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Environmental licensing gaps and irregularities lead to a 105% increase in the number of ports in Tapajós (PA)

Of the 27 ports in operation in Tapajós, at least half have committed some irregularity in their environmental licensing process. Lack of environmental transparency and violations of the rights of traditional peoples have also been identified.

(Photo: M'Boia)

The banks of the Tapajós River, in western Pará, have been taken over by port ventures designed to transport grain from Brazil’s Central-West region. The accelerated growth of port facilities in the Tapajós region – especially after the creation of the so-called Ports Law (No. 12,815) in 2013 – has relied on environmental licensing processes containing a series of gaps and irregularities, such as failure to carry out environmental impact studies, lack of prior consultation, among others, which have contributed to violations of the rights of traditional peoples and communities. This situation is exposed by the study from the organization Terra de Direitos “Ports and Environmental Licensing in Tapajós: irregularities and violation of rights”1, which was released on March 6th. The dossier is part of an online platform on the subject. 

The study analyzes the port facilities in the municipalities of Santarém, Itaituba, and Rurópolis, which are key cities in the agribusiness logistics chain and act as the final point of transport for grain production exported to the international market. The survey only considered cargo ports (grains, fertilizers, and other inputs for the sector), and did not include ports for tourism or the transport of people. 

A total of 41 ports have been identified in the three municipalities by October 2023 (the data collection period). Amongst these, 27 are currently in operation and only 5 have complete environmental licensing documentation.  

The analysis of environmental licenses in this study was based on information searched for on the website of the Pará Environment and Sustainability Department (Secretaria de Meio Ambiente e Sustentabilidade do Pará – SEMAS, in Portuguese) and through the Access to Information Law (Lei de Acesso à Informação – LAI, in Portuguese). The search yielded few results, which suggests that the licenses do not exist.  

The lack of availability and disclosure of the documents needed to grant the licenses is one of the important rights violations pointed out in the study. 

Data from the Terra de Direitos study shows that until 2013 (before the Ports Law) the Tapajós region had 20 ports planned, under construction, or in operation in the Pará municipalities of Itaituba, Santarém, and Rurópolis. Ten years after the law was passed, that is, by the end of 2023, that number has more than doubled to 41 ports – an increase of 105%.  

With 14 ports in operation, 6 planned, and 2 under construction, Itaituba accounts for more than 50% of the total of 41 analyzed ports.  

Itaituba has been considered fundamental to the process of migration of port facilities from the Central-West, South, and Southeast regions as part of a global strategy by agricultural commodity traders (large investment companies) to reduce costs, due to the municipality's location being closer to international markets and the good navigability conditions of the Tapajós River. 


Irregularities in Environmental Licensing 

Environmental licensing is an institutional tool that requires prior studies for the installation of activities or construction works with the potential to cause environmental degradation. The start of environmental licensing is an essential stage and, in the case of the 41 ports mapped, mandatory for the installation of the projects. 

According to a study by Terra de Direitos, amongst the 27 ports operating in the region, complete documentation was found for only 5 projects. This complete documentation includes the Environmental Impact Study (Estudo de Impacto Ambiental – EIA, in Portuguese), the Environmental Impact Report (Relatório de Impacto Ambiental – RIMA, in Portuguese), the Preliminary License, the Installation License, and the Operating License.  

Another 4 ports have all 3 licenses – preliminary, installation, and operating –, but have not presented the impact studies.  

The EIA and RIMA are the first step in the licensing process and are considered indispensable prerequisites for the granting of a Preliminary License for the installation of a port. Environmental studies are essential to measure the impacts of the construction and operation of ports on the environment and the communities surrounding the project.  


Amongst the 27 ports in operation, 16 have an Operating License without presenting a Preliminary License or Installation License. 

It was found that all the licensing processes analyzed in the study up to October 2023 had irregularities that contravened some provisions of Pará’s legislation. The Pará Environment and Sustainability Department (SEMAS) is the body responsible for carrying out and granting these licenses.  


“There are two main difficulties in environmental licensing in Brazil today, which are exacerbated in the Amazon and, consequently, in the Tapajós territory. The first is the false interpretation that licensing, with all its inherent stages, is optional. Current legislation makes it clear that the process is mandatory and must be started before the installation of any potentially polluting activities – in the case of the Terra de Direitos study, all the projects analyzed. With a licensing body that has little or no oversight and transparency regarding the licensing process, companies have opted for corrective licensing, which should be the exception, but has become the rule. This is the shortest and cheapest route for companies, which produces the most severe human rights violations and irreparable socio-environmental damage. The second is the retrograde understanding that licensing serves to protect an environment without people. Today, there is a systemic interpretation of social, cultural, and environmental rights in the constitutional text, which demands that the licensing process be understood as a safeguarding and enabling tool for socio-environmental rights. In other words, a safeguard of rights that also belong to persons, who are often organized collectively into peoples, and to nature,” highlighted Terra de Direitos’ legal advisor, Bruna Balbi.  


An analysis of the environmental licensing processes for port facilities in the region reveals a large gap in licenses and studies for most of the projects found, meaning that the installation of these ports takes place amidst a series of irregularities, which is evidence of a lack of supervision and oversight, as well as omissions by environmental agencies.  

From non-compliance with federal and state legislation on ports’ environmental licensing to international treaties – such as Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (which deals with the right to prior consultation with traditional peoples and communities) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (which establishes the precautionary principle for environmental protection) – the study demonstrates that violations of rights have been the basis of the environmental licensing processes for the ports installed on the Tapajós region.  

Based on an analysis of the environmental licenses for the Tapajós ports, the study identifies that there has been a rampant advance in infrastructure and logistics works, which have counted on the trampling down of rules in order to speed up port installation works and port operations.  


Impacted Peoples 

The Terra de Direitos study points out that the damage and transformations caused by the ports on the Tapajós cannot be seen in isolation. When assessing the impacts, it is necessary to consider the entire logistics structure and the accumulated damage the projects have caused to the environment and also to the ways of life of traditional peoples.   

There are Indigenous people, quilombolas, artisanal fishermen, family farmers, river dwellers, and other traditional communities who live with the negative results and impacts of the accelerated installation and intense operation of port ventures with irregularities in their environmental licensing. 

Maria Ivete Bastos, a rural worker and president of the Santarém Rural Workers and Family Farmers Union (Sindicato de Trabalhadores Rurais, Agricultores e Agricultoras Familiares de Santarém – STTR, in Portuguese) knows this scenario well. She says that with the ports also came incentives for grain monocultures, which expanded the region’s large landholdings. 

“The negative impacts that the ports have brought have been going on for some time... Firstly, taking Cargill in Santarém as an example, the arrival of the ports has also provided support, financing, and the improvement of logistics for soybean farmers to come from other regions, given that Santarém was not a soybean production center before,” she says.  

This stimulus to monoculture in the region, pointed out by the rural worker, reinforces the perspective brought up in the Terra de Direitos study that the ports do not reach the territory on their own. An entire logistics and infrastructure chain is created to ensure the support and development of grain agribusiness, which transforms social, economic, and cultural dynamics, as well as causes a major impact on the way of life of traditional peoples and communities. 

“The first impact was the expulsion of workers from the land because most of them didn’t have a land document, they were just squatters. Secondly, some communities were also extinguished, some streams were polluted, and people were left without access to the land because of the barbed wire fences, or because they were buying [land] from one another or expelling people. People can’t make a living if they don't have public policies and land regularization, so they ended up becoming vulnerable, and many left for the city,” she says.  

None of the 41 ports identified in the study carried out the free, prior, and informed consultation process guaranteed to traditional peoples and communities under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, the study reveals.  

The international treaty ratified by Brazil in 2004 stipulates that these groups must be heard in advance in the case of works, ventures, or administrative measures that could affect their territories or way of life.  


Cargill – the first port 

Cargill was the first port set up in the Tapajós region with the aim of transporting agribusiness production, in 2003. The company started operating in Santarém without presenting the Environmental Impact Studies, which were only produced in 2008 after intense mobilization and complaints to the courts by social movements and traditional peoples. 

Cargill’s impacts in Santarém have been constantly denounced for years by traditional peoples and communities, as well as by social movements and organizations. The complaints deal with the irregularities committed in the environmental licensing process and violations of rights, such as the lack of prior, free, and informed consultation, the destruction of the Vera Paz urban beach (once located on the edge of the city where the port is today), and the company’s responsibilities in contributing to the planet’s climate crisis, as Maria Ivete points out. 

“These several trucks that are dumping fossil fuels are also contributing to the warming that we are experiencing today. The longest drought in history, which has killed our crops, dried up the rivers, and made it impossible for us to make a living during this period. And it’s not over yet. We are living through this drama of the climate crisis and these ports are increasingly moving forward and new ones are being installed in the region. So the impacts are very harmful to our lives because it’s not simply having a port, it’s what will be passed through there, what it will stimulate, and what can happen to the human beings who decide to stay in the territory.”  

The study and investigation into the impacts caused by Cargill’s two ports (Santarém and Itaituba) in the Tapajós can be found on the website “Sem Licença Para Cargill” (No License for Cargill), elaborated by Terra de Direitos.  

Ports in Tapajós Portal 

The study “Ports and Environmental Licensing in Tapajós: irregularities and violation of rights” is part of the Ports in Tapajós online platform, which gathers information on the environmental licensing of 41 ports (public and private) that are planned, under construction, or in operation in the cities of Santarém, Itaituba, and Rurópolis, all located in western Pará. The data was collected from the National Waterway Transportation Agency (Agência Nacional de Transportes Aquaviários – ANTAQ, in Portuguese), the Pará Environment and Sustainability Department (SEMAS), and federal official gazettes.  

The website also contains annual and cumulative data on deforestation and forest fires, which are linked to information on the ports in the region, making it possible to see how, over the years, with the arrival of the ports, the territorial landscape of the region has been modified.  

In addition to the ports, the website’s map identifies the conservation units (Unidades de Conservação – UCs), Indigenous lands, quilombola territories, and traditional communities of the Tapajós in the municipalities of Santarém, Itaituba, and Rurópolis.  

With the filter tool available, it is possible to see how this data relates and connects in the region’s scenario. The portal allows numerous combinations to be made in order to carry out specific analyses. 

Actions: Business and Human Rights Violations
Axes: Earth, territory and space justice