The NI Interview
Lúcio Flavio Pinto
A journalist in Amazonia who can’t believe the stars are made of plastic talks to David Ransom.
Lúcio Flavio Pinto somehow conjures a stream of books, reports and investigative journalism from an information desert in Brazilian Amazonia. He is a diminutive, bespectacled man with a forensic attitude and a benign expression that cannot conceal his underlying despair. ‘That,’ he says, ‘really is the appropriate word to express my fundamental feelings about the place. In 30 years of living and working here, I can say that I have never known a single year that was better than the one before.’
Since 1987 he has been circulating a newsletter, Jornal Pessoal (‘The Personal Paper’), to some 2,000 subscribers in and around the city of Belém, the capital of Pará state on the Amazon estuary. The Jornal is modelled on IF Stone’s Weekly that shook up a complacent Washington DC in the 1950s and 1960s. Pinto’s newsletter runs on a shoestring and is one of the few authoritative sources on the mega-scams that have, he maintains, dispossessed generations of Amazonians.
Such schemes ‘arrive as if in a black box, to which the local population has no means of access. This is the irony – everything is done in the name of Amazonia, but the Amazonians themselves are mere ornaments. What the wheeler-dealers are after is energy-intensive industries, products which concentrate energy in themselves, transmit it to other products and offer a huge rate of profit to the buyer, not the sellers. It’s significant that all the new big projects were launched after the 1973 oil crisis.’
The biggest to date involves aluminium. Much of it is exported to Japan – which stopped producing aluminium altogether after 1973 – using vast quantities of hydro-electric power generated by dams that have devastated swathes of rainforest the size of small countries. Pará state has the largest aluminium smelter in the world and as a result is the fifth-biggest consumer of energy in Brazil, while 40 per cent of the local population has no access to electricity at all.
Copper, gold, manganese, iron – the list of natural resources scoured from Amazonia gets longer and longer. Ever-grander hi-tech schemes follow one upon the other. In 1993 the Brazilian Government approved a multi-billion-dollar contract with the US-based Raytheon arms manufacturer – parent to the Patriot missile – for the SIVAM electronic surveillance and air-traffic-control system. President Clinton wrote twice to the Brazilian Government personally commending Raytheon’s bid, which was accepted without public tender.
‘In just five years,’ says Flavio Pinto, ‘20 times more will have been spent on SIVAM than the entire public budget for the whole region. Our only function, as the people who live here, is to repay the debt. I’ve often asked myself the question: what on earth is it for? I can see no use for it at all. It simply seems to be crazy. But the history of development in the Amazon is a Pandora’s Box of folly.’
And, as the fickle gaze of fashionable concern wanders, the deforestation of Amazonia continues. Last year Flavio Pinto saw Brazilian hardwoods ready for export from the port of Belém to Malaysia, where the rainforests have already been destroyed. ‘I expected not to see this before the year 2000. They’re well ahead of schedule.’
In Amazonia there is a price on the head of the outspoken. Nine years ago Paulo Fonteras, a personal friend of Flavio Pinto’s and a member of the state congress who worked as an advocate for landless people, was shot three times in the head as he sat, cross-legged, smoking a cigarette in his car at a gas station near Belém. ‘This was a contract execution,’ says Flavio Pinto. ‘I spent the next three months investigating the murder, discovering who the murderers were, who hired them, and I exposed their names publicly. Nine years later they have still not been arrested. In terms of civil and political rights we are behind even the French Revolution in Amazonia.’
There are, he estimates, at least 500 killers available for hire in Imperatriz, a notorious ‘frontier’ town inland. ‘It’s impossible not to be afraid,’ he admits, ‘and it’s difficult not to be consumed with fear. I’ve been threatened with death on several occasions. The annoying thing is that my friends keep coming up to me and saying: “Good lord! You’re still alive!” Perhaps they want to believe I’m crying wolf.
‘Violence fuels the occupation of Amazonia. There are two kinds of violence: death and money. Frankly, I don’t know which is worse: to lose a personal friend, or to lose generations of future possibilities with the destruction of the region. People say I’m pessimistic. I’d prefer to be optimistic. I refuse to accept that destiny is written in the stars, and the stars are made of plastic.
‘As a journalist I just like to tell true stories. I’m going to try to achieve something equal to IF Stone’s Weekly. Even if I don’t, at least I’ll know there was another crazy guy out there doing it before me. The Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein wrote his Immoral Memoirs because he went against the established morality of his time. This is something that I want to do with my newsletter – to probe established morality. My immorality is to want an Amazonia for those who live there.’
Jornal Pessoal can be contacted and subscribed to at Rua Benjamin Constant 845/203, 66.053-040 Belém, Brazil, tel: +55 91 223 7690.