The Last Frontier
issue 184 - June 1988
Photo: Julio Etchart
The last frontier
Out of the dreams of politicians and businesspeople sprang
Brazil's Grande Carajas project - a mega-scale development nightmare.
Charles Secrett gives an eye-witness account of the devastation.
'Of course I chop trees. What else is there for me? My family is hungry and I must feed them.'
There were four of us sitting round a rickety table in a shack restaurant, eating chicken, beans and rice; Jose the migrant logger, the woman who owned the restaurant, my guide Ju and me. Flies made their way regularly from the open sewer outside the doorway to our plates. Between bouts of frantic arm-waving we were talking about life in Amazonia, about the disappearing rainforests - and about who wins and who loses.
'We have come many miles from the south along the new roads,' said Jose. 'The logging company in Repartimento pay money for the logs I fell. And there is nothing else. I've tried farming. The soil is no good. My crops failed. This way I earn money. Maybe I'll have enough soon to buy land further up the road where people say the soil is good.'
Repartimento is a new settlement town 60 miles down the red-dirt Transamazon Highway from Tucurui in eastern Amazonia. The old town has been destroyed by the flooding of the Tucurui dam, the fourth largest in the world. Repartimento (mark two) was supposed to be a model settlement, one of several promised by Brazil's northern power company Eletronorte to house thousands of people displaced by the reservoir.
In fact the town is little more than a refugee camp, as settlers quickly discover when they step off the buses which roar through daily. Crude shacks dominate except on the hillside covered by the rapidly deteriorating suburban-style bungalows which Eletronorte was finally persuaded to put up. There are no sewers, no paved roads, no proper schools, no shops, no facilities. There isn't even tapped water or electricity despite the great hydro-electric dam just down the road.
The people are very poor. Apart from logging and perhaps work on one of the nearby cattle ranches there are no jobs. Malaria, dysentery and pneumonia are rife. When the kids run round barefoot and ragged, you see the skin lesions and hear the coughs. There is a badly stocked chemist, but no medical post.
And yet Repartimento is smack in the middle of one of the largest development schemes ever conceived - the Programa Grande Carajas, or Carajazao. This $62 billion complex of mines, dams, towns, roads and railways, farms and forestry plantations was designed to bring prosperity to the region and haul Brazil's economy out of debt and into the 21st century. In return for credit from the World Bank, the European Community (EC) and Japan, it was hoped that exports of minerals, agricultural products and timber would repay the loans. Every year the EC is guaranteed 13 million tons of highest-quality iron ore at what one Brazilian politician calls 'banana prices'. Japan has a similar deal.
The aim of the Inter-Ministerial Council which supposedly co-ordinates the projects is to clear an area of Amazonian rainforest and savannahs the size of Britain and France combined, to make the dream of future wealth come true.
But as I saw myself, the winners are the industrialists, ranchers and entrepreneurs whose projects have been given the go-ahead, the national and overseas bankers who provide the development loans, and the politicians who can line their pockets in return for 'favorable' planning decisions and tax breaks. The losers are the migrants who are sucked into the region looking for work, the tribal Indians who live there already and the forests with their fantastic diversity of wild animals, birds and plants.
* * *
Juneia Malla (Ju) and I had landed in Belem on the southern bank of the Amazon, a few days previously. She is a Brazilian journalist who knows the region like the back of her hand. She had agreed to show me what she could of Carajazao.
We began with Tucurui. After a horrendous night flight in a 17-seater Bandeirantes, tossed like the proverbial pancake by a tropical thunderstorm she thought tame and I thought terrifying, we drove into the town beside the dam.
Tucurui is a larger version of Repartimento. Most of the 40,000 people who live there come from the neighbouring state of Maranhao or were displaced from their original homes by the reservoir. It is as good a place as any to see the successes and failures of Carajazao.
Stretching across the Tocantins River, the dam was begun in the late 1970s. It was supposed to be finished in 1986. Its 8,000 megawatts of electricity are intended to power industrial developments central to Carajazao - including aluminium smelters and refineries outside Belem 180 miles to the north, and the railway which carries iron ore for export 550 miles from the Serra dos Carajas to a new deep water port at Sao Luis to the north-east.
Today half the two-miles-wide dam is an enormous earth-covered concrete wall. Only six of the 24 turbines are in place and just two usually work at any one time. Standing on a hillside overlooking the site it seems an impressive piece of engineering. But all around you can see the environmental and social price that has been paid.
The reservoir flooded over 800 square miles of rainforest, known to contain many rare and unique wild species. Apart from one well-publicized rescue attempt which saved some 15,000 of an estimated several million drowning animals when filling began, there was no attempt to survey the area to find out if there were potentially valuable medicinal or food plants that could be transplanted.
Worse still the lands of two Parakana Indian tribes were lost. One was completely flooded and the tribe forcibly moved to Marudgewara over 100 miles away. The other lost half its land to the water and is fighting to gain control of the unflooded part from settlers who have been illegally moved in by Eletronorte.
The reservoir is so shallow that tree tops are visible in many places. Eletronorte were warned that failure to clear the forest might threaten the functioning of the dam. The turbines could be jammed by floating trees once the dam is fully operational. Meanwhile there are more immediate problems.
Ranchers have moved into the area, attracted by the new transport network. Their first priority is to remove the forest. From the hilltop and driving to Repartimento we could see cleared pastures everywhere. Cattle graze amongst burnt tree stumps. Erosion rates increase over 100 times once the forest is gone. The Amazonian development agency SUDAM and Eletronorte are extremely worried about the reservoir silting up and making the dam useless. The irony is that under the development plans these watershed forests were supposed to be protected.
From the hilltop we saw the effect that the huge reservoir is having on the local climate. Clouds coming towards us turned sharp right over the waters as the air currents changed. We saw the same thing happening the next day when we visited a fishing village ten miles downstream from the dam. There Tiburcio, a fisherman in his late 40s, told us how his livelihood had been affected by the dam. 'Before the dam, there were always plenty of fish. Now most of them have gone.
He told us how villages 30 to 40 miles downstream experience the same problem. As catches drop, the villagers' income is falling. They can't afford to repair the hand pump that drew drinking water from the well and the school hut has virtually collapsed. 'At election time we get promises from the mayor that he'll put things right. When the votes are over, we get nothing.'
Tucurui is split in two. The old town is run down and overcrowded. Although it has electricity and water it suffers like Repartimento from the same lack of essential facilities. The only flourishing enterprises are prostitution and shops catering for those in work. Six miles away the new town huddles around the dam. Built by Eletronorte for their workers, it has paved roads, decent housing, sewers, clean water, supermarkets, a modern hospital - all the benefits Carajazao was meant to bring. But it is surrounded by 12-foot wire fences and policed day and night. Access is strictly controlled. People from the old town are not allowed in. Even those who live there have to show passes to the company's armed guards.
Four doctors working in the hospital were friends of Ju's. They described how segregated life is, even for the privileged. Housing is allocated according to rank. There are five classes of worker, each with their own type of house at different levels on the compound's hill. Schools and shops are classified as well. Contact between different classes is not encouraged. Labourers are not allowed to walk around other housing levels. Maids have passes to show the patrols.
'We are not allowed to treat people from the old town at the hospital unless it is a real emergency. You wonder how they define an emergency. Since the dam was built, malaria has increased tremendously. Everyone is at risk,' said one of the doctors angrily. 'We've tried challenging things but no-one wants to know.'
'Because that's the way things are. People are afraid of losing what they have. And those in charge are powerful. They make a lot of money. Go down to the reservoir. You'll see them hauling out logs. The trees are there under the water. Divers cut them loose. Some of the senior engineers are making a fortune from the logging companies.'
'Then why not leave?'
'Of course we think about it. But we wanted to come here. It's the frontier. Things are much more exciting than in Rio or Sao Paulo.'
One way or another the frontier draws everybody. Dreams can come true that have been dashed elsewhere. The politicians coined a slogan when Amazonia was first being opened - 'Land without people. For people without land.' The tragedy of Carajazao is that for most, nothing has changed.
Charles Secrett is Campaigns Co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth UK,
and author of Rainforest, published by Friends of the Earth.