The hook that Lourenço Pereira Leite throws into the Paraguay River draws fewer and fewer pintados, cacharas and pacus as the days go by. These native fish species sustained his family for many generations, but none of the skills he learned fishing in the Pantanal with his father and grandfather have helped him avoid the empty pesticide packaging that shows up in his traps instead of fish. “This has to be coming from upstream, because there are no large farms around here,” he says.
His observation sums up the crossroads at which this Brazilian biome finds itself: only 0.01% of the vast Pantanal wilderness has been turned into soy farms, yet the wetland has become an enormous depository for the agrochemical residue washing down from farmland to the north on the high plains of Mato Grosso state. Growing international demand for soybean has seen farms encroach into preserved areas and pushed soybean fields closer to the springs that feed the Pantanal.
Last year, the biome underwent a historic burn that affected 30% of the region and drew much attention in the international press — much like the 2019 fires in the Amazon did — focused on the inertia of the federal government in protecting its natural heritage. But in reality, the region has been suffering in silence for much longer. Pollutants travel downstream, threatening one of Brazil’s few natural regions still well-preserved from human activity.
Lourenço Leite fishes in the municipality of Cáceres, in southwestern Mato Grosso, the gateway to the biome recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The water that governs the life of the Pantanal flows past the spot where he drops his line. The rains that fall to the north, on Mato Grosso’s high plain, cause the sources of the Paraguay, Sepotuba and Cabaçal rivers to rise. This bounty of water then flows down to Cáceres, from where it forms the planet’s largest floodplain, inhabited by rare and threatened species like jaguars, giant anteaters and giant armadillos.
Under natural conditions, this water would carry only the organic material that serves as food for fish and fertilizer for plants. But today it also brings with it the chemicals that leach from the soy farms. Over the past 30 years, Brazil’s soy production has increased sixfold, from 20 million metric tons per year to 125 million tons today, most of which is farmed in Mato Grosso. The state is the largest soy producer in Brazil, which in turn is the world’s biggest supplier of the grain.
“The Mato Grosso Plateau is part of the Central Plateau,” says Débora Calheiros, a biologist with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA). The region is considered to be Brazil’s water holding tank because it is home to the headwaters of Brazil’s main hydrological basins. Aside from the Upper Paraguay River Basin that forms the Pantanal, another four large basins have their origins here: the Amazon, the São Francisco, the Paraná and the Araguaia/Tocantins, says Calheiros, who also works with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office and has dedicated her career to understanding the impact of the use of agrochemicals on the region’s ecosystem.
“The Pantanal is a sort of hole,” says Nilza da Silva, a Cáceres fisher. “We’re down here, and they plant soybeans up on top. When the rains come, where does the water flow? Right downhill to here.
“Downtown Cáceres lies on the riverbank,” Nilza adds. “It used to be a very deep fishing hole where we could even catch jaú” — the gilded catfish, one of Brazil’s largest native fish species, which can reach lengths of 1.5 meters (5 feet). “These days, in the dry season you can cross the river in water below your knees because of all the silt. And there are hardly any fish,” Nilza says.
A group of researchers who monitor the Pantanal’s well-being has concluded that the silting she describes is the result of a 200% increase of sediment deposits in the Pantanal over the past three decades, a number that rose in tandem with the growth of agriculture at higher altitudes.
The Pantanal floodplain has been almost entirely preserved from agribusiness. Only 16% of its area is dedicated to agricultural activities, mostly cattle ranching. It’s a different picture from the high plains, where 60% of the land has been taken over by agribusiness and where Brazil’s largest soy-producing municipalities, also national leaders in pesticide use, are located. The high plains are also home to the sources of the rivers that feed the Pantanal.
Soybean isn’t native to Brazil, and today it’s raised in monoculture farms that require large volumes of insecticides and herbicides to keep pests away. This is why even though it represents 42% of the planted area in Brazil, soybean accounts for more than 60% of agrochemical use in the country — a cocktail of more than 450 different chemical formulas, most considered toxic to humans or harmful to nature, according to the National Health Agency and the Ministry of the Environment.
The world’s eyes on Brazil
Of the 125 million metric tons of soy that Brazil produced in 2019-2020, only a third stayed in the country. Most of the production is exported to become feed for cattle, poultry and swine, which in turn are slaughtered to feed the planet’s growing population.
China is Brazil’s largest soy customer. The exports also reach all of Europe, with particularly high volumes in the Netherlands, Spain and France.
Norway, the main donor to the Amazon Fund that’s meant to protect the rainforest against the onslaught of threats like agriculture, currently imports 328,000 tons of whole soybeans per year, at least 70% of which come from Mato Grosso’s plateau. It also imports another 278,000 tons in the form of soy protein, to use in its salmon farms, according to Statistics Norway.
That’s a small share of Brazil’s total production (around 0.5%) but it represents 86.3% of all the soybean imported by a country that continues to pressure Brazil to care for its environment by means of the Amazon Fund.
Norway has also pressured importers and companies to adopt a rigorous certification method for the Brazilian soy entering the country, including a list of banned pesticides. It calls for product origin to be tracked to avoid any association with deforestation and ensure the grains don’t come from genetically modified crops. But from a social and environmental standpoint, conventional soy is not much different from GMO soy, as both are grown in extensive monocultures with the use of pesticides. The only exception is the use of the herbicide glyphosate, which, depending on how it’s applied, can kill conventional soybean plants. For this reason, it is used less often.
According to the Trase platform, six municipalities are the main suppliers of whole soybeans to Norway: Sapezal, Diamantino, Nova Ubiratã, Campo Novo do Parecis, Campos de Júlio, and Tangará da Serra. These towns — which also export to China, the Netherlands, Turkey, Thailand, the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Cuba — are all located on the Mato Grosso high plain, a hugely important region in environmental terms.
A river poisoned at the source
Two hundred kilometers, about 120 miles, north of where Lourenço Leite goes fishing, is a place where the water flows from the ground in small crystalline springs that form seven lakes. This is the source of the Paraguay River. From here, the water flows 2,600 km (1,600 mi), through Bolivia and Paraguay, before spilling into the sea in Argentina together with the Paraná River.
Along the way, it forms the sinuous curves that make up the scenic panoramic views often associated with the Brazilian Pantanal. But of the seven original lakes, only three still hold water, and one of these is dangerously low. “They are disappearing because of the lack of vegetation and the quantity of soybean and cattle farming nearby,” says Jacildo de Siqueira Pinho, a biologist with the state health board. “Anyone flying over the region sees only monoculture. They have removed nearly all the vegetation from around the lakes.”
Brazil’s Forestry Code makes it mandatory to conserve the riparian forests surrounding water sources. This means that at the source of the Paraguay River, an area larger than Norway’s capital city Oslo is ostensibly under protection. Known as the Paraguay River Source Environmentally Protected Area (EPA), it spans 77,743 hectares (192,107 acres) and straddles the municipalities of Alto Paraguai and Diamantino. The latter is one of the six main soy exporters to Norway.
All activities that harm the environment are prohibited within the EPA, especially those that threaten the water sources, and the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals is not tolerated. Despite this, 40% of the native vegetation inside the EPA has been cleared for soy and corn farms and cattle pasture.
Among the powerful landowners within the EPA is the Argentine cattle farming group Telhar, and Golmar Mendes, a justice on the Supreme Federal Court who was once likened by a fellow justice to an organized crime boss. The Mato Grosso State Prosecutor’s Office hasn’t been able to successfully prosecute any of the agricultural players in the region.
Prosecutors brought 19 civil lawsuits against various parties on evidence that included a study by Mato Grosso Federal University (UFMT) showing traces of at least 10 agrochemicals in samples of water, river sediment and even soil from inside the Paraguay River Source EPA. But they didn’t prevail in any of the lawsuits, nor did they manage to reach an agreement with the farm owners to reduce the amount and toxicity of the agrochemicals they use on their crops. Instead, it was the Diamantino district attorney, Daniel Zappia, who ended up the target of an administrative proceeding by the national judicial watchdog, the CNMP, at the behest of one of the landowners being investigated: Justice Mendes.
“We have already proven that the agrochemicals used in the headwater region reach the Pantanal rivers and that all the estuaries inside the biome are contaminated,” says biologist Calheiros, who led the UFMT study that found traces of agrochemicals in the protected area.
One of the toxins found by UFMT researchers is atrazine, a herbicide prohibited in the European Union since 2004 and which in the 1990s led to the closure of water supply systems in Italy after high concentrations of the product were identified.
Atrazine in humans causes irritations of the skin, eyes and respiratory system. These same symptoms have been increasing among residents of Cáceres along the lower Paraguay River, according to Claudia de Pinho, coordinator of the Cáceres Network of Traditional Pantanal Communities. “Some communities complain a lot about skin illnesses. This worsened even more after the 2020 burn,” she says. In the Paraguay River Source EPA, the 2020 wildfires affected 70% of the protected area.
“The deforestation going on at higher altitudes sends sediment down the rivers to the sediment plain, which is the Pantanal,” says Solange Ikeda, one of the founders of Instituto Gaia, an NGO in Cáceres that works to protect the Pantanal. “This has reduced water levels, and here, a few centimeters less water already impacts the biodiversity, which is controlled by the flood pulse.”
However, the Mato Grosso state environmental secretariat (SEMA) has played down the findings from the UFMT report, saying it “did not show that the legally established limits have been exceeded” and that “the legislation does not include limits for many of the [chemicals] listed in the report.” In fact, Brazil’s acceptable limit for glyphosate levels in water is 5,000 times higher than in Norway and the European Union.
Impact at the bottom of the basin
The way of life of the Pantanal’s residents has changed with the water quality: the days are gone when a person could quench their thirst by simply leaning over the side of their canoe. “We can no longer drink from the river because it gives us diarrhea and vomiting. These days when I go fishing, I have to take a bottle of mineral water,” says Lourenço Leite, the fisherman from Cáceres. But since the symptoms he describes arise just as commonly from cases of acute pesticide poisoning as from infection by the parasites and bacteria that can be found in the water, it is difficult to attribute blame.
But agrochemicals have been shown to flow from the high plains to the lower basin. A 2014 study verified the presence of seven of these substances in the Cuiabá River Basin, which also supplies water to the Pantanal. According to the authors, “acts carried out in the upper basin can directly impact the Pantanal.” The evidence drew the attention of scientists overseas, and now a team of researchers from Brazil, Argentina and the U.K. is working on the issue. They have not yet released their findings.
A study from 2008, led by Débora Calheiros and three other researchers, showed the presence of four pesticides, some of them used on soy farms, in water samples from the Pantanal. As soy farming is still a new activity in the biome, this reinforces the hypothesis of contamination in the hydrological basin.
Agribusiness has been pushing at the Pantanal’s borders at a slow but steady pace. In 1985, farming activity occupied some 4% of the biome. Today, this number is 16%, mostly cattle ranching. Soy farming accounts for 0.01% of land use in the Pantanal. But the pressure to open new land for farming has increased significantly over the past decade because demand exceeds the capacity of existing farms, even though productivity has been rising since the 1980s.
“Soy farming began appearing in the Pantanal 10 years ago,” says Clovis Vailant from the Instituto Gaia. “Farms already occupy the whole plain across the border in Paraguay and Bolivia where it’s been spreading from the west to the east. The Pantanal is right in the path of this growth, it’s the last barrier.”
Farming has now arrived in Cáceres and in Poconé, about 180 km (110 mi) away. “We were already feeling the impact of farming in the upper basin, and now there are soy fields inside the Pantanal,” says Claudia de Pinho from the Cáceres Network. “This makes us even more concerned about contamination because it is happening even closer to traditional communities. We have communities in Poconé who are having a hard time keeping their vegetable gardens alive. The vegetables die because the wind brings pesticides in from surrounding areas and it directly impacts them.”
According to scientists’ projections, if farm growth continues at this rate, agribusiness will have replaced native vegetation in a 1.4-million-hectare (3.5-million-acre) area of the Upper Paraguay River Basin by 2050, and the quantity of pesticides used in the region will increase by 4.3 million liters (1.1 million gallons) per year — the equivalent of two Olympic-sized swimming pools full of toxic agrochemicals. The effect of all this at higher altitudes won’t be great: it would represent a 7% increase from the volume of agrochemicals used today. But on the lower plains of the Pantanal, where there’s little in the way of pesticide use today, the increase could be as much as 50%.
Residues also reach the Amazon
Of the six Brazilian municipalities that export the most whole soybeans to Norway, four are among the largest users of agrochemicals in Brazil. That’s according to 2015 data from a study by Wanderley Pignati, a researcher at Mato Grosso Federal University who has become the Brazilian authority on agrochemicals. There is evidence of birth defects in children, Pignati’s work shows. He also notes that cancer rates in children in the region are higher than the national average, and hospitalizations due to severe intoxication are frequent.
Three other studies from 2016 and 2017 show that the agrochemical contamination has reached municipalities that lie in the basin of the Juruena River, which flows into the Tapajós, itself a tributary of the mightiest river of all here: the Amazon.
In the municipalities of Sapezal, Campo Novo do Parecis and Nova Ubiratã, residents are consuming water, fish, fruit and vegetables shown to be contaminated by toxins from the farms. Not even the artesian wells providing water to the schools are safe.
As the complex hydrography of the Amazon is quite extensive, the toxins’ effect is diluted, and proving that it reaches the forest is difficult. But biologist Débora Calheiros says the contamination is real.
“Because it is chronic, the contamination spreads. The active ingredient decomposes after entering the water system, but the composites resulting from this decomposition are at times more toxic than the active ingredient. Who suffers most are the people who depend on this water and on the fish,” she says.
Plenty of soybeans, but not enough food
In addition to compromising the water quality of two fundamentally Brazilian biomes, the large-scale commodities production system also poses a threat to the food safety of local populations.
A 2019 study showed that residents of the municipalities of Campo Novo do Parecis, Sapezal and Campos de Júlio get their food in other states because it is nearly impossible to grow food in a region where 98% of the land is dedicated to growing cash crops like soybeans and corn.
There is not enough room to grow fruit and vegetables, or to raise chickens and pigs, or to keep dairy cows. Those trying to produce food in these municipalities suffer from agrochemical drift, the phenomenon of wind carrying the toxins to neighboring properties.
Nearly half the farms in these municipalities are larger than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) and are held by just a few owners, so the impact of dusting monoculture crops with agrochemicals is great. “The clouds of poison not only reach their target (plants and pests), they also reach the farm workers and, indirectly, the air, soil and water, the people living there, the animals and other plants in the surrounding area,” according to the 2019 study.
This has become one of the day-to-day challenges for small farmers grouped under CEIBA, the Caeté Settlement Family Farmers’ Association, in Diamantino — one of the top pesticide-using municipalities in Brazil and a major soybean supplier to Norway.
CEIBA is made up of around 15 families trying to produce food with little or no agrochemicals. Their farms abut against the soybean fields, which requires extra effort to protect the orchards and vegetable gardens in the settlements. “We plant trees along the property lines, and on the side that has soybean, we plant yucca,” says farmer Ruseveth Marques Martins. They chose yucca because its leaves rise to over a meter (3 ft) off the ground, forming a natural barrier against the drift; the edible part of the plant grows underground, safe from airborne contamination.
The drift compromises the health of students attending schools near the soybean farms, and even those living in urban areas in these municipalities. Biologist Lucimara Beserra has identified residue from agrochemicals in the water used in four schools in Campos de Júlio, Sapezal and Campo Novo do Parecis. “Those of us who live here are used to seeing the airplanes throwing out poison,” says Mauro Flávio de Souza, a teacher at a school in the rural part of Campos de Júlio. “You can smell it in the air. If a person has any sort of allergy to agrochemicals, they have to leave the city.”
Research is taboo in the land of agrochemicals
In 2017, Brazilian agrochemical consumption was three times greater than the global average. Then, in 2020 alone, the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro approved the use of another 493 pesticides — an average of nearly 10 per week. A report published by the European Parliament this year warns that a third of these substances contain active ingredients prohibited or restricted for use inside the EU.
But Brazilian scientists cannot move as fast as the planes dropping the agrochemicals on the fields. “We are in need of a network of accredited, validated and certified laboratories in Brazil so we can study the residues of agrochemicals in the water, the rain, the earth, air, blood, urine and breast milk, just as we do in food,” says Wanderley Pignati from Mato Grosso Federal University.
It was only in 2015 that Mato Grosso, the state that uses the most pesticides in Brazil, opened its first laboratory to identify residues of glyphosate, the herbicide used on soybean crops and which is by and large the most widely sold in Brazil.
Thanks to a partnership with the Public Labor Prosecutor’s Office, the lab at the federal university has been able to purchase new equipment. It is still in the testing phase for use because of pandemic-related delays.
Meanwhile, the university has managed to identify the presence of 15 active compounds, a fraction of the 504 active ingredients approved for use in Brazil, according to a study by researcher Larissa Bombardi.
For now, the logistics of testing any sample in the region for the presence of agricultural toxins means it must be sent to Fiocruz, a public health research institute in Rio de Janeiro, or travel more than 2,000 km (1,200 mi) to Santa Maria Federal University in Rio Grande do Sul. Even then, both institutions have limited capacity for detection of glyphosate, for example.
The current economic malaise further complicates things. State and federal funds have been cut by 80% in recent years, while research and postgraduate grants have been cut in half. “Our partner institutions, like the Public Prosecutor’s Office, are currently directing all their resources toward fighting the pandemic,” Pignati says.
The obstacles are not only technical and economic. Experts researching the effects of agrochemical use in Brazil can receive death threats and even be forced to leave the country. This is what happened to Larissa Bombardi, the author of one of the most complete studies yet produced on the topic.
In an open letter that she sent to her colleagues at the University of São Paulo on March 3, 2021, Bombardi revealed that she had been subjected to intimidation after her work was published.
“In June of 2019, I received recommendations from leaders of social movements that I should take different routes and vary my schedule so my routine would be harder to track and that I would be more protected from possible attacks from the economic sectors involved in the topic to which I have dedicated my work,” she wrote.
For Bombardi, the final straw was in August 2020, when attackers broke into her home. They locked her in the bathroom and took her computer, where she had saved all her research data. “[A] relative asked me if the assault may have had to do with my work. Everyone knew that I don’t save my files on the cloud. Honestly, this hypothesis didn’t even go through my head on the day of the assault. And I truly have no idea whether it was related to my work. It’s possible that it wasn’t. But I will never know,” Bombardi said before she left Brazil to live in Europe.
Banner image: Aerial view of the Pantanal National Park in the state of Mato Grosso, and the Paraguay River on the border between the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, with the Amolar Mountains in the background. Image by André Dib.
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