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Guided by an Indigenous leader, we drove down dusty roads in the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Reserve, a “green island” encircled by oil palm plantations in the Brazilian Amazon.
Uniform rows of oil palms cover huge swaths of land here in the northeast of the state of Pará, once home to a vibrant expanse of rainforest. Our Mongabay reporting team was there to discover if the palm oil business, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is sustainable and ecologically responsible, as industry representatives told us.
Federal prosecutors have pursued the country’s leading palm oil exporters in the courts for the past seven years, alleging the companies are contaminating rivers, poisoning the soil, and harming the livelihoods and health of Indigenous and traditional peoples, charges the companies deny.
The stories of abuse we heard from our guide seemed almost unbelievable. After hearing dozens of claims of water contamination in the Indigenous villages, the local chief, Lúcio Tembé, led us to a mill run by Biopalma da Amazônia — Brazil’s top palm oil producer and exporter — close to the Acará River, which meanders through the forest for almost 400 kilometers (250 miles) before spilling out into the Amazon gulf.
“Look,” Tembé said, “they will throw [palm oil] residue in the river!”
Leaving our car, we watched from the riverbank, filming as unmarked trucks, and then a man with a shovel, dumped waste into the waterway. Tembé told us that the dark brown residue was a toxic sludge of organic materials, insecticides and herbicides from local palm oil mills. Every day, dozens of trucks dump this waste into the Acará River, he added.
Industry representatives would later tell us that such things do not happen, and that palm oil production isn’t harmful to human health or to the environment. But the dumping we saw, as well as the rapid onset of coughing, shortness of breath, nausea and headaches when we inhaled the fumes from palm trees doused with pesticides, was enough to convince us that these claims were worth pursuing.