Amazon and the contradictions of environmental discourse



The contradiction between the discourse of environmental protection and the limits of the capitalist economy

In recent years, the much-needed environmentalist discourse has been reinforced. Very recently, international conferences were held which, due to the current political dispute we are facing, placed the speech of a Brazilian authority at the forefront at a global level. President Lula's speech in Belém, the main Amazonian city and an example of the contradictions of Brazilian peripheral capitalism, can be initially cited in this text, either to address the difficulties that lie ahead, or for the optimistic hope that this old social leader gives us.

For President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, “The Amazon is not and cannot be treated as a great store of wealth. It is an incubator of knowledge and technologies that we have barely begun to scale.”[I] The president's speech is completely correct, what would be a gigantic biome with diversity and environmental logic so necessary to humanity in the XNUMXst and XNUMXnd centuries cannot be reduced to a warehouse for mineral products and grains supplied in the “delivered Brazil".

In this article I will use academic publications that I developed that demonstrate the contradiction between the discourse of environmental protection and the limits of the capitalist economy. The discourse of capitalist rationality relates the possibility of continuity of capitalism and the mitigation of contradictions, including environmental ones, something that starts to be formulated around the discourses of “environmental sustainability” and “green entrepreneurship”.

The Amazon appears with relevance in the national economic scenario as a region that exports primary products, with emphasis on mineral extractive production (mainly iron ore), live cattle, biodiesel from palm oil and, in the border area with the Center-West, especially In the area of ​​contiguity between Mato Grosso and Pará, soybean and corn production gains importance. A key aspect in all of this refers to the contradiction between economic and environmental sustainability, clearly visible in the relationship between trade balance surpluses and the advance of deforestation in the Amazon. In 2020, exports from the two aforementioned states corresponded to around 80% of everything the Amazon sold abroad, as well as representing the large forest deforestation corridor.

Export of primary products and the environmental issue

The Brazilian trade balance has shown quite regular behavior over the last two decades. A surplus in the early 1990s and, from 1995 to 2000, a deficit. From then on, what is observed is a surplus and considerable growth in the trade balance, with exports growing at a faster pace than imports. Deficits were observed in only three years (2000, 2013 and 2014), reaching a peak in 2017, with a balance of US$56 billion, maintaining high balances in the last four years. Of the highlights of basic products, iron ore and soybeans are the main items on the export agenda, as evidenced in Table 1 below with the main products exported by the country in 2020.

Tabela 1 – Main products exported by Brazil – 2020

NCM DescriptionUS$ (Thousand)(%)
Oil seeds and fruits; grains, seeds and fruits,9
Ores, slags 28.893.262.14113,8
Mineral fuels, mineral oils 24.872.571.55411,9
Meat and offal, edible 15.821.674.2767,6
Sugars and confectionery products 8.887.159.1744,2
Cast iron, iron and steel 8.672.768.1784,1
Industrials with added value 44.021.993.41221,0
Others 48.967.710.64823,4
Source: Comex Stat, Ministry of Economy (2021).

Other primary products are fuel, meat and sugar. Beef is an item on the rise. In 2020, Brazil exported US$ 15,8 billion in beef (80% being in natura), the country is the world's largest exporter of beef, with this primary export basket being heavily concentrated in the Amazon region, with obvious elements of environmental impacts.

The Amazon export sector

Pará and Mato Grosso are the two largest exporters in the legal Amazon, occupying first and third place, respectively, in terms of trade balance between Brazilian states, according to data referring to 2020, see table below.

Tabela 2 – Trade Balance Balance (Federative Units) – 2020

Product UFEXP – FOB Value (US$)IMP – FOB Value (US$)BALANCE – FOB Value (US$)
Pará 20.611.770.877 1.199.622.71319.412.148.164
Minas Gerais 26.319.148.236
Mato Grosso 18.231.913.879 1.800.033.24116.431.880.638
Rio Grande do Sul 14.059.629.221 7.604.563.3416.455.065.880
Goiás 8.133.811.970 3.319.286.5444.814.525.426
Source: Comex Stat, Ministry of Economy (2021).

Ore, cattle, wood and soy: Pará's export list and the trail of deforestation

In the second half of the last century, the state's economy underwent a strong process of insertion of international capital, at which time large industrial mineral extraction plants were installed in the region, the so-called “large mining projects”. The 1970s and 1980s saw the development of mining enterprises in the State of Pará, part of the strategy adopted by military governments, still in the second half of the 1970s, of seeking relative complementarity with the national industrial base. This process began in the II National Development Plan (II PND – 1975/79), during the Geisel government, aiming to implement programs that aimed to produce capital goods and basic inputs.

The interests of the national State around the installation of these projects were, among other things: (i) generating foreign currency with a view to solving the exchange rate crisis that was beginning to emerge and (ii) outlining the role that the region would play, that is, from a supplier of primary or semi-finished goods – to becoming the industrial hub of the Center-South.

Exports from Pará have been growing a lot in recent years, maintaining the surplus characteristic of its trade balance. As shown by MDIC data, in 2020 Pará had the highest export balance among all federative units, as shown in the table above, it presented a balance of almost 19,5 billion dollars. It would be an interesting and comfortable scenario for Pará if it weren't for the intrinsic characteristics of it. One of them is the composition of Pará's export basket, which is made up of more than 70% of basic products. The main product in Pará's export basket is iron ore, which in 2020 represented more than 67% of everything exported by the state (see Table 2) and almost 50% of national exports of the product.

Tabela 3 – Main products exported by the State of Pará – 2020

NCM Description2020 – FOB Value (US$)%
Iron ores and their concentrates 13.968.823.34567,8
Other copper ores and their concentrates 1.899.904.3699,2
calcined alumina,9
Soya, whether or not crushed, other than for sowing 759.451.5203,7
Boneless beef meat, frozen 406.779.2382,0
Others 2.364.646.98411,5
Total 20.611.770.877100,0
Source: Comex Stat, Ministry of Economy (2021).

Therefore, the most important economic sectors of the Pará economy are mining and mineral processing, as well as soy production, livestock and wood extraction, which end up leveraging sectors such as: services in general, food production, clothing and civil construction, which put the state on a path of economic growth in recent decades, but based on destructive extractivism. In the last two decades, the period from 1995 to 2007, for example, the accumulated growth of Pará's GDP was 157,16%, which provided an average growth of 4,76%, and consolidated real growth rates of the Pará economy well above of the evolution of Brazilian accumulated GDP, which was 139,77%, that is, 3,31% on average.

This massive economic growth, centered on the production and export of basic goods, established, on the other hand, a format for occupying the Amazonian space in Pará that was strongly degrading the environment and characteristically expansive over the forest, which determined two important movements: the significant deforestation , accompanied by a strong migratory movement and occupation of the Amazon “hinterland” with great social inequality and impoverishment of its population.

The large soybean plantation in the north of Mato Grosso and BR-163: exports from Mato Grosso and the advance of deforestation

As the second largest exporter in the legal Amazon and third in the country in terms of trade balance, Mato Grosso had a trade balance in 2020 of US$16,4 billion, with around US$18,2 billion in exports and almost US$1,8 billion in imports.

Mato Grosso exports are made up of more than 90% of basic products, of which soybeans are the main one (more than 40%). The first three on the list – soybeans, corn and cotton – account for around 73% of this federative unit’s exports (see Table 3).

Tabela 4 – Main products exported by the State of Mato Grosso – 2020

NCM Description2020 – FOB Value (US$)%
Soya, whether or not crushed, other than for sowing 7.634.204.79241,9
Corn, except for sowing 3.684.322.18020,2
Cotton, not carded or combed 2.114.977.36211,6
Cakes and other solid residues from soybean oil extraction 2.044.946.08211,2
Beef meat, boneless, frozen 1.439.834.9087,9
Others 1.313.628.5557,2
Total 18.231.913.879100,0
Source: Comex Stat, Ministry of Economy (2021).

The behavior of the export sector in Mato Grosso has evolved rapidly in recent years. From 2000 to 2020, exports grew year after year. While in the first year of the century the state exported US$1,03 billion, the value in 2020 reached US$18,2 billion, which gives more than 1700% variation. The soy production chain accounts for around 20% of the national agribusiness GDP, corresponding to more than US$ 35 billion in 2004, with almost 50% of the national harvest being in the states of Mato Grosso and Paraná, which produced respectively 14,5 and 10,2 million tons in that year. That "convenience” has shown a great expansion in its international demand over the last two decades, reflected in an extremely regular international price behavior despite a growing supply from producers in three key countries: Brazil, USA and Argentina.

The trail that accompanies the expansion of soy is characterized by the rationality that controls this type of production, a “tendency towards land concentration at medium and large levels, lower than those of large livestock large estates”, properties located between “200 and 2000 ha ”, very mechanized and using workforce only seasonally. Due to these characteristics, the expansion of soybean farming occurs with a certain “depopulation” of the countryside, contributing to the increase in the urban population of the municipalities in the area covered by the “soybean corridor”, at the same time that the deforested area grows exponentially, as will be seen below.

The increase in the price of soybeans on the international market also triggered the concentration of land in the mid-west of Mato Grosso and stimulated the penetration of this crop in the north of that state and expanding to the state of Pará. It is worth noting that soybeans have proliferated throughout the country , and in the Amazonian case, all states already have soybean crops, something linked to the primary-exporter specialization pattern of the current Brazilian economic cycle. The high growth rate of soybean production can be seen in the Graph below.

graphic 1 – Quantity of soybeans produced (ton) (2000/2020)

Source: IBGE/PAM (2021).

The north of Mato Grosso has consolidated itself as the largest soybean production area in the country, according to data from PAM (Municipal Agricultural Production), released by IBGE, the total area allocated to this cultivation exceeds around 1,8 million hectares in 2000, to something around 6,3 million hectares planted in 2020, a geometric average growth rate of 6,7% annually.

An important aspect to note about agricultural expansion in this region is that it is, to a large extent, a highly capitalized structure, linked even to export trading companies, such as Cargill and ADM, based on medium and large producers. , with a level of productivity and the lowest national production costs.

The land structure has changed in the last decade and the main cities in the region are concentrated in the vicinity of BR-163, most of which are extremely recent centers; clear sign of the significant migratory movement occurring in the region, alongside the characteristic already observed in other areas, the decline in demographic density in non-urban areas, with these small cities playing the role of logistical support points and availability of workforce for the large soybean plantation.

The most obvious explanation for the expansion of soybeans in Mato Grosso and the rest of the country, especially on the Amazon border, lies in the price of land and the long cycle of growth in soybean demand, which has provided great regularity in its international prices. , constituting the main productive segment characteristic of the current Brazilian agrarian-export cycle.

The process of productive expansion of agribusiness consolidates a picture of advanced replacement of the forest (and the cerrado) by “plantation”, with the most recent expansion front being the one formed on the borders of the two states (Mato Grosso and Pará), and appears to be the main factor to be analyzed for changes in the short and medium term for the region surrounding BR-163 up to the municipality of Santarém and deepening along BR-316, up to the municipality of Paragominas, both in the state of Pará, as shown by data on the growth of soybean production in this Amazon unit.

The environmental issue and Amazon deforestation

The highlight here basically concerns the issue of deforestation in the Amazon. It is not the intention to go into details, but to emphasize some points related to the export sector. The literature on the subject provides basic information that livestock farming is directly responsible for deforestation in the Amazon region. In addition to the aforementioned activity, there is also emphasis on other variables, such as the opening of roads in the 1970s/80s (as a determinant for future deforestation patterns) and, in a more recent period, the considerable growth in soybean plantations.

Table 5 below shows annual deforestation by Amazonian state. Pará and Mato Grosso were the ones that deforested the most between the years 2004-2020, totaling 112,8 thousand km² of forests felled in the period (almost 171,5 thousand km² of all states). This area deforested by the two states is greater than the sum of the territorial extensions of Paraíba, Rio Grande in the North and Sergipe.

Tabela 5 – Annual deforestation rate in the Amazon (km²/year), 2004-2020

2004 728 1.232 46 755 11.814 8.870 3.858 311 158 27.772
2005 592 775 33 922 7.145 5.899 3.244 133 271 19.014
2006 398 788 30 674 4.333 5.659 2.049 231 124 14.286
2007 184 610 39 631 2.678 5.526 1.611 309 63 11.651
2008 254 604 100 1.271 3.258 5.607 1.136 574 107 12.911
2009 167 405 70 828 1.049 4.281 482 121 61 7.464
2010 259 595 53 712 871 3.770 435 256 49 7.000
2011 280 502 66 396 1.120 3.008 865 141 40 6.418
2012 305 523 27 269 757 1.741 773 124 52 4.571
2013 221 583 23 403 1.139 2.346 932 170 74 5.891
2014 309 500 31 257 1.075 1.887 684 219 50 5.012
2015 264 712 25 209 1.601 2.153 1.030 156 57 6.207
2016 372 1.129 17 258 1.489 2.992 1.376 202 58 7.893
2017 257 1.001 24 265 1.561 2.433 1.243 132 31 6.947
2018 444 1.045 24 253 1.490 2.744 1.316 195 25 7.536
2019 682 1.434 32 237 1.702 4.172 1.257 590 23 10.129
2020* 706 1.512 24 336 1.779 4.899 1.273 297 25 10.851
Var. 2020-2019*4%5%-25%42%5%17%1%-50%9%7%
Source: PRODES (2021).

The first years of the last decade were critical in terms of forest devastation in the Amazon, reaching 2004 km² of deforested area in 27,7. That year, the State of Mato Grosso alone was responsible for more than 40% of total deforestation, followed by Pará (32%). From this peak, the deforested area gradually decreased, reaching 4,5 thousand km² of deforested area in 2012, rising again and accelerating deforestation after the 2016 coup d'état and increasing very strongly with the Bolsonaro government and the dismantling of the IBAMA and ICM-Bio.

The observation that the products responsible for deforestation are precisely those that are on the rise in the export basket is worrying. The Amazon provides a large part of them, with emphasis on cattle farming (meat and even live cattle), soybeans and iron ore.

Specifically in the case of soybeans, geospatial monitoring carried out by INPE has long demonstrated the strong correlation between the fronts of productive expansion and the strong increase in deforested forests. In general, soybeans appear as a second generation of occupation and entropic change, after livestock expansion. and logging.

The generation of foreign exchange via the trade balance in recent years is based mainly on the sale of basic products. Moreover, the country's trade balance owes much of its surplus situation to the states of the Amazon, mainly Pará and Mato Grosso. Thus, the Amazon is an important exporting region for Brazil, but at an enormous social and environmental cost.

Maintaining the observed trend of only being a supplier of basic products, the region: (i) loses out by not adding value to the production process; (ii) increases its fragility in the face of possible crises in the external market (or drop in prices for some other reason), given the emphasis on commodity exports, as has already been shown in recent years (2013 and 2014); (iii) increases the gap in the process of regional development in relation to other regions of the country, which are more focused on industrial production, however, it also supports the national condition of a primary-exporter pattern with serious consequences in the medium term, including due to Brazilian urban complexity and the limits of a standard that does not generate necessary employment and income stimuli; (iv) it also loses because it presents a greater concentration of capital (and income) in the primary-export sector, which does not provide a spillover effect on the economy; (v) in environmental terms, the damage is very significant, as the activities considered to be the main causes of deforestation (mining, livestock and soybeans) are in the growing export basket of primary products.

Thus, the trade-offs The generation of foreign exchange versus the recrudescence of regional productive inequality must be rethought, whether due to the necessary improvement in the quality of life of the population of the Amazon region, or through the introduction of a development model that overcomes the current pattern of a mere granary of basic products, with deleterious effects on the environment and with low social return, just check the human development indicators of the region and especially of the two states in focus.

From everything that has been exposed throughout the text, the complex issue involved is quite evident: if on the one hand the environmentalist discourse supports the need for a “new model”, on the other the harsh rawness of the balance of payments and the need to generate foreign exchange they impose the continuity and expansion of the old primary-exporter model and, in quite acute terms, very little concern with the preservation of biomes or raising the quality of life of indigenous Amazonian populations.

*Jose Raimundo Trinidad He is a professor at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at UFPA. Author, among other books, of Agenda for debates and theoretical challenges: the trajectory of dependency and the limits of Brazilian peripheral capitalism and its regional constraints (paka armadillo).


TRINDADE, JR B & OLIVEIRA, WP de. Primary-export productive specialization and environmental degradation in the Amazon. NAEA New Notebooks Magazine (2013)

Trindade, JRB, & Borges, GT do N. (2023). The labor market in Pará: Primary-export economy and social inequality. RBEST Brazilian Journal of Social and Labor Economics, 5(00), e023007.


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