Independent journalism reveals palm oil industry abuses in the Brazilian Amazon | Mongabay Impacts

Aerial view of Biopalma’s Castanheira mill and palm plantation just a few meters away from the Acará River, in Tomé-Açu municipality, in northern Amazon’s Pará state, on November 12, 2019. Image by Wilson Paz for Mongabay.

In an 18-month endeavor, Mongabay investigated allegations by local communities of widespread abuses by some of the largest palm oil companies in Brazil, such as Biopalma, Belem Bionergia Brasil, and Agropalma. The effort yielded what appears to be an industry-wide pattern of brazen disregard for Amazon conservation and the rights of Indigenous people and traditional communities.

In March 2021, Mongabay broke the investigation that highlighted how the expansion of palm oil in the Brazilian Amazon had resulted in deforestation and pollution, affecting the environment and Indigenous and traditional communities of the region. Mongabay simultaneously released a video explaining the investigation.

Nazaré Coutinho Pereira, a resident of the Tembé Indigenous Reserve, looks over the Acará-Mirim river. Image by Karla Mendes.

Local communities shared that nearby plantations had contaminated Indigenous villages’ water with a toxic sludge of organic materials, insecticides and herbicides from local palm oil mills. Research efforts by the University of Brasília also support their claims. Scientists have found high levels of agrochemical residues in these communities — though still within Brazil’s legal limits — while prosecutors are pursuing legal cases against the companies for allegedly violating Indigenous and traditional communities’ rights and damaging the environment.

Besides revealing evidence of water contamination, the Mongabay investigation also shed light on clearing native forests for oil palm plantations, as shown by satellite imagery. This contradicts the companies’ and the government’s claims that oil palm crops are only planted on already deforested land.

Mongabay’s English editor (Brazil) Karla Mendes, and author of the investigation, was featured in a behind-the-scenes video about her reporting journey, as she tracked how the palm oil industry was changing the Amazonian landscape. While investigating the story, Mendes experienced firsthand some health impacts of industrial palm oil production, with the rapid onset of coughing, shortness of breath, nausea and headaches after inhaling the fumes from palm trees doused with pesticides.

Behind-the-scenes with English editor (Brazil) Karla Mendes in Brazil, where she investigates the impact of palm oil expansion in Pará State.

Real-world impact

Just a few short weeks after the publication, federal prosecutor Felício Pontes Júnior spoke on Mongabay’s podcast. Mongabay received news that Brazilian prosecutors from the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) would use findings from the investigation as evidence to hold Biopalma, Brazil’s top palm oil producer, accountable for water contamination on the Tembé people of the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Reserve in the Amazonian state of Pará.

The update came after a court ruling had denied a request for a forensic investigation into Biopalma’s pesticide contamination. “We do not conform to this decision,” Pontes Júnior told Mongabay the day before the appeal was filed.

Prosecutors informed Mongabay that the investigation would be used as key evidence for a special appeal with the Superior Court of Justice if the forensic request was denied again. Federal prosecutor Felipe Moura de Palha e Silva also said the MPF was considering filing a new lawsuit against Biopalma, again citing the Mongabay investigation. The move would serve as another front in the legal push to prove the link between oil palm pesticides and damages to local communities in Pará.

Apart from its legal impact, in April 2022, Mendes received the Third Prize in the Fetisov Journalism Awards in the ‘Excellence in environmental journalism’ category for the investigation. A few months later, she also received Second Place in the Society for Environmental Journalists’ 21st Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment.

November 2022 update: In October 2022, Pontes Júnior informed us that Mongabay’s investigation helped to reverse the court decision to finally allow a forensic investigation into pesticide contamination and the socio-environmental and health impacts in the Turé-Mariquita Indigenous Territory and the production zone of the country’s largest palm oil operation in the Tomé-Açú region.

The green light to carry out the expert report was issued eight years after the MPF filed a lawsuit to hold Biopalma accountable for environmental impacts.

Mongabay reporting played an important role in informing the government about the transgressions of palm oil companies that have been rampant throughout Southeast Asia and now Brazil. Mongabay is committed to continue to report on the expansion of palm oil in Brazil and beyond. For recent coverage, click here.

Aerial view of a school completely surrounded by oil palm plantations in Tomé-Açu municipality, in northern Amazon’s Pará state, on November 13, 2019. Image by Wilson Paz for Mongabay.

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