As Amazon Crops Grow, a Forest Shrinks

Kanunxi, chief of the Irantxe tribe in Brazil, looks across corn and soybean fields that surround his tribe's land at the southern end of the Amazon rain forest.
Kanunxi, chief of the Irantxe tribe in Brazil, looks across corn and soybean fields that surround his tribe's land at the southern end of the Amazon rain forest. (By Monte Reel -- The Washington Post)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 12, 2005

IRANTXE RESERVE, Brazil -- The wooden canoe floated across a current so clear that each pebble shimmered in the riverbed beneath. Farther downstream, the river plunged over a sheer waterfall, where a rainbow arched in the mist. The five Irantxe tribesmen banked their vessel and followed a trail through a dense stand of jatoba trees.

When they emerged after 50 yards, the landscape no longer looked anything like the southern edge of the Amazon forest.

It looked like Iowa.

Corn and soybean fields extended straight to the horizon. The only bright spots in the flat amber vista were seven green John Deere combines, parked near a farmhouse.

"If we were an aggressive tribe, we would have killed the land owners already," said Tupxi, one of the canoeists, who estimated his age at 77. "But we're peaceful, and we don't want to fight. So all of this has been lost."

The tribe's reserve is a forested island surrounded by thoroughly conquered farmland. It sits in the middle of Mato Grosso, a state whose booming agricultural sector has helped Brazil challenge the United States' position as the world's top exporter of soybeans and beef.

In the process, however, Mato Grosso has become the capital of Amazon deforestation. Much of the forest has been cut down, in many cases illegally, and turned into grazing pastures and soy fields. The state's governor, Blairo Maggi, owns the largest soy exporting company in the world.

In 2004, Amazon tree-cutting reached its highest level in a decade, according to statistics released by the government two weeks ago. Last year, more than 10,000 square miles were cut down -- an area the size of Belgium. Mato Grosso, one of five Amazonian states, accounted for 48 percent of the overall deforestation.

Environmental groups slammed authorities for lax regulation and accused Maggi of sacrificing natural treasures for agricultural wealth. The government countered last week by announcing it had arrested a large illegal logging ring. According to the government, about half of the 89 people arrested were employees of the agency responsible for enforcing logging regulations.

Maggi's environmental secretary was arrested on charges of helping loggers bypass regulations. Maggi fired him and promised to crack down on illegal logging.

But the measures didn't placate tribes such as the Irantxe, whose members said their rainforest culture had been toppled by buzz saws.

"It is all about money," said Napuli, a 31-year-old tribesman. "If they try to keep land for tribes like us, they would lose the money they would make on farming."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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