing had happened. "In Brazil, laws are always being changed to legalise the expansion of the agricultural frontier," explains Grain researcher Larissa Parker. The ruralist camp - the landowners - is increasingly powerful in Congress, so illegal deforestation ends up being legalised.

In the Cerrado in particular, if the property preserves 20% of the area as a "legal reserve", it can legally deforest the remaining 80% (in the Amazon it is the other way around, 80% must be protected). But to know whether the Fazenda has respected this "legal reserve", the reference is a land registry "which is self-declaratory, that is, it is landowners themselves who enter their data", explains Parker. And environmental agencies that are supposed to monitor them have increasingly less funding to do their job, especially since the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro to power.

In November, the European Commission proposed a regulation that would ban the import of certain foods, including soya, if they come from deforested areas, and it would not differentiate between legal and illegal deforestation. According to Brussels, the new law would protect two-thirds of the remaining native vegetation in the Cerrado: those that geographically fit the FAO's definition of "forest", as the regulation only applies to tropical forests and not to savannahs or wetlands. However, according to Ecologistas en Acción, the regulation, which still has to pass through the European Parliament and the Council before being approved, "has important loopholes".

Florentino Ferreira

Florentino Ferreira

"Here, nature gives us everything; if nature changes even more, our life will be very hard"

Fazenda Estrondo, licence to deforest

Florentino Ferreira and his cousin Guilherme led their community's struggle against Fazenda Estrondo, the property that now occupies the land where they have always lived. "My mother is 98 years old today and she was born here", says the latter, as proof of their right to live there, despite the fact that they do not have title deeds. "Some neighbours have left, intimidated by the Fazenda, but it is very difficult for us to live in the city", says Florentino: "Here the land gives us everything". But living conditions are also changing for these communities. "The swamps are drying up and the rivers are shrinking because of deforestation and agribusiness's deep wells", he remarks: "If nature shrinks further, our life will be very hard".

Fazenda Estrondo was established in this area of Bahia in the 1980s. A businessman from Rio de Janeiro, Ronald Guimarães Levinsohn, presented false title deeds for these public lands in order to present them as collateral for a debt. Estrondo is an exceptional case due to its size: the 'fazenda' occupies 315,000 hectares, more than three times the size of the city of Barcelona. But it is a system that is repeated throughout the region. "The land grabbing of the 70s and 80s was only documentary, hidden in the records. The real deforestation did not start until 2003, and it is from 2014, in fact, that legal reserves began to be declared in the areas where valley communities live, leading to a situation of conflict and violence," explains Mauricio Correia, the lawyer from the Association of Rural Workers' Lawyers (AATR) who is handling the case.

Various 'gerazeiros' communities, such as Aldeia, Gatos and Cachoeira, live on the Fazenda Estrondo.

It was then, around 2014, that the Fazenda set up guard posts with armed men. "They forbade us to leave the valley, they asked for our documents for any movement," Guilherme explains. "The gunmen took our horses, they did things just to humiliate us. They killed the uncle of a relative of mine just to frighten us, so that everyone would know who was in charge," adds Florentino. Suddenly, they could no longer go to the plateau to harvest pequi fruits, as they had always done, or the golden grass with which they make traditional handicrafts.

"We used to go to the plateau to look for mangaba and tucumães, but now there is nothing left", recalls Guilherme. From the mangaba fruit shell, they made milk and also a kind of rubber. From tucumães (a kind of palm tree) they made rope, he explains. Official data show that the municipality of Formosa do Rio Preto, where this fazenda is located, has suffered the most deforestation in the entire Cerrado between 2001 and 2019, according to a Greenpeace report, which also denounces that the Fazenda Estrondo used slave labour for some time and in 2016 it was fined for illegal deforestation.

With the help of AATR and the NGO 10Envolvimento, the communities took legal action and the courts have finally recognised their right of possession over 43,000 hectares of the Fazenda. The Bahia government admitted just this year that the acquisition of the entire Fazenda Estrondo property is fraudulent, and has initiated a process that could end up with the expropriation of the entire property, Correia explains. But in 2019, the same government granted a new licence to Delfin Rio S.A., Estrondo's main holding company, to deforest a further 25,000 hectares of land, the equivalent of 35,700 football fields.

The link with Catalonia

Within the grounds of Fazenda Estrondo, huge silos belonging to Cargill and Bunge, the large multinational exporters, store the soya beans. It is these same companies that take the soya beans to the port of Barcelona, where Cargill has a large concession that it uses to grind them and turn them into oil and flour for sale to animal feed producers. According to data from Trase, in 2017 Spain was the fourth largest importer of soya from Formosa do Rio Preto (the first was China), the town where Fazenda Estrondo is located and where this newspaper was able to see the impacts of this crop. It is also the second municipality in Brazil with the highest rate of deforestation due to soya.

In the state of Bahia, where this town is located, 80% of the soya grown is for export. It is mainly sold to China, but secondarily to the European Union, with the Netherlands and Spain as its main destinations. Some 1.5 million tonnes of soya beans enter the port of Barcelona each year, half of which come from Brazil, from this area of the Cerrado, according to a study by Grain. The United States and Argentina are the other two major producers from which Europe imports soya beans.

Transgenic soya from Brazil supplies the Catalan and Spanish pork industry, which needs it to produce feed on a large scale. According to sources at ASFAC, the Catalan feed producers' association, all the soya that enters through the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona is destined to produce their feed, although some of the soya from Tarragona also goes to producers in Valencia and Aragon. According to the same Grain report, to grow all the soya that Catalonia imports in a year would require 40% of the Catalan territory or, in other words, 75% of Catalonia's agricultural land.

Formosa do Rio Preto, Bahiaclose

Struggle for the land

Fire, gunslingers and threats

From the top of the watchtower, a security guard records us with his mobile phone and hides his face while we take pictures of him. Some agricultural landowners hire private security companies and their armed men terrorise and threaten local communities to force them to leave. They want these lands to be the legal reserve that Brazilian law obliges them to preserve. Fernando was shot in the leg when he went searching for a neighbour's stray calf. This regime of "terror" is repeated, with greater or lesser intensity, in every community this newspaper has visited in Bahia and Piauí.
Fernando

Fernando

"The guards started to shoot, and then I felt the pain in my leg. It was covered with blood"

Farming soya and sewing fear

Formosa do Rio Preto, Bahia play_circle

The bullet marks are still visible on the fence between us and the watchtower. At the top of the tower, a security guard records us with his mobile phone and hides his face when we photograph him. "From this point on, they won't let us pass, even though we had always taken our cattle to graze in that area", explains Edinaldo, who lives in the Cachoeira community, just 1,300 metres from the watchtower. The holes in the fence show that while today they have only taken out their mobile phones, the ban is often enforced at gunpoint. A few kilometres further on, in another community within the same Fazenda Estrondo, Fernando carries proof of this in his own flesh: the two scars left by a bullet that pierced his leg.

"I went with my neighbour André to look for a cow that had escaped and entered the Fazenda's fields. We went to retrieve it and when we were returning home we were stopped and ordered to get off our horses. They told us that we had to accompany them to their hut, but we didn't trust them and tried to leave. Then they started shooting. That's when I felt the pain in my leg and saw that it was covered in blood," says the 24-year-old. The guards, from a private security company hired by Fazenda Estrondo, went away and left him there. His neighbour and other companions decided to return and took him to a hospital in the city of Palmas, in the neighbouring state of Tocantins.

Most of the Fazenda's security personnel's huts have been destroyed, but some remain in place. This one has a watchtower, and the bullet holes in the fence show that guards have been willing to shoot to keep locals out.

Fernando was shot in August 2019. Two years earlier, the courts had ruled in favour of these traditional communities and recognised their right of possession (direito de posse) over 43,000 hectares of Fazenda Estrondo. The ruling, however, was not final and did not put an end to the regime of "terror" that had been established by the private security guards.

"Those armed men were always going around making threats, saying that we had no right to be here. The men would take the cattle out to graze in the morning and you would spend the day worrying whether they would come back or not," explains Isaltina Guedes da Silva, a nurse who lives in the Gatos community, also located in a valley within the Fazenda Estrondo.

In June 2021, the Supreme Court confirmed the ruling in favour of the communities, giving no leave to appeal. But the communities themselves had already taken matters into their own hands a few months earlier, tired of waiting for real changes. The charred ruins of several surveillance huts bear witness to this. As we walk past one of them, a neighbour who accompanies us, an older, affable-looking man, has no problem admitting that it was he who burnt it down one day when it was empty. "Our struggle continues because we have been here before, we know that the ruling is one thing and reality is another. We are not calm, but attentive", says Guedes, and adds that he only dreams of one thing: "To be able to leave our children and grandchildren a better, peaceful future on this land".

Cricketing fields

From grilo comes the word grilagem, which in Brazil means land grabbing. It is a very specific term that has its origins in the way in which the country's large landowners began to illegally appropriate public land last century. Crickets play an essential role in this operation. Grileiros forge a title deed and leave it inside a box with crickets for a period of time so the papers get the sepia tinge of old documents. With these forged title deeds, and most likely a bribe, they register the property in their name. It is often public land where poor communities have lived for centuries, who may not have title deeds but do have a right to occupy the land (direito de posse) in Brazilian law. That is why, they are called posseiros. And they live on terras griladas, i.e. cricketed land.

Trial for ecocide in the Cerrado

The case of Fazenda Estrondo is one of the 15 cases denounced by the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal (PPT) of the Cerrado, which was set up this September to judge the "ecocide" committed in this biome. It is a Russel Tribunal-inspired court, based in Rome, which has accepted the lawsuit filed by 50 organisations accusing the Brazilian state, as well as third countries, multinationals and the World Bank, of being responsible for the "predatory occupation of the Cerrado and the consequent cultural genocide of its peoples". They denounce "the legitimisation of land, water and resource grabbing in the Cerrado, on a scale and intensity of plunder, by a few corporations in the agricultural and mineral commodity chain". Although the rulings of these tribunals are not binding, they carry strong symbolic weight.

The original Russel Tribunal tried crimes committed in the Vietnam War, and later also condemned the horrors of some of the dictatorships in Latin America. "In these 40 years the cases have evolved a lot, from decolonisation and the struggle of peoples for independence to human rights cases and a growing number of environmental cases," explains Antoni Pigrau, director of the Centre for Environmental Law Studies in Tarragona, professor at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili and also one of the members of the tribunal that will judge the crimes in the Cerrado.

Altamirando da Silva
The house where Altamirando and other shepherds of the São Marcelo community would overnight was destroyed by armed men wearing hoods.

Altamirando da Silva

"They were gunslingers hired by the landowner. They covered their faces, but we know who they are"

A trail of fire

The charred remains of logs, a few pots and a blackened chair were all that was left of the shepherds' hut. Altamirando, who had slept many times in that shelter, needed a few minutes of solitude to digest the sight. Only a week before, hooded men with guns had set fire to the hut. They had also burnt down other houses scattered nearby and even some of the vegetation during their escape. The blackened trunks of some of the moriche palms we had seen along the road were proof of this. The aim of the attack? To frighten the inhabitants of the community of São Marcelo and to put pressure on them not to return to the land where they had always grazed their cattle. It is now owned by Fazenda Santa Maria, a company owned by Canabrava, which grows soya.

"We have no title deeds, but we have the right to possession because we have always lived and grazed cattle here. Our taxes prove it," says Altamirando da Silva. He explains that until the attack he thought it would be possible to reach a legal agreement with the owner of the Fazenda. It has now become clear that it is not. "They were gunslingers hired by the landowner. They came in four cars. When we saw the smoke at nine o'clock in the morning, one of our neighbours went immediately and met them on the road. They opened fire to scare him. Two of the cars turned back and the others continued this way and drove through the community. They covered their faces, but we know who they are," says Da Silva. Several neighbours present for this newspaper's visit in mid-September corroborate his version.

During the same attack, the men set fire to a neighbour's house. The community's grazing fields, set on fire in an attempt to throw them out, is on the Fazenda's land.

The attack on the huts in the São Marcelo community was the most recent in the area, only six days ago. " Twenty days earlier we had found a cow that had been shot dead," adds another neighbour. But the stories of threats and terror, stories of private security guards hired by the landowners who do not hesitate to use guns, were repeated in every community this newspaper visited in the northwest of Bahia and in the south of the neighbouring state of Piauí.

"It was an act of vandalism, and you can see the extent of the environmental crime, which will take years to recover," remarks Pabla Ferreira Lemos, standing in front of the burnt moriche palms. The moriche is the typical palm tree of the Cerrado, and communities living here use every part of it. Its leaves are used for the roofs of houses, its fruits are eaten - plain, juiced or in cakes - and they even extract an oil that is said to have medicinal properties.

Pabla Ferreira and her brother Aurélio have continued their father's struggle, one of the posseiros who led the São Marcelo community's fight against the fazenda, and who died in 2020 from covid-19. After these events, however, it was the fazenda that filed a lawsuit against the villagers, claiming "they have removed cattle from their land in an orderly and peaceful manner", explains Ferreira. The fire that this newspaper witnessed was therefore their "peaceful and orderly" way of expelling the communities that graze cattle in the area.

Green landgrab

In the Cerrado, large agricultural landowners (fazendeiros) deforest the highlands to plant soya and other crops. The traditional poor communities, who have lived in the area for centuries, inhabit the lowlands or valleys, where there is still natural vegetation. Fazendeiros now want to evict them, but not to plant more soya. What they want is for these valleys to be their "legal reserve", the 20% of their territory that the Brazilian Forestry Code requires them to preserve environmentally. Legally, they can deforest everything except this 20% legal reserve (in the Amazon it is 80%), excluding the Permanent Preservation Areas (APP), which are the areas of greatest ecological vulnerability, such as river sandbanks or heathlands. But in order to declare an area a legal reserve, one must have both ownership and possession, a right that Brazilian law reserves to the traditional communities living in these areas. That is why they are trying to evict them. "This is what we call green land grabbing, and it is what is fuelling most of the conflicts we see in the region today," explains Martin Mayr, coordinator of the NGO 10Envolvimento, which helps local communities.

Santa Filomena, south of Piauíclose

Pollution

Pesticides that kill vegetables and fish

"When we came down here to clean our clothes, the water was red and smelt very strong, I think they were dead yacarés," explains Jeane Tavares dos Santos, sitting on the bench she used to use to clean clothes in the river. Now she can't do that. "Farmers spray their agro-toxins from aeroplanes and they fall on our land," explains Joareis Celestino de Sousa. These communities in southern Piauí suffer the impacts of pollution from pesticides used on soya crops, many of which are illegal in the European Union. Bolsonaro has authorised 945 more.
Juarez Celestino de Souza y João Henrique Pereira Mendes Jr

Juarez Celestino de Souza y João Henrique Pereira Mendes Jr

"The most dangerous poison for us now is Bolsonaro. HE is the worst pest"

Fewer fish and more illnesses as a result of agro-toxins"

Santa Filomena, south of Piauí play_circle

"The fazendeiro sent me a message: he had already hired the gunman to kill me, he was just waiting until he got a third fine". Juarez Celestino de Sousa had twice reported the neighbouring farm because its pesticides pollute the land where he lives, in the Riacho dos Cavalos community in the south of the Brazilian state of Piauí. The environmental authorities fined the farm, but nothing has changed. "They spray their toxic agro-chemicals from planes and they end up on our land, or they get washed down here during the rainy season," says De Sousa. He adds that their crops, which they plant for food, no longer grow as they did before, but many "sprout and die".

Many "[agrochemicals] considered highly toxic by the European Union" are used in Brazil and, in fact, "Jair Bolsonaro's government has authorised many more than any previous government," explains Grain researcher Larissa Parker. Those used by farmers in this area of southern Piauí not only damage traditional villagers' crops, but also pollute the waters of their rivers, marshes and ponds. Fishing plays a major role in the livelihoods of these communities, known as ribeirinhos (riverbank dwellers). "In the Uruçuí Preto river there used to be a lot of fishing, but now there is no more: all the fish have been wiped out," laments De Sousa.

João Henrique Pereira Mendes Jr. shows us the leaves of his orange trees, full of black spots. He says that the nearby presence of soya crops, treated with powerful pesticides, has brought the whitefly plague to his land. "All this did not exist before the arrival of agribusiness, we are seeing diseases in the plants that we have never had before, it has been happening for the last ten years and it is because of all this poison", Pereira assures us.

João Henrique Pereira Mendes Jr's wife shows us the leaves of a sick tree. She says this is due to the pesticides the nearby 'fazendas' use.
João Henrique Pereira Mendes Jr's wife shows us the leaves of a sick tree. She says this is due to the pesticides the nearby 'fazendas' use.

As in the communities in Bahia, these traditional villages in southern Piauí suffer from what is known as green land grabbing: powerful neighbouring farmers want to register the land where they live as their legal reserve and try to evict them. "With bribes they get legal title deeds and put security guards on the land to pressure us into leaving. Some of our neighbours sold them the land and left for the city," explains De Sousa, who is also spokesperson for the Collective of Traditional Peoples and Communities of the Piaui Cerrado, a group of nine communities in the Santa Filomena area that have come together to increase their strength. With the help of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), they have finally obtained title deeds to their lands.

They will be of little use, however, if the soil is poisoned. "We have noticed that there are more and more cases of diabetes, blood pressure problems and headaches," explains Celestino. A few kilometres away, in a nearby community, Geraldo João Pessoa, 54, assures us that he has a constant headache. "We always drank water from the river, but three years ago we built a well to reduce the possibility of dying from poisoning," Pessoa explains. Pessoa's fears, however, are not officially confirmed. CSIC pesticide expert Silvia Lacorte explains that the headache is a possible effect of some herbicides and pesticides, as is the transfer of pests such as whitefly and the effects on crops that communities report. She also explains that in areas with such high temperatures, higher quantities of pesticides are used than in Europe, and that GM soya already incorporates pesticides in the seed " to avoid it being eaten by animals", which tends to contaminate the soil.

His wife, Maria dos Rios Álvares, shows us her hands and feet. They are full of dark rashes, which make her skin feel very rough when you shake hands with her. They believe this is due to the constant contact with the water: in these communities it is the women who wash clothes and do the dishes in the river. But Lacorte points out that dermatitis caused by pesticides is more likely to occur when the toxic substance has been handled directly, rather than through contact with contaminated water. The couple have visited a dermatologist, but admit they have no official diagnosis linking the disease to pesticide contamination, but Pessoa is certain it is the cause. "We haven't found doctors who want to certify it, so as not to be singled out by the powerful agribusiness," says De Sousa. This sector has become even more powerful since the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro. De Sousa is clear: "Now the most dangerous poison for us is Bolsonaro, he is the worst pest".

Genetically modified soya

Brazil has been the world's largest consumer of pesticides for years. But the Bolsonaro government has authorised up to 945 new products, 311 of which have components that are banned in the EU because of their high toxicity. One of the most widely used pesticides in Brazil is glyphosate (this is also used in the EU), which kills all plants except for one variety of soya that has been genetically modified precisely to make it resistant to glyphosate. In fact, the same company that patented glyphosate, Monsanto, also patented genetically modified soya to resist its potent pesticide.

Jeane Tavares dos Santos
Jeane Tavares dos Santos lives in the Brejo do Miguel community and claims she can no longer clean her clothes in the river because has less water and the water there is is polluted.

Jeane Tavares dos Santos

"When we came down here to clean our clothes the water was red and smelt of dead yacaré"

Poison for swamp communities

"In November last year I came down here with a sack of clothes and the water was so dirty that we couldn't do any washing. It was red and ugly and smelt very strong. I think it was either dead yacarés or dead fish. I' d guess yacaré because it was a very strong smell", explains Jeane Tavares dos Santos, who lives in the Brejo do Miguel community in the south of Piauí. Yacaré are caimans typical of these marshy regions of South America.

Tavares sits on the wooden plank which, placed on a base made of logs, she used as a "washing bench". Ribeirinho communities like this one live off the marshes and rivers, where they bathe and wash, but which also provide water for them and their livestock to drink. They also fish. But the water is contaminated by the pesticides that agricultural estates use to grow soya.

They call themselves ribeirinhos and brejeiros (swamp dwellers). This area of tropical savannah in the Cerrado is – or was – full of swamps, which generated unique ecosystems which are very important for carbon capture.

" I have a 20-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old daughter, I raised them here and when they were little we carried water from the river to the house and they came to bathe here, but today we can no longer use this water", she explains, pointing to the small stream where she has installed the wooden plank, very close to her house. Nor can they go to the reservoir where they used to go to collect moriche fruit, because the agricultural landowner who has settled on their land has cut off the access. His name is Anderson and he does not have private security guards like other fazendeiros. He himself has taken it upon himself to talk to the neighbours of the community to make it clear that the land is his. The neighbours denounce that his pesticides pollute the water and that they have led to a plague of white flies in their own crops.

The landlord near Brejo do Miguel community has set up wire fences that impede access to the marsh. / Small streams close to her home are getting scarcer.

It is the end of the dry season, in September, and Jeane Tavares' bench stands in the mud. In addition to being brown in colour, the water is so low that it is not possible to clean clothes on this makeshift table. When her daughters were young, it was not a stream but a large river. "It's getting drier every year because deforestation is getting closer and closer to the marshes, and I'm sure that by August next year it will be dry," she says.

"The main problem is the deforestation of the areas near rivers' sources," explains Cácio Luiz Boechat, a researcher at the Bom Jesus de Piauí University, who led a research group that visited the region in December 2020 to take samples from the Uruçuí Preto river. "We did not find a significant enough number of molecules from pesticides to endanger human health," he explains, although he admits that samples need to be taken again during the months of January to March, when most of the crop fields are irrigated with pesticides. He also believes that research should be extended to community soil and crops, but the university does not have sufficient funding for this, he says.

Richard Nixon is to blame

The land of the Cerrado's tropical savannah did not use to be fertile. But today it is occupied by a growing and lucrative agricultural business. And Richard Nixon is to blame. In 1973, worrying inflation led the then US president to freeze prices and restrict exports. For three months, Japan ran out of soya beans, a staple of its diet, 92% of which came from the United States. The crisis prompted the Japanese government to look for new markets, which led to a partnership with the Brazilian government to grow soya in Brazil. Japanese banks invested huge sums in Brazilian agricultural research to develop variants of soya adapted to the region's climate. Research applied to agriculture has, in fact, allowed land productivity in the state of Bahia, for example, to rise from 20 bags of soya per hectare in the 1970s to 67 bags per hectare today, according to data from farmers in the region. The irony of the story is that today the main beneficiary of these Japanese investments is China, the country that imports most of Brazil's soya. In fact, Brazilian railways and ports are now financed with Chinese money.

Richard Nixon is to blame

Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace

Santa Filomena, southern Piauíclose

Speculation

When deforested land
is a financial asset

"Here we have grileiros who fight with other grileiros, because their business is not to cultivate the land, but to obtain land and then sell it", says Jovencino Pereira da Silva, who tells us about a company present in the area called Radar. It is Brazilian but has investments from the pension fund of American college teachers, TIAA-CREF. Rising land prices in Matopiba have turned the region into a magnet for speculators, who acquire land at very low prices, often from local gileiros. It is a global system that encourages fraudulent land grabbing.
Jovencino Pereira da Silva

Jovencino Pereira da Silva

"Their business is not to farm the land, but to obtain the land to then sell it"

Foreign investment funds, local 'grileiros'

Santa Filomena, southern Piauí play_circle

Jovencino Pereira da Silva wants to know when his community, Chupé, will receive the title deed to the land they occupy. He can't seem to believe that this day will come and asks the representative of the Pastoral Land Commission accompanying us several times - he says they expect it in January. Xupé is one of nine communities that have fought together against the Piauí state government and have managed to obtain recognition of their property. "With this title I will feel a little more secure", he says, and tells us a story that is repeated everywhere we have visited in Matopiba: that of agricultural landowners who arrive with often fraudulent land titles and who terrorise the local populations with their gunmen, private security guards hired to carry out the land grabbing.

" There is no Cerrado left, the soya crops are destroying everything", says Pereira. It's a complaint we've heard before, but with a new element: "Here there are grileiros who fight with other grileiros, because their business is not to farm the land, but to obtain the land and then sell it", he says, and tells us about a company present in this area called Radar. It is Brazilian, but it has obtained investments from the American college teachers' pension fund, the TIAA-CREF.

Rising land prices in Matopiba have made the region an area of interest to companies such as Radar and other speculators, who "acquire land at very low prices, often through local grileiros", explains University of São Paulo professor Fábio Teixeira Pitta. Grileiros are people who claim land using false title deeds.

In southern Piauí, fields prepared to farm soya also take up all of the highlands.
In southern Piauí, fields prepared to farm soya also take up all of the highlands.

Pitta has been studying the phenomenon of land speculation for years, and he explains that the subsidies and facilities Brazilian authorities give to agribusiness mean that the price of land, especially land already deforested and ready for cultivation, has skyrocketed, especially in this region. "In Brazil, land is a financial asset", he explains. Pitta also assists affected communities through his work with the NGO Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos (Social Network for Justice and Human Rights). And the capital gains from the sale of land in this region of the Cerrado, the new soya frontier, are among the highest in the country.

"There is more money to be made here nowadays by speculating on land than by selling soya," says Altamirando Ribeiro of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), an NGO that helps communities. As the world's population and demand for food increases, land prices always go up, never down, and prices are even higher when the land has been deforested.

Harvard lies behind land grabbing in Brasil

Lawsuits filed by organisations such as Grain, Rede Social and CPT won a victory in January 2021 in the neighbouring state of Bahia. Brazil's National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) annulled the purchase of up to 150,000 hectares of Cerrado land by Harvard University and the US pension fund TIAA-CREF. The purchases violated Brazilian law that sets limits on the amount of land that can be held by foreigners, but INCRA also found that these lands had been acquired through the fraudulent practice of grilagem.

Maria Zulmira Lima de Sousa
Maria Zulmira Lima de Sousa is a descendant of the Acroa Gamela indigenous people.

Maria Zulmira Lima de Sousa

"For us, recognition as an indigenous people was key"

Small title deeds to legitimate big title deeds

We were welcomed into a sort of courtyard with a circular reed roof, like a giant hat that protects us from the merciless sun of the Cerrado, and creates an intimate space, conducive to conversation. It is a simple but cosy construction that we have seen in other houses in the riverside communities of southern Piauí. But Maria Zulmira Lima de Sousa's is not a ribeirinha community. In fact, they belong to the indigenous Gamela people. However, none of them speak Gamela, and their way of life is identical to that of the traditional communities around them. They also subsist by growing cassava, beans and rice, herding cattle, hunting and fishing, which is becoming increasingly scarce. But certain features of Zulmira's face and the pride with which she speaks of her Gamela blood tell you they are different.

Typical Cerrado moriche palm trees provide local communities with plenty of resources: branches are used for roofing.

An anthropological study by the University of Bom Jesus officially determined that they were Gamela Indians, a people native to what is now the state of Maranhão, in the north of Piauí. With this recognition, they have been able to have their land demarcated as indigenous territory. "They wanted to expel us from our territory and that is why we started the process of indigenous recognition. That is why this recognition as indigenous has been very important for us. We don't have the document in our hands yet, but we will have it", she explains, after also reporting threats and pressure from the private security guards of some local landowners.

The Gamela people are one of nine communities in southern Piauí that have gained official recognition of their ownership of the land on which they live. Not the right of possession, but outright ownership. "They have granted some titles to small landowners like this in order to justify and legitimise the large-scale transfer of public lands," explains Grain researcher Larissa Parker.

This state of Piauí, and the southern communities we visited, are part of a World Bank pilot scheme to regularise Brazil's land market. This involves changing state laws that allow public land to be transferred into private hands over larger areas than before, despite the fact that the Brazilian constitution specifies that public land is to be used for agrarian reform and for indigenous or Afro-descendant peoples, and that if it is sold to private owners it must be for their subsistence. The World Bank-sponsored legal reforms do away with this and allow the sale of public land to large landowners "at 90% subsidised prices", and this "encourages land speculation", warns Parker.

No longer protected by highland trees, sand is carried down into the valley and takes over the space where streams used to run.
No longer protected by highland trees, sand is carried down into the valley and takes over the space where streams used to run.

Zulmira takes us to see one of the remaining lakes near her community. She says that at least three have already disappeared, and that the remaining ones, like these we see here, are contaminated by pesticides. There are certainly no fish to be seen. "I'm 45 years old and I've seen a lot of changes. When I was 14 I used to walk a lot in the highlands, where there are now crops, and it was all thick vegetation. Now deforestation has wiped it all out," she explains. On the way to the lake, in fact, we cross what seems to have been a riverbed. Now it is full of sand, washed down from the high plateau by the rain. The trees that held it back are gone.

Collateral effect of the 2008 crisis

Speculation over Brazilian agricultural land is one of the collateral effects of the 2008 international financial crisis, which "caused a change in the profile of agribusiness in Brazil and favoured the presence of foreign companies from different sectors, including finance, which sought to facilitate the circulation of capital", explains Fábio Teixeira Pitta, from the University of São Paulo. The price of agricultural commodities such as soya, corn and sugar had been rising since 2002, and this led many agricultural companies to take on debt in anticipation of the profits they would obtain from exports. All this drove up the price of land. In 2008, the general fall in prices did not affect the price of agricultural land in Brazil, which continued to grow and attract international investment.

A clear example is Radar, a company created in 2008 with two main shareholders, Cosan SA and Mansilla, to trade in Brazil by the US teachers' pension fund TIAA-CREF, valued at at least one billion dollars. TIAA-CREF in turn raises capital from other pension funds in other countries, such as Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK.

"In Brazil, land is a financial asset because of federal laws that allow a landowner to issue titles to pieces of his property and trade these papers on the stock exchange," Pitta explains. International funds investing in Brazil are legally exempt from liability for impacts caused by speculation, as they are not direct owners of the land, only partners in the business. But this speculation encourages land grabbing, deforestation and social conflict that threatens poor communities in the tropical Cerrado savannah.

Collateral effect of the 2008 crisis
Conclusionclose

It affects you and
the whole planet

The link to
the climate emergency

Deforestation caused by the Catalan pork industry in the Brazilian tropical savannah also has a global impact. The high rate of deforestation in this area of the Cerrado known as Matopiba means that the soya exported from here generates six times more CO₂ emissions per tonne than Brazil's average. All the soya imported by Catalonia from Brazil, in fact, generates 1.9 million tonnes of CO₂, 4.3% of Catalonia's annual emissions.
It affects you and <br>the whole planet

Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace

Unsustainable global system

Guilherme Ferreira and Zulmira Lima's problems may seem far away from this side of the Atlantic. However, they are also being caused by our pork industry, an avid consumer of soya to produce animal fodder and feed an oversized export business.

The deforestation of a unique ecosystem as biodiverse as the Brazilian Cerrado savannah may seem unimportant to us because it is not the Amazon and because we find it hard to picture a savannah teeming with life, both human and natural. But the effects of that loss resonate globally and have an impact on us too. Land use changes, such as converting the lush vegetation of the Cerrado highlands into pastures and crops, are one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which have led to the current climate emergency.

The entire global food system - the one that leads to the importation of tonnes and tonnes of soya grown in the Brazilian tropical savannah - generates a quarter of the world's emissions.

The soya imported by Catalonia from Brazil generates 1.9 million tonnes of CO₂, a figure that represents 4.3% of Catalonia's annual emissions, according to a report by Grain.

In the case of Spain as a whole, imported soya's carbon footprint is 60% higher than the European average, as 92% of it comes from the Cerrado biome. In fact, the main carbon emissions per tonne of soya produced are found in the states of the Brazilian region known as Matopiba, which we visited for this report, according to Inèdit. The exponential growth of soya crops in this region, which entails a constant loss of vegetation, means that soya in Matopiba generates six times more CO₂ emissions per tonne than the Brazilian average.

But the global connection does not end there. The irony of the globalised system is that many of these Matopiba lands are increasingly being sold as green bonds. If soya is grown on (previously deforested) pasture land, the change in land use technically means more CO₂ sequestration and in turn contributes to the global food system. Many public institutions and private companies are increasingly acquiring title to these lands in order to expand their green portfolio and thus meet the sustainable development goals set by the UN. Green finance thus boosts soya farming and is feeding back into deforestation and land grabbing that threaten the poorest communities.

And so as not to contribute any more to the climate crisis, this newspaper will compensate all the emissions derived from the travel of a journalist and a photographer to the Brazilian Cerrado savannah: 5 tonnes of CO₂ emitted (4.2 tonnes on the flights alone) that will be offset through the voluntary emissions compensation programme of the Climate Change Office of the Generalitat de Catalunya, which allocates this money to projects to reduce emissions carried out by local charities.

Edició

Lara Bonilla

Disseny

Ricard Marfà

Edició de vídeo

Marta Masdeu

Programació

Idoia Longan - Jordi Guilleumas