One of the world's largest agribusiness giants was forced to close a soy export terminal in Brazil's Amazon region this weekend, marking a major victory for environmentalists who have argued for years that the plant was built illegally and became a significant cause of rainforest depletion.
Brazilian police and environmental officers swooped on the Cargill terminal in Santarem, a deep-water port in the lower Amazon about 850 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. They said they met no resistance as they set about closing operations.
On Friday, a Brazilian judge ruled that Cargill - a US multinational that posted more than $70bn (£36bn) in revenues last year - had failed to submit a legally required environmental impact assessment when it built the terminal in the first few years of this decade.
It was not the first time the courts had ruled against Cargill on the question, but the company had never previously been forced to suspend its operations.
The Santarem terminal has been the target of a Greenpeace environmental protection campaign from the day it opened in 2003. A Greenpeace report last year, entitled "Eating Up the Amazon", accused Cargill of being directly or indirectly responsible for slave labour, illegal land grabs and deforestation at a rate of six football pitches per minute.
Greenpeace's Amazon campaign coordinator in Brazil, Paulo Adario, was understandably delighted at the court ruling and closure. "A big step forward has been taken in enforcing the responsible use of natural resources and bringing greater governance in the Amazon," he said.
Cargill, which argues it is an important engine of economic growth in an impoverished region, said it would appeal the ruling which it said was based on a misunderstanding about who - the state of Para or the Brazilian federal government - needs to sanction environmental impact reports for big projects.
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"When we built the facility, the permits were issued by the state," a Cargill spokeswoman, Lori Johnson, told the Associated Press. "Since that time the federal prosecutor has said we should have done another kind of environmental assessment, and that is the issue before the courts."
The chief prosecutor in the Cargill case, Felicio Pontes, has sided with Greenpeace in seeing the Santarem terminal as illegal. "Cargill believed that because they were a powerful multinational, they could disrespect both Brazilian legislation and the environment," he said.
Since the Santarem terminal opened, land prices in the region have jumped 18-fold, prompting many landowners to sell to Cargill and other soy-growing multinationals, and spurring a major leap in soy production. Millions of acres of rainforest have been turned over to soy bean fields. The soy is used principally to supply European livestock farms.
Cargill argues that soy production covers only 6 per cent of the Amazon area - a price it believes is worth paying for one of Brazil's key export crops. Brazil is the world's second largest producer after the US.
The Brazilian government appears to agree, and is sponsoring construction of a 1,100-mile roadway leading from Mato Grosso, the country's top soy-growing state, to the Cargill export terminal.
An estimated 20 per cent of the Amazon rainforest has already been destroyed, and about 6,500 square miles more was lost between 2005 and 2006. That represented a slight slowing in the rate of destruction from the year before - a trend experts attribute to the weakening of soy bean prices and the strengthening of Brazil's currency on world markets.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited