The Transamazon highway is a vast 5,000 kilometre road which cuts across the heart of the Amazon forest, spanning Brazil from Joao Pessoa in the northeast to the border with Peru. It was built in just 18 months.
At about the same time, in the early 1970s, the Brazilian government also constructed the Mato Grosso highway, running in a north-south direction from Santarem, a port on the Amazon river, to Cuiaba, near the borders of Bolivia and Paraguay.
It was planned for these two roads to form a huge symbolic cross, representing the occupation of the world’s last great virgin forest. It was confidently predicted that by the early 1980s, the region would be bustling with the settlement of ten million people along the Transamazon alone. According to official plans, these families would be supplying the domestic market with millions of tonnes of beans, rice and maize, as well as earning millions of dollars through the export of coffee, cocoa, pepper, oranges and other crops.
In the event, none of this has happened. At the most 20,000 families have settled beside the road. Many of these moved in of their own initiative, outside the official colonization programme. A far cry from the prosperous farmers envisaged by the government, most of the settlers are scratching out a meagre, near-subsistence living. Inhabiting traditional wattle-and-daub huts with palm-leaf roofs, they are farming the land in the old way, without tractors or other farm machinery. They cultivate rice, cassava and maize, largely for their own consumption; and isolated in the tropical forest, thousands of kilometres from the main consumer centres, they even have difficulty in marketing their small surpluses when they have them.
What went wrong with the grandiose scheme? Was the prgramme misconceived from the outset? Or did the failure stem from the way it was implemented?
In 1970 the huge, backward, northeast of Brazil was undergoing one of its periodic droughts. Tens of thousands of peasant families were being driven off their tiny plots of land (minifundio) into the swollen cities which offered little prospect of employment. Hundreds of children were dying from starvation.
General Emilio Garrastazu Medici, president of the tough authoritarian government then ruling Brazil, visited the region. By all accounts, he was profoundly shaken by the suffering he saw. He commented: ‘Nothing in my whole life has shocked and upset me so deeply. Never have I faced such a challenge.’ The president clearly felt that he must take decisive action.
Rationally, a long-term solution to the human suffering imposed by the droughts should have been sought within the region itself. If the president had pushed through a radical programme of land reform, giving each family an adequate plot of land and providing them with reliable credit facilities and technical advice the peasants would have become much less vulnerable to the droughts.
However such a policy was inconceivable, then and now. The government would never declare war on the large landowners - faithful and important supporters of the regime. It would contradict the essence of the military government which is busy promoting an elitist, non-populist form of capitalist development.
Instead, the president searched for some kind of deus ex machina, an emergency solution outside the region that would end the intolerable suffering without changing the existing social and economic structures. The rapid construction of the Transamazon highway, in itself creating a heavy demand for unskilled labour, was to be followed by a massive colonization project that would settle millions of landless peasant families on virgin forest land. It seemed to be a heaven-sent solution.
After President Medici’s visit to the north-east in 1970, the Plano de Integracao National (National Integration Plan) - was unexpectedly announced. It was launched as the master-plan that would solve simultaneously the problems of both the north-east and the Amazon. Under the plan, about $400 million was to be spent on road construction, irrigation and colonization projects. The money was to come from a drastic 30 per cent cut in the resources going to SUDENE, the north-east development agency, which had been grappling ineffectively with the region’s huge problems for over a decade.
The most spectacular and costly of the projects was the Transamazon highway and its colonization scheme. Transport Minister Mario Andreazza explained why the government had decided to regard the construction of the road as one of its urgent priorities: ‘On the one hand, the north-east, ravaged by periodic droughts, with a huge sector of its population lacking even the basic conditions for survival, sees many of its inhabitants emigrate to the centre-south where the large cities are not in a position to absorb this unskilled labour. On the other hand, the population of Amazonia, which is a vast region with fertile valleys and important mineral deposits, is concentrated in tiny hamlets beside the river.’ The solution was to let the two regions solve each other’s problems. The slogan became: ‘Land without people for the people without land.’ It was predicted that two million people would be settled along the road within two years.
The project was presented as a fearless patriotic undertaking, carried out by a government in a hurry to develop the hinterland and to bring progress to the poorer sectors of the population. All leading government officials dutifully expressed enthusiastic support.
However, a few middle-rank civil servants dared to challenge these facile assumptions. Jose Sergio de Paz Monteiro, director of the road department for Amazonas, one of the states to be cut by the Transamazon, gave an interview to a leading Sao Paulo newspaper 0 Estado de S. Paulo in June 1970. He commented: ‘The simple fact of building roads does not mean that we are creating conditions for the occupation of the demographic vacuum. As well as roads, we must provide the settlers with technical and financial assistance so that they can produce and fix themselves on the land.’ The engineer estimated that a successful colonization project would demand an investment twice that calculated on for the road.
Moreover, the engineer had specific reasons for believing that the Transamazon highway was particularly unsound. He said that the road from Manaus south to Porto Velho made economic sense, because it linked an area with a high consumption of raw materials (the industrialized south) to an area that required manufactured goods (the Amazon region). ‘But this is not the case with the Transamazon’, he added, ‘for the north-east consumes very little of what we produce and it produces very little of what we consume.’
In keeping with the prevailing climate of political repression, the government could not tolerate these criticisms. Jose Monteiro was forced to make an unconvincing retraction in which he denied even talking about the Transamazon to the Sao Paulo paper.
The engineer did not have to wait long for the vindication of his predictions. The idea of settling millions of north-easterners was given up within a year. The project struggled on until June 1974, when it was finally abandoned. By then, only 4,969 families had been officially settled. In all about 20,000 families had come into the region.
The families we visited in 1975 were facing serious problems. They were housed in flimsy, pre-fabricated little wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs which looked incongruous in the midst of the tropical forest. And according to the settlers they were less suited to the humid climate than the traditional wattle-anddaub huts. Many complained of failures in the government’s back-up programme: little technical assistance, highly expensive farm inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, sprays etc.), inadequate marketing facilities and so on. One settler told us that the road should really have been called the Transmisery highway.
A few stretches of the road that fit into north-south routes have been heavily used. For the most part however, the road has had very little traffic. It was dubbed ‘the road that links nothing to nowhere’ by one Brazilian journalist. Predictably enough the earth road, which was coated with a thin layer of fine gravel, has not stood up to the torrential rains that beat down on Amazonia from November to April. A heavy outlay is required each May and June to repair the wooden bridges, fill in the potholes, and replace the broken drainage pipes.
In parts, the failure of the Transamazon is due to inherent weaknesses in an over ambitious project. However, the main reason for the fiasco was probably political. From the very beginning, one of the the main objectives of the project - to solve a serious social problem of poverty in the north-east - was jarringly at odds with the principal aim of the successive military governments in Brazil, which have been to further the interests of a small elite of powerful landed, industrial and banking groups.
Until recently Sue Branford was the Sao Paulo correspondent of the Financial Times. She is just completing a book on land conflict in the Amazon.