Sinop: The city that popped-up in the middle of nowhere

Veit Badde

Geographer, University of Innsbruck

27. Apr.


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A city in the middle of nowhere, only existing to give the industrial agriculture a centre. The city of Sinop is a prime example of the power and radiance of the so-called Agrobusiness in Brazil. In many countries, political strategies and pathways are often closely linked with it. A brief insight into our research on site.*

At the beginning of the 1970s the Brazilian Midwest was virtually untouched wilderness. Primeval forests and savannahs were stretched over thousands of square kilometres, interrupted only by rivers or settlements of indigenous peoples and very rarely pioneers from southern Brazil or Europe. If you visit this region nowadays, not even 50 years later, it has a completely different character. A single road, almost 2,000 km long, runs as the transport artery from south to north through the Brazilian Midwest. Over the past decades, thousands of hectares of cattle farms as well as soybean and cornfields have made their way into the wilderness and with them the cities of the Agrobusiness are lining up like a string of pearls along this road.

Approaching Sinop through never-ending soy- and cornfields  (Photo: J. Kowalski)

This is the image that awaited us as we were getting closer to the destination of our three-week field trip, to better understand the power structures and development potential of the region. The destination was the city of Sinop, with almost 150,000 inhabitants the largest of the young agrocities in Brazil’s Midwest. The city was founded in 1974 by the colonization company „Sociedade Imobiliária Noroeste do Paraná“, which also gave Sinop its name. Such planned new foundations of cities have a long tradition in Brazil, and one encounters them again and again when dealing with the history of the largest country in Latin America. Brasília, the capital of Brazil, is a globally regarded example of this tradition. However, when classifying the various planned settlements, a distinction must be made between their functions and histories of origin. With the construction of Brasília as the new capital, for example, the government tried to take the focus away from the economically strong and powerful southeast of the country. In addition to that, the city was built as a so-called planned city for which a precise plan of the settlement structure and the functional allocation of the individual quarters existed, before the city was even built.

Sinop  proudly calls itself the capital of the North (Photo:  S. Feuchtgruber)

In the case of Sinop the development of agricultural land was the reason for its foundation. On the one hand the city served for resettlements, to mitigate conflicts in the densely populated areas of the northeast and south of Brazil, and on the other hand as frontier settlement to exploit the economic potential of the Amazon region, with its seemingly inexhaustible wood and land reserves. However, the settlement process was less planned compared to other regions and the colonialization company did not build any houses. Instead, only plots of land were sold to potential settlers and the basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and running water was provided. This strategy of frontier settlements shaped today’s Sinop and indirectly the agricultural production in the state of Mato Grosso decisively. Over time, different economic activities in and around Sinop were established and changed over time. At the beginning, there were several attempts to cultivate coffee (which failed due to the soil quality and other obstacles), followed by boom of timber industries with countless sawmills, which made the logged trees of the region economically viable. However, the actual path to an economic and political important region did not follow until industrial agriculture was established. The latter made Mato Grosso the largest producer of soy and corn in Latin America and one of the most important exporters of agricultural products worldwide. The region´s rise was accompanied by processes of land concentration, as well as the professionalization of agriculture, which influenced the cities character significantly until today.

Large-scale agriculture dominates the economy of Sinop and the state of Mato Grosso (Photo: V. Badde)

Today, almost every part of the local economy is connected to the Agrobusiness in some way. Agricultural consultancies, farm machineries and financial institutions (which give the majority of their loans to farmers) dominate the townscape of Sinop and the Universities are specialized in agricultural science. Like in every other city there are, indeed, many other services and businesses, such as hospitals, law firms or retailers, available in Sinop. Yet, even these sectors are indirectly linked to the Agrobusiness, either by providing services for the farmers (who usually live in Sinop) or by benefiting in another way from the economic values created by the agricultural sector. Ultimately, money flows into the region go almost exclusively through that same sector, and the city is thus dependent the local Agrobusiness and its position in the global market. The geographic location of Sinop, alongside its historical development, is one of the main reasons why there is a particular dependence on the agricultural sector. The city is neither on a navigable river, nor close to industrial centres or natural resources and benefits mainly from the favourable topography and the now sparse forestation, which allows extensive agriculture.

Satellite image of the state Mato Grosso in 2019 (sources: NASA under CC BY 2.0)

The dependency on the Agrobusiness, at least in macroeconomic terms, should not necessarily be seen as negative, since it was the specialization of the region, that made the creation of the existing wealth possible in the first place. Nonetheless, it must be questioned whether this will lead to a successful sustainable development of the city, since social segregation, through massive land concentration and precarious employment conditions is also apparent here. A possible crisis in the agricultural economy would have dramatic consequences for the whole region. In addition, the ecological balance of industrial agriculture also plays a role in future thinking, because the massive use of agrochemicals and the predominant monocultures put ecological resilience at extreme risk. At the end, it remains to be seen whether Sinop will be able to free itself from this dependency and whether it wants to break free from it at all.

A storage facility for soybeans on the outskirts of the city (Photo: S. Feuchtgruber)

*This research took place during a field trip which was part of a Vertiefungsrichtung (specialised modules) led by Prof. Dr. Martin Coy, Dr. Tobias Töpfer, and Dr. Frank Zirkl. During our research, we have focused on production networks, power structures within the region, and urban development of Sinop, which are relevant topics for the future development of the city. Moreover, we have tried to identify possibilities for a more balanced economic structure in Sinop. The results of our research are expected to be published in German and Portuguese at the University of Innsbruck in summer of 2020.

Further Reading:

Cattelan, A.; Dall’Agnol, A. (2018): The rapid soybean growth in Brazil. In: OCL 25 (1): 1-12.

Coy, M.; Zirkl, F.; Töpfer, T. (2019): Peripher und doch global vernetzt. Das brasilianische Agrobusiness und seine Folgen für räumliche Prozesse und Arbeitswelten. In: WSI Mitteilungen 72 (1/2019): 31-38.

Coy, M., Töpfer, T., Zirkl, F. (2019): Brasilianische Stadt-Land-Verhältnisse im Zeichen des Agrobusiness. Das Fallbeispiel Sinop (Nord-Mato Grosso). Innsbruck. Innsbrucker Schriften 2018/2019.

Guilhoto, J. (2004): The Regional (State Level) Importance of the Agribusiness GDP in the Brazilian Economy. In: SSRN Journal: 1-19.

Huber, C. (2017): Transformationen in der Holzwirtschaft im brasilianischen Amazonien. Empirische Fallstudie zu Sinop (Mato Grosso). In: Innsbrucker Geographische Gesellschaft: Innsbrucker Jahresbericht 2016-2017. Innsbruck: Innsbrucker Geographische Gesellschaft., ISBN 978-3-901182-76-1 , S. 81 – 96.

Agrobusiness is a term for all economic activities of the particularly intensive industrial agriculture, as it can be found in the Brazilian or US-American Midwest.
This Blog is published under a CC BY 4.0 license. You are allowed to share and adapt this content under these conditions.
Veit completed his Bachelor’s degree in Geography at the University of Kiel in Germany and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. After his bachelor thesis on the connections between urban development and mega-events, he began his master’s degree in „Geography: Global Change – Regional Sustainability“ at the University of Innsbruck in 2018, where he now works as a student assistant in the research group Transient Spaces & Societies. His current research focus is on urban development processes and their connection with „the Digital“.
Veit Badde

Geographer, University of Innsbruck

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