Agro giants buy grains from farmers fined for using Indigenous land in Brazil

Agro giants buy grains from farmers fined for using Indigenous land in Brazil

  • Bunge, Cargill, COFCO, Amaggi, ADM do Brasil, Viterra and General Mills bought soy and corn in an area where “grain laundering” is admitted by producers and civil servants.
  • The illegal crops came from areas on the border of the Amazon Rainforest which had restrictions for production, but the real origin of the grains were concealed through paperwork.
  • The revelations come from a joint investigation by the Brazilian news outlets Repórter Brasil and O Joio e o Trigo.

MATO GROSSO, Brazil — An illegal grain distribution scheme in Mato Grosso, publicly acknowledged by farmers and civil servants, may have taken soybeans and corn planted without permits on Indigenous lands in the state — and within areas interdicted by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency  — to warehouses of some of the largest global commodity tradings.

A joint investigation by Repórter Brasil and O Joio e O Trigo reveals commercial relations between seven agribusiness giants (Bunge, Cargill, COFCO, Amaggi, ADM do Brasil, Viterra and General Mills) and farmers fined by IBAMA for irregularly cultivating crops inside the Pareci, Utiariti and Rio Formoso Indigenous lands (ILs), from the Paresí people.

The soybean and corn negotiations took place in 2018 and 2019, a period when there was an interdiction in the areas.

Indigenous lands are located in a region of Mato Grosso that concentrates a large part of Brazil’s grain production. Image courtesy of O Joio e O Trigo.

However, the grain sales invoices accessed by the report do not identify the farms as being inside the Indigenous lands as the location of the production — this would make business unviable since it is illegal to plant and to purchase production from interdicted lands. The documents indicate other agricultural properties as the origin of the grains, but all of them are neighboring (in some cases, next to) the IL and belong to the same producers fined by IBAMA for carrying out irregular plantations.

That is the case of Eleonor Ogliari, who in May 2018 was fined almost 9 million reais ($1.8 million)  for maintaining agricultural activity on the Pareci Indigenous Land and for preventing the regeneration of native forest on 1,600 hectares (3,950 acres)  of the territory. The same area was interdicted by IBAMA weeks later, in June 2018, for being sown with transgenic corn — Brazilian legislation prohibits the cultivation of genetically modified organisms on Indigenous lands.

The geographic coordinates of the IBAMA violation notice apply to a plantation within the IL that borders the Chapada do Sol Farm, also registered in the name of Eleonor Ogliari and separated from the Paresí territory only by the road that borders it. It was from this property that Bunge, Cargill and COFCO bought corn and soybeans in 2018 and 2019.

Chapada do Sol farm (red), identified as the origin of the commercialized production, is separated from the farming on the Pareci Indigenous land (green) only by a local road. Image courtesy of Leaflet.

The report identified a total of five producers fined by IBAMA in 2018 for producing within Indigenous lands who made sales during the validity of interdictions in the areas to large international grain tradings.

Such proximity between farms that appear in the invoices as the origin of production and Indigenous lands opens space for the so-called “grain laundering,” when a producer mixes illegal production made in conservation units, areas with land seized or interdicted with soybean and corn planted and harvested legally, masking the origin of the irregular part of the crop.

However, in the case of the Paresí Indigenous people, grain laundering was publicly acknowledged by farmers and civil servants working in the region in a series of reports on the Globo Rural TV program, aired in March 2019.

At the entrance of the Utiariti IT, billboards celebrate the partnership between Indians and farmers. Image courtesy of Fellipe Abreu/O Joio e O Trigo.

In one of the videos, a farmer who was a “partner” of the Indigenous people in the soybean plantations gave an interview: “The work is done by them and I supply equipment and inputs. The result is divided between us, 50-50,” Sérgio Stefanello explained to the reporter. He also hinted that grains were declared as being produced on his properties outside the IL. “Soybean will be delivered in my name [because] bureaucracy time is not the same as plant time; one cannot wait,” he said. To O Joio e O Trigo, Stefanello confirmed that he declared as his own the production made in the traditional territory. “It was a matter of urgency, agriculture doesn’t wait. It was wrong, but justifiable,” he added.

In another report in the series, a dialogue between Carlos Márcio Vieira Barros, of the Funai Regional Coordination in Cuiabá, and the reporter confirmed the scheme to sell soybean planted without a license. The public servant said the maneuver was “not legal.”

In an interview with the authors of this text, Barros said he could not assess whether the scheme was illegal, but described it in detail: “The trading companies such as Bunge, Cargill, ADM and Amaggi can suffer international economic penalties if they buy soybeans from the Indigenous people, so they don’t buy [directly]. Usually the Indigenous people sell to a local company that dilutes it, mixes it with the farmers’ and that production is sold as being from the farmers. The Indigenous people are invisible in the soy production,” he explained. The full text of the interviews can be read here.

Farming area inside the Utiariti Indigenous Territory, in Mato Grosso State, may be supplying grains to agribusiness corporations. Image courtesy of Fellipe Abreu/O Joio e O Trigo.

Questioned by the report, most companies guarantee to keep a “rigid control” over their suppliers’ social and environmental situation. General Mills, the owner of famous brands such as Yoki, Kitano and Häagen-Dazs, said Edson Fermino Bacchi was no longer a supplier or “a fixed business partner,” “having only occasionally supplied ingredients to the company in the past.”

Bunge did not comment on its relationship with the producers mentioned but assured that its monitoring “is able to identify changes in land use and soybean planting on each of the farms” where the company originated and that it calculated whether the volume of soybean delivered was in line with a farm’s production capacity, which reduced the risk of triangulation. Amaggi, meanwhile, said it used “satellite images and geospatial information” to trace the origin of soybeans. ADM and Viterra did not respond to our attempts to contact them, but the space remains open for comment.

Cargill and COFCO have appointed ABIOVE — the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries — as their spokesperson. The entity, in turn, guaranteed that soybean produced “in areas interdicted by environmental inspection agencies and overlapping with Indigenous Lands [among others] does not enter the sector’s supply chain.” But although it makes reference to “the potential risk of triangulation” of cases pointed out by this report, ABIOVE did not make specific statements about it, limiting itself to listing measures that “are routinely used” by its members to reduce the problem. The full text of all statements can be read here. After the publication of this story, Abiove informed that its statement also represented the position of ADM and Viterra.

Despite the technologies applied by companies and the efforts of sector associations to reduce the risk of triangulation, there is still no way to effectively prevent this procedure, since the verification techniques consider the soybean origin declared by the producer.

We also contacted the producers mentioned in this report to obtain their comments. The lawyers of Eleonor Ogliari and José Carlos Acco informed us that their clients would not comment on the facts found in this investigation. In addition, we made numerous attempts to speak with Jacs Tadeu Ventura, Rogério Acco and Edson Fermino Bachi through telephone numbers and emails that appear in public records and lawyers linked to them, but it was not possible to locate them. The space remains open for their statements.


Two decades producing

The Paresí Indigenous people have been leasing land to plant grain on a large scale since at least 2004 but they have never managed to license their crops and, despite that, they have continued to produce. An agreement with the federal government was signed in 2013, providing for the withdrawal of non-Indigenous farmers from the territory so that the inhabitants of the territory could take over production, but the area of cultivation needed to be reduced. But, contrary to what was stipulated in the pact, the planted area increased from 16,100-16,600 hectares (about 40,000-41,000 acres) — and the non-Indigenous farmers have not moved away from within the Indigenous lands.

In mid-2018, under the government of former President Michel Temer (MDB), IBAMA fined rural producers and Indigenous associations for deforestation, grain production without environmental licensing and planting GMOs. The list included names that were signatories of the pact made in 2013.

Indigenous Arnaldo Zunizakae, a leader among soybean farmers, says that without licensing they cannot sell directly to trading companies. Image courtesy of Fellipe Abreu/O Joio e O Trigo.

In 2019, with the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro (then PSL, now PL) to power, everything changed. In the very first months of his presidential administration, the then-ministers of the environment, Ricardo Salles (now a federal deputy for the PL-SP), and of agriculture, Tereza Cristina (now a senator for the PP-MS), attended the harvest party on Indigenous lands — which was already interdicted at the time — as shown in a report by O Joio e O Trigo. Besides them, Governor Mauro Mendes (União Brasil), also an ally of Jair Bolsonaro, attended as well. IBAMA’s superintendent in Mato Grosso warned the agency’s management in Brasília that the area could not receive planting, but this was ignored by the authorities of the republic.

In September 2019, the then-president of IBAMA, Eduardo Fortunato Bim, lifted the interdictions of the farms and canceled the fines applied, in a measure seen by servers as a move to accommodate the interests of Jair Bolsonaro, president at the time and presented the Paresí as an example of his policy of “integration” of Indigenous peoples.

After this, the Federal Prosecution Service led the signing of a Conduct Adjustment Term, opening the way for the legalization of agricultural production on indigenous lands Rio Formoso, Pareci, Utiariti, and also on Tirecatinga and Irantxe Indigenous lands, both in the same region — with a few conditions: that non-Indigenous farmers should withdraw from the area and that there should be environmental licensing by IBAMA — which has not yet happened.

“We still can’t sell this product legally; there is still a major restriction,” said Arnaldo Zunizakae, a leader of the Indigenous soybean farmers interviewed in August 2022 by O Joio e O Trigo.

Zunizakae said the lack of licensing prevented exports, but did not ban domestic sales. “Our soybeans are traded here [in Brazil]. These companies cannot export; if they load on a ship, Bunge will have a problem, Amaggi will have a problem, Cargill will have a problem. They know that they will be severely punished for buying soybeans from Indigenous lands. It is yet another policy designed to prevent Indigenous people from developing agriculture on their lands. Unfortunately,” he said.

Ronaldo Zokezomaiake is one of the leaders of the Haliti-Pareci people and former president of the Copihanama cooperative, created in 2018 and responsible for planting soybeans within the territories, said that even international sales were happening — despite the lack of licensing from IBAMA. “For now, we are still using some companies to make this [commercial] link. What we produce here, we deliver to the companies that finance us and then they follow up, send it abroad, for export. Now, when we have this licensing, we can do this commercialization directly ourselves,” he explained.

Through the Access to Information Act, the reporters asked IBAMA about the supervision in the area after the interdiction, including monitoring the destination of production, but the environmental authority said there was nothing in its database.


UPDATE (5/29/2023): The story was updated to add the information, sent by Abiove after publication, that its manifestation also represented the position of ADM and Viterra.

Banner image: A tractor works in the Utiariti Indigenous Territory. Under Brazilian law, Indigenous lands are for the exclusive use of native peoples and cannot be farmed on an industrial scale. Image courtesy of Fellipe Abreu/O Joio e O Trigo.

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