Cargill: Not just a Minnesota Company

By Madeline Kovacs

Although I have lived in Minnesota and been familiar with the company Cargill as a food provider for nearly three years, it took a trip to the Amazon Rain Forest for me to discover the company’s heavy hand with Brazil’s natural resources. Cargill, an American company, food grower and distributer, worldwide business consulting firm, and Midwest household name, is the number one deforester of Brazilian rainforest in the inner-Amazonia states of Para and Mato Grosso. Although the company’s activities overseas remain unknown to the majority of Americans, Cargill’s presence has been a source of heated conflict in the Brazilian Amazon for years now.My study abroad program took me to Cargill operations in the city of Santarem, located on the Amazon River in central Brazil. The recent swelling of the city’s population is due largely to the recent influx of Colonos, mixed-blood descendants of African slaves who fled into the forest over two hundred years ago to escape from the Portuguese colonists. Present-day migration among traditional populations now follows industry that coincides with large amounts of deforestation. Roads such as the Belem-Brasilia and the Trans-Amazonia, single-lane highways opened 30 years ago, are now the arteries along which major towns and cities have sprung up throughout the interior.

As any Colono will tell you, the fruits of natural resource extraction do not end up in Brazil, but rather abroad. A Brazilian priest, environmental activist, and radio broadcaster. Padre Edilberto, notes “Where is the result of this fantastic profit? It is in Minnesota (a large state in the Midwest of the United States), the home of Cargill, because those people carry the profit abroad. If you visit Santarem, you would see streets full of holes, children in the hospitals”. Why does he implicate Minnesota in particular for this resource extraction and corresponding deforestation and social misery?

Edilberto along with others who have been aware of Cargill’s impacts have been fighting to remove Cargill from the Amazon for many years. The company has an appalling record of overseas activities, including allegations of bribery, dishonest reporting of land use, ill treatment of workers, and forcible displacement of people from their lands with little or no compensation. The Colonos who arrived in Santarem were promised work by, and joined those recently made homeless by the corporation as their lands were bought or simply taken. The result has been nothing short of disaster: favelas line the outskirts of town, all new since Cargill’s arrival.

Environmental laws protect lands in the United States from such unapproved, unchecked activity. But at this very moment, in the heart of the Amazon, an American Company is violating the Brazilian constitution, continuing to misreport its deforested areas, degrading the land with soy monoculture, and exporting profits to Northern countries where packaged soy appears on the supermarket shelves and is marketed as a nature-friendly alternative to meat.

International pressure and the struggles of stakeholders in the Amazonian region have ensured that the Amazon will not be razed in the manner of the North American forests. And so the battle between the Colonos and Cargill in the Amazon is one that the Colonos might not lose, if global citizenship and international awareness become the new aspirations of the American public.

The truth is that we in Minnesota are in the burrow of the monster, so to speak. Even though we Minnesotans do not commonly hear of Cargill’s business overseas, we are being held accountable in the minds of those people who do not have electricity in their homes, and whose knowledge of current events puts ours to shame. It is not the fault of most Americans, who are duped by a media in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. It is the system we are born into, live and breathe. The challenge facing Americans is enormous. But, luckily, social movement is a renewable resource.

It is up to us to demonstrate that Americans are not content to sit tight until we are forced to cough up a percentage of our accumulated riches. It is the task of our generation to make the distinction between words such as “freedom” and “free trade,” and “democracy” and “American Imperialism.” America was not founded on principles of extraction, accumulation, and Manifest Destiny. Cargill does not represent core American values of personal dignity, equality, or even the right to seek a good quality of life.

Contact Madeline Kovacs ’08 at [email protected]