issue 219 - May 1991
The rainforest and its people are caught
in a cycle of destruction. David Ransom
embarks on a journey to find out why.
The Chico Mendes is a beautiful Amazon river boat, named in defiant memory of the rubber tappers' leader who was assassinated two years ago.
But it is also a bomb. Stored in the bow are six huge barrels of diesel oil. They fill the boat with fumes. Some of my companions are sitting on them smoking cigarettes. Overhead, lightning bolts flick from dark clouds like the tongue of a snake scenting its prey. I light my pipe, reasoning that this is the most pleasurable way to face an explosive end to an expedition that hasn't yet begun.
All too often I've heard the Amazon rainforest talked of as if it contained no people. That false belief has made much mischief in the past and seems in danger of doing so again now. People have lived in the forest for thousands of years. If it is finally being destroyed then it's not destroying itself. People are doing that. I want to find out why. To do that I need to know who they are and what they think of the forest they live with.
So here I am on the waterfront of Cruzeiro do Sul. This is the most westerly town in Brazil - dozing quietly away since the First World War and the end of the Great Brazilian Rubber Boom - in a part of the country that until 1903 belonged to Bolivia and Peru. It's slap in the middle of the forest and incredibly remote - 'off the map' was the expression they used in Rio de Janeiro.
We're headed for the Upper Juruá Valley Extractive Reserve. It is two and a half days away by boat - 45 minutes and $1,000 by one of the rare private planes or air taxis that fly there. 'Much prefer the romance of the boat', I think smugly to myself.
Until, that is, the motors start up. Imagine yourself locked in a coffin with two pneumatic drills and you will have just some idea of what it is like to travel on the Chico Mendes. It is impossible to talk. Of Amazonian wildlife I can expect to see nothing at all. Only the vultures circle undisturbed over Cruzeiro do Sul.
Darkness promptly falls. The idea is that we should travel through the night. Zé the skipper is an obliging man, a middleaged ribeirinho (someone who lives by the river and makes a living from it) who knows what he's doing. His young motorista Evilásio must love the huge outboard motors dearly if he's prepared to stand anywhere near them. But we have only a small electric bulb to light our way ahead. Zé soon tires, takes us into the bank and repairs to his hammock.
For a few minutes we swing in our hammocks in silence; just the sound of river water lapping against the boat, frogs croaking, the occasional enigmatic grunt and rustle from the forest. It shines with a thousand fireflies, like a dark audience carrying candles.
But for Leonardo and Tonhão this is all too much. They are 'technicians' being sent up river by the National Council of Rubber Tappers in Cruzeiro. They have to sort out some small local difficulties in the Reserve without getting themselves shot - the odds are even, I'd say. Leonardo is large and powerful, with a menacing stare. I think he's taken against me. Tonhão is thin, with a crooked little finger. Silenced by the motors, ill at ease with the absence of noise and no doubt a bit on edge, they burst into farts, jokes and giggles that slowly spread through the boat. Macedo, the boss, remonstrates with them to no avail.
So he takes the helm. Moisés starts the outboard motors. He's the son of a Kampa Indian chief returning to his people after helping an anthropologist in São Paulo with her translations. Like me, he's just a little bit aloof. We blast off again into the night, effectively dispatching Leonardo and Tonhâo back into silent submission.
Thus they remain, even when we run aground. No-one stirs from their hammocks. To my alarm, Moisés jumps overboard into what I take to be the piranha-infested waters of the river. But I am never to see a piranha in the Amazon, not even a dead one. Half an hour later Moisés has pushed us off the sandbank and climbed safely back on board. And so, I suppose, I drift into fitful sleep.
The first light of Amazonian dawn comes through a thick mist. The great forest slowly looms out of the darkness. Majestic giants, buttressed like the columns of a chaotic temple, spread at their summit into perfect vaults over a tangle of palms, vines and creepers. Every shade of green I know, and more I've never seen, flash around the coloured specks of flowering trees and orchids. Above them all the samauma, an awesome tree shaped like a mushroom cloud.
'Pull over!' calls Macedo.
On the bank is a black man hailing the Chico Mendes. As we lodge in the mud a dozen people descend the river bank to the boat. Blond children and dark adults alike are subdued perhaps by apprehension and, to judge by the terrible grey pall of malnutrition that hangs over them, hunger. In their midst, supported on their shoulders, is a man who moans distractedly. He has a deep, circular wound in his leg.
One of our number is Marinilza Poyanawa, a young Indian health worker funded by the London-based Health Unlimited. So far all I've noticed is her child-like laughter but now her calm competence takes over. She says he has gonorrhoea, untreated for two years. He is literally falling apart. As he does so his family loses the labour of an adult that it cannot do without. We head for the nearest medical post, several hours up river.
'It's only because that man had the nerve to call us across that we found out', says Macedo. 'There's plenty more sickness we've been passing without even knowing it. They should have taken him down to Cruzeiro long ago and demanded treatment. How to overcome the attitudes that go with a century of exploitation - that's our biggest problem. Take my father. Fifty years a rubber tapper and he has nothing. The older he gets the poorer he becomes. That's wrong.
Captivated by the forest I've ignored the wooden houses on stilts thatched with palms that line the banks at regular intervals, where the children, always blond, come out to watch us pass. Here the rubber tappers live, the people of this rubber-rich part of the forest. They were lured from the poverty of Brazil's North East by the rubber boom and the vision of a better life that haunts the imagination of Brazil - and of the North East in particular. Here they have lived for a century in bondage first to the rubber barons and now to almost complete neglect, with a life expectancy of less than 50 bitter years. Seventy per cent of them cannot read. They have no doctors, roads, electricity. They pay for their debts with their lives.
But this is no casual neglect. It is entirely constructed. People like Macedo - or his inspiration Chico Mendes - who talk of solidarity, who spin their own philosophy into a weapon and dare to hold out hope, are done away with. Two attempts on Macedo's life have been made already. No-one bothers to conceal who is behind it - the hated patrões, the 'barons', once of rubber, now of drugs and hard-wood. These local agents of a mighty power flaunt their wealth not in secret but in the midst of terrible, debilitating poverty - their closest ally.
Macedo must have been designed for his job as co-ordinator, bolted together as he seems to be from the parts of different people: legs bowed and back bent as if by the weight of physical labour; sharp eyes peering out from metal-framed spectacles that give him a vaguely intellectual air; a restless, fluid mouth quick to smile or chuckle, the only punctuation in an endless flow of home-spun philosophy. Shrewd. He describes himself as something akin to a vagabond, and I wonder if he is ever afraid.
photo: DAVID RANSOM
'Yes. I am afraid that the people of the forest may one day just give up and leave for the towns. If they do that there will be no-one left to defend the forest, and no forest left for anyone to defend. The death of Chico Mendes came as a terrible blow to those of us who knew him, militants in the movement. But there's no denying it brought international attention to the forest and what is happening to its people. That has helped us.'
I ask him if there isn't a danger of his slipping into the role of a boss himself. 'That's the mentality we're fighting against. People put you on a pedestal. They think you're a patrão, only a better one. It's an easy trap to fall into. But everyone must be another Chico Mendes. Everyone must be a militant.'
'Want a go?' asks Leonardo from the helm.
Our mutual suspicion has begun to abate. I am to become almost fond of him. 'Don't worry, I'll take care of you', he says, 'otherwise...' and he makes a discouraging diving motion with his hand. We are travelling against a whirling current. It carries entire forest giants on its back. One argument with these and it won't be just Leonardo's hand that makes a diving motion.
The trick is to keep to the relative calm inside the bends, where the current is weaker and there are no logs, without running aground on the sandbanks that lurk there. But to get from one bend to the next you have to cross the turbulent main stream, picking your way between the logs. After a while, and still afloat, I turn for approval from Leonardo to find him fast asleep in his hammock. Looking back down the boat I realize with alarm that everyone is fast asleep.
Or so it seems. There are yells from overboard, to one side of the boat. It is Rena, Marinilza's sister. She is in the dugout canoe we are towing beside us that's the best place to take a bath. I've got too close into the bank and we've been invaded by the dreaded blackfly. This is an Amazonian refinement of the mosquito, more devious because you can't feel it bite, so voracious it leaves a mark larger than its own body. It stays with you, crying out to be scratched, for weeks.
Ahead of us stretches the great Juruá River, a major southern tributary of the Amazon; Its water is called branco, or white, because it is thick with the silt-rich sediments of the Andes - part of the newest moutain system on earth. But white it is not. Nearer to the colour of blood, I'd say.
Here, more than 2,000 kilometres from its estuary as the parrot flies (reasonably straight I would hazard from my observations), 3,000 as the river bends, it is still an astonishing sight. Now at the height of the rainy season it runs quick, flat, silent and wide, sweeping through the jungle, scything down the forest as it goes, dropping silt where it slows to form new forest territory. In this way all the myriad plant species of the forest are brought successively to the river bank to deposit their seeds, before themselves being consumed.
Anything further from an ageless, pristine paradise is hard to imagine. As if to emphasize the point, a huge explosion behind us, exactly where we had been a few minutes earlier, marks the collapse of another forest giant into the river.
What is actually going on around us is a violent, elemental struggle for life; rubber trees whose sap is designed to 'zap' predatory bugs, flowers that trap flies with the lure of a scent that resembles rotting protein, and so on and on in a ruthless round of mutual predations. The idea that people might somehow try to live in 'harmony with such a place seems to me to have no real meaning. What they have most in common with the forest is their own violent struggle for life.
As the Chico Mendes blasts on it is as if I am being led blindfold towards some confusing secret. I have lost all sense of direction along the meandering course of the Junuá. My tired, hungry, bitten, sweating and aching body no longer looks for a spiritual El Dorado in the only place where it could possibly still be hiding.
Evilásio, the gentle young motorista, tried living in the town and came back to the forest. Macedo grew up in it and can never seem to leave it for good. Marinilza and Moisés both have the look about them of people who are coming home; Leonardo and Tonhão of people arriving in enemy territory. For myself I cannot - do not wish to - abandon a culture that has so far proved unequal to the task of understanding the forest yet is unable to leave it alone.
As darkness falls at the end of our second day's travelling we pull up by wooden steps. The bank of the river conceals what lies beyond it. Leonardo insists that I climb the steps and take a look. The place is called Taumaturgo, and it sits astride a mound at the entrance to the Upper Juruá Valley Extractive Reserve. There is a single main street - a dozen or so houses along a brick path - and a monument to the battle in 1903 when this place passed from Peruvian to Brazilian control. Spent cartridges can reputedly still be found strewn about the town.
I'm a bit puzzled. Taumaturgo at night is not exactly a tourist attraction. Why is Leonardo so insistent that I see it? And where is Macedo? Sitting on chairs outside what looks like an empty café are two young men in smart shorts and trainers. Leonardo greets them, and as we return to the boat explains that these are the same policemen who arrested Macedo without charge a few months earlier. I get the feeling I've been paraded through the town, a sort of totem from the foreign press.
Perhaps I have my uses. As for the forest, having once felt its assault upon my senses I shall never again be able to look upon its destruction with indifference.
Jungle of myths
How much do you know about the Amazon rainforest? And how much of it is true? There are a great many false beliefs flying around.
The Amazon rainforest is the 'lungs of the world,' is one of the most common. In fact, the Amazon uses as much oxygen as it produces. Otherwise it would be getting bigger all the time. The rainforest is, however, critical to the climate of the region and its destruction would bring dramatic and unpredictable changes.
'Deforestation of the Amazon by burning is a principal cause of global warming,' is another favourite. If, however the satire Amazon rainforest were burned over the next 20 years it would each year contribute about 20 percent of the carbon reaching the atmosphere to produce the 'greenhouse effect'. This would still be less than half the amount produced by the burning of fossil fuels (oil and coal) in the rich world alone.
It is easy to imagine that logging is the biggest cause of deforestation. It is true that logging - particularly of hardwoods like mahogany - often plays a part in starting the clearing process. But clearance for cattle ranching is by far the biggest cause of deforestation.
Now many people assume that this cattle ranching produces beef 'used to make hamburgers in the US'. in reality the Amazon is a net importer of beef. Exporting meat is difficult because foot-and-mouth disease is endemic in the area. The main use of cattle ranching lathe Amazon is as a device for claiming land and for speculation, rather than the production of beef.
'If the forest wore cleared the lend could feed the hungry,' is still heard these days. But this falls to take account of the fact that the soils of the rainforest are thin and poor. They degrade and erode quickly after clearing. Only a carefully-planned mixture of agriculture and forestry could sustain a large population.
The claim that 'there are too many people in the Amazon today,' is countered by the fact that there are probably no more people living in the forest today than there were at the time of the European invasion in the sixteenth century.
'Landless colonists are to blame, for torching the Amazon,' may seem plausible to many - but is untrue. The culprits are overwhelmingly large-scale landowners. Settlers clear smaller areas and cultivate them more intensively.
Finally there is a commonly held belief that 'at this rate the Amazon rainforest will have disappeared by the year 2010'. This is unlikely. The Brazilian Government claims that only five per cent of the forest has been cleared. Some studies suggest a figure of 20 per cent but between 10 and 15 percent is more probable. Clearing and burning reached a peak in 1987 when there was an exceptionally dry burning season and landowners - fearing agrarian reform-wanted to secure their claim to the land. The pace has slowed down since then but it does not mean that people have stopped suffering.
Sources: Folha de São Paulo 23 March 1989, and S Hecht and A Cockburn The The Fate of the Forest.
This special report appeared in the thirst for justice - the people of the amazon issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.