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The Ecologist

Cargill and the Priest: Priest Stands Up Against BigAg and Deforestation

In the Brazilian town of Santarem, one brave priest is the only thing standing between multi-national grain trader Cargill and the rest of the Amazon

Polly Cook

Placards are displayed outside the Cargill facility (photo: the Ecologist)

Father Edilberto Sena arrives at Rural
Radio station and takes up his position behind the microphone. He
reaches into his pocket and pulls out his script for today's show. One
question is scribbled on it for the daily debate: ‘Why is this

Edilberto is a Roman Catholic priest and a follower
of liberation theology - meaning not only does he believe in teaching
the word of God, but believes that he has an absolute obligation to
fight poverty and bring justice to the poor. So he takes up the
microphone each week not to recite afternoon prayers to his 200,000
listeners, but to tell the people of Santarem, Northern Brazil, exactly
why they are finding it so hard to grow crops and why the rainforest
that once surrounded their city resembles a burnt desert. 

isn't just referring to climate change. The Amazon rainforest is being
torn down by agribusinesses which use the land to farm soya and export
to European livestock farmers, feeding the growing demand for cheap
meat. For ten years Father Edilberto has stood at the heart of
Santarem's campaign against the world's leader in this trade, Cargill.

Santarem people started to say, "why is it so much hotter?". I tell
people this is not God's doing; this is happening because of the
destruction of the rainforest.'

Cargill has US revenues of over
$63 billion each year and is thought to be the largest privately owned
firm in the world. It arrived in Santarem in 1999 with plans to expand
the town's port to make it big enough to take advantage of the fast,
cheap route from Northern Brazil to Europe. The company claimed it
wanted to bring development and prosperity to the state of Para, but
Edilberto and his fellow campaigners remained unconvinced. 

A 2006 report by Greenpeace
shows that deforestation in those parts of the Amazon surrounding
Santarem leaped from 15,000 hectares in 2002 to 28,000 hectares in
2004. The arrival of Cargill also seems to have encouraged increasing
numbers of locals to make a living by grabbing land illegally and
growing soya. 

Edilberto paints a particularly bleak picture
of what Santarem looks like now. ‘If you fly over Santarem you can see
what a desert it has become, you can see the damage of the pesticides
and the lonely Brazil nut trees. Cargill has brought devastation to us;
this is why we are fighting them.' 

However, Edilberto's case
against Cargill is based on more than just a moral or religious
aversion to agribusiness - he is adamant that what Cargill is doing is,
in fact, illegal.

In Brazil as elsewhere, large construction
projects must complete an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before
ground is broken. Greenpeace discovered in 1999 that Cargill had filed
no such assessment, even though the site was thought to be of
indigenous archaeological interest. A high profile, multi-NGO campaign
ensued, ultimately landing Cargill in court.

In June 1999 the
Ministry of Public Prosecution won a civil action to stop Cargill
constructing the terminal unless the report was completed. While
Santarem rejoiced, Cargill and the Port Authority appealed the court's
decision. In 2003, Cargill again lost its appeal, but by this point the
terminal was near completion - so big it had already destroyed the
beach and the twenty-five family-run businesseses that depended on it.
630 Amazonians were made redundant leaving just 70 in work.


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was eventually forced to carry out the EIA, but insisted it had
followed correct procedures. This doesn't wash with Edilberto. ‘When I saw the completed report, I realised it was pure propaganda for Cargill!' he scoffs.

describes the report as ‘vague and untrustworthy' - saying it takes
into account none of the evident damage to the environment, the use of
pesticides poisoning drinking water or the fact it was built on a site
of archaeological interest.  

After years of tireless
campaigning, there appeared to be a silver lining: Cargill agreed to
stop buying soya from freshly deforested parts of the Amazon - but only
on a short-term rolling agreement, which has recently been renewed. ‘Cargill
wanted to show Europe they were concerned about the environment to
improve business, so we asked them to agree to ten years. Of course,
they didn't,' says Edilberto.

The Greenpeace report suggests
that Cargill's intentions haven't changed despite Edilberto's efforts.
In fact, that authors argue that Cargill is counting on increased
deforestation in the Amazon to meet the huge export capacity of its
port facility.

Soya can only make a profit when farmed on a
large scale, so in order for Cargill to optimise production,
deforestation and expansion are essential. This leads to displacement
of rural farmers, particuarly locals who sell their land but lack the
skills and education needed to work in Santarem. ‘Farmers used to
grow mango, fruits, rice. Then they sold their land to Cargill and
moved to the city but had no work, no skills and soon ran out of
money,' Edilberto explains.

Controversy surrounding this
allegedly illegal use of the land in Santarem is still ongoing.
Edilberto and the Community Action Group are convinced that the EIA
gives an inaccurate assessment of the environmental impact of the

Despite death threats, political pressure to leave
the church and almost being forced to leave his radio station, Father
Edilberto came to the UK to gather further support. ‘Your people
have to join us and put pressure on these big projects that are coming
to Amazonia. Help us save the world!' He says it with a smile on his
face and lets out a little giggle, but it is said with conviction
nonetheless. ‘We need you, we have to be more aware and confront them - because more destruction is coming.' What Cargill told us:

Cargill has complied with all the legal and environmental
requirements at our grain terminal in Santarém since we were granted
permission by the state government of Pará to construct it following a
public tender process in 2000. This includes the completion of an
environmental impact study (called a PCA) as part of the construction
process and the completion of another environmental impact study (an
EIA RIMA) in September 2008, which has been made available for
consultation in advance of a public hearing to be scheduled by the Pará

Alongside other Brazilian soy processors and exporters, we have
also committed not to purchase soybeans produced on land in the Amazon
Biome deforested after July 2006. Since this agreement (The Soy
Moratorium) we have been working with NGOs - including Greenpeace, The
Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and WWF- to
independently monitor soy production and sanction farmers deforesting
in the Amazon Biome.

To help, you can start by getting involved in the Friends of the Earth campaign ‘Fix the food chain' by emailing your MP and adding your voice to Edilberto's.

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