Land Grab for Soybeans Blew Up the Amazon Rainforest

A forest fire burns in Altamira in Brazil’s Amazon on Monday, near Kayapo land on the Bau indigenous reserve. (AP photo/Leo Correa)

(CN) — The thousands of fires burning the Amazon rainforest are the result of a rush to plant soybeans that brought land-grabbers to burn the woods so it can be used to plant food for hogs and chickens in China.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research has spotted more than 9,500 new forest fires in Brazil since Aug. 15 alone, with hundreds of new fires started each day.

Both Argentina and Brazil have dramatically increased areas in which to grow even more soybeans as the Chinese came calling after they stopped buying from American farmers due to President Trump’s trade war.

China is in the market for 5 million metric tons each month, according to Bloomberg News Service.

The boom in the soy market threatens not only the Amazon rainforest, but is causing grasslands too to be converted to rows of soybeans, pushing cattle ranchers off the savanna and into the forest, where they too burn down trees to make pasture.

Argentina, the world’s largest exporter of soy meal, also is converting its grasslands, the fabled pampas, into bean fields.

The same is true in eastern Bolivia, where hundreds of fires are burning in the rainforest, to make room for beans and cattle ranches.

The Amazon rainforest covers 2,100,000 square miles: 60% of it in Brazil, with most of the rest in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

Why things are so dramatic in Brazil this year is a result of a regime of corruption that threw from office two consecutive elected presidents, setting the stage for the election of an Evangelical who campaigned on exploiting the Amazon and signaled that he would not punish people for burning trees to plant beans or to raise cattle.

According to David Miranda, a senator representing Rio de Janeiro: “Here in Brazil, that human activity has human names and faces: those of Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, and his extremist environment minister, Ricardo Salles. They have not merely permitted these devastating fires, but have encouraged and fueled them.”

When a land-grabber has a crop planted, he or she can apply for title to a previously unowned piece of the Amazon that has been reduced to charcoal and ashes, which fertilize the beanfield.

Where roads appear, the soybeans soon follow. Few of the trees being destroyed are old-growth rain forest; they are second-growth trees in areas where lumber barons in the last century clear cut the forest for wood.

Where there are roads, there are chainsaws. President Bolsonaro refers to himself as “Mr. Chainsaw.”

Bolsonaro blames hot weather for the inferno, and, alternately, arson by opponents wanting to make him look bad.

But those who illegally clear forest are encouraged by lax enforcement that permits speculators to sell the land for as much as 100 times the money it would sell for if covered with trees.

It’s not just the rainforest that is suffering.  The Cerrado is a massive savanna covering 664,000 square miles in the center of Brazil. The World Wildlife Fund named it the biologically richest savanna in the world, with 10,000 plant species and countless birds.

Since 1970 half of the Cerrado’s original expanse has been taken for agriculture, mainly soybeans. If the current rate of loss continues, the ecosystem will gone by 2030.

In addition, Bolsonaro has reauthorized use of many insecticides and pesticides that had been banned, and still are prohibited elsewhere in the Americas and the European Union.  Five hundred million dead bees have been discovered at beehives in the Amazon this month alone, a tremendous loss of pollinators attributed to the agricultural chemicals.

Bolsonaro has shocked Brazil, and the world, with his fiercely anti-environment policies, as well as his disdain for Brazil’s native tribes, who have lived in the Amazon for thousands of years. He shocked the world again this week by rejecting tens of millions of dollars offered by EU countries to help fight the wildfires, out of personal pique at French President Emmanuel Macron.

Senator Miranda: “But as has happened in numerous other countries in the democratic world, including the U.S., a series of crises and failures validly attributed to the establishment class have driven large sections of the country’s population into the arms of any self-styled outsider, no matter how demagogic and radical.”

(Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.)

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