Contesting the Amazon as an ‘Open Space for Development’ by Lee Pegler and Julienne Andrade Widmarck

The use of land for soya cultivation in the Brazilian Amazon has led to compelling debates on the sustainability of the movement of products globally through global value chains (GVC) and the democratic processes surrounding these. All of us, in the Global North and Global South alike, have played a role in stimulating the expansion of GVCs in the Amazon that has led to an increase in the precarity of livelihoods, landlessness, and health/environmental problems. Without sustained and imaginative strategies by local and transnational social movements, this disjuncture between the market, sustainable futures, and democratic processes may simply widen.

The Amazon does not leave the news. Fires of unprecedented scale have devastated the area and are still occurring at a fast pace[1]. The latest wave of fires in the Brazilian Amazon appears to be not just an ecological warning, but also part of a cyclical strategy for land recovery and sale and/or alternating use of soya and cows by farmers[2]. The lungs and waters of our collective ecological future are at stake[3]. Nevertheless, those of us in other parts of the world are not without responsibility for this. At the same time, we are open to the assertion that the fate of the Amazon is none of our business.

What happens in the Amazon is our business, however. For example, energy- and protein-inefficient soya for animal feed produced in the Amazon is promoted as a low-cost input for sale to European farmers from a value chain supported by Dutch capital and the Dutch state[4]. Whilst Dutch farmers react to EU directives to curb emissions[5], Dutch and European consumers continue to purchase meat and dairy products, produced thanks to soya supplied as bulk feed for cattle and pigs from unsustainable and conflictual locations such as the Brazilian Amazon[6].

Amazon squeezed from all sides—can it cope?

The soya Global Value Chain (GVC) emerging from the Brazilian Amazon is threatening local populations’ security, livelihoods, and health as widespread deforestation continues to make room for soya plantations[7]. Various national and multinational companies financing land, sourcing output, and providing infrastructure for this chain (e.g. for local ports) are reacting to an increased demand for soya, thus “doing what the market tells them to do”.

The Dutch government, one of the countries with the greatest demand for soya is, on one side of the chain, emphasizing their country’s sustainable policies, initiatives, and institutions[8]. On the other side of this chain (in Brazil), we have a national regime that sees the Amazon as an “open space” for commerce (for cows, soya, minerals, and tourism) and a civil society that is fighting to raise the voices of indigenous communities and small-scale farmers threatened by these developments[9]. Thus, while there is a push for more responsible soya production practices from outside and from within, this is countered by the Brazilian government’s aim to commercialize the Amazon further[10]. The Amazon is being squeezed from all sides—can it cope?

This particular debate on the soya GVC is being studied within the ISS/EUR Governance of Labour and Logistics for Sustainability (GOLLS) programme[11]. In a project about commodity traders and social movements, we are exploring the link between firms at a global level and their activities in this region/sector. What is evolving is called the Ferrogrão[12] (logistical train/road grain chain) and a waterway silo-platform-barge system (strongly supported by Dutch firms and government) for the more efficient movement of soya along the Tapajos river, up the Amazon River, and then onto Europe/the Netherlands/Rotterdam[13] (Figure 1 below).


Figure 1 – Logistic Plan of Soya GVC in Amazon. Credit: Portal of the Company of Planning and Logistics S.A. (EPL)

Ongoing resistance to land use changes

A key mechanism for resisting these plans, used by local communities, small-scale farmers, indigenous groups, and their social movement supporters, has been a process of participation and rights recognition through ILO Regulation 169[14] (ratified by Brazil in 2003). Along with campaigns urging farmers not to sell their land, this participation protocol process has been one of the flags of resistance of affected parties and their supporters[15]. This reliance on institutional regulation and push for greater transparency on land rights[16] has helped boost the morale of many and put some local players in a position of influence, but also greater precarity[17].

Experiences locally and in other contexts note how such struggles consume many resources and will be met by counteraction by firms and, at times, by the state[18]. This is also happening here. For example, the current Brazilian federal regime is further undermining this rights process via proposals[19] for land area freezes for the indigenous, increased rights to mining in protected territories, and in amended participation rights—groups may still have their say, but no veto over “development” proposals[20].

At a local level, NGOs have been asked to explain their activities to public representatives[21]. Indeed, the ambient surrounding our case studies (one where land has been appropriated and soya grown, the other a mainly mining community where soya from other regions is being stored) reflects these local political economy dynamics. In one location, capital accumulation is dominated by “the laws of small-scale mining,” whereas, in the soya production case study, even the more accepted model of concertation (“accumulation by legislation” – i.e. by rules) is under pressure[22].

This situation clearly requires more concerted public awareness and broader level (international) collective responses. This ISS-EUR/Brazilian research programme seeks to widen the scope of awareness and societal action on these themes. We plan to move beyond our present case studies to other logistical points and to carry out further participative studies of local (displaced) communities.

It is essential to take these issues up to centers of decision making in the Global North (much as is being done by indigenous leader gatherings across Europe and by action groups like the “Amsterdam Coalition for Democracy in Brazil”). Local and transnational social movements are under severe pressure to make their cases heard[23]. Without sustained and imaginative strategies by them and others, this disjuncture between the market, sustainable futures, and democratic processes may simply widen.

About the authors:

JulienneJulienne de Jesus Andrade Widmarck has been a PhD researcher at the ISS since 2018 and a PhD student in Applied Economics at the Federal University of Uberlândia from 2019. She was a substitute professor at the Federal University of Viçosa from 2017 to 2019. Currently, she is a consultant in Territorial Development, Agroindustry, and Business Planning. She has experience in the field of agricultural economics, with an emphasis on commodities exportation, econometric methods, and family farming. Outside the academic field, she develops financial empowerment activities and participates in the National Human Rights Movement in Brazil.

Lee 3Lee Pegler spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers. Trained as an economist and sociologist (PhD – LSE), he currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS.

Title Image Credit: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama from FotosPublicas
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[21] Also noted in author interviews with social actors in Santarem, October/November, 2019.


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