• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Green vs. the Brown Amazon

One of the first things any Brazilian tells a foreigner is that Brazil is really two countries: the south and the north. With a highly educated population of predominantly European origin, the south, with its two great cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, is becoming an agricultural and industrial superpower, producing computers and advanced pharmaceuticals and exporting large numbers of jet aircraft to the US. Brazil has attained world-class status in forestry, ranching, and agriculture. Even more significant for the future is that largely through the use of biofuels, such as alcohol derived from sugar cane, it is one of the few countries in the world to have achieved self-sufficiency in energy. When oil reaches $100 a barrel, Brazil will be sitting pretty.

The north, in truth, is another country in all but political geography. A mostly non-European population languishes in poverty and illiteracy. With the exception of the largest cities, the north is saddled with the vestiges of a feudal past. Descendants of African slaves crowd the northeast whereas people of mixed African, European, and indigenous origin populate the huge region centered on the Amazon River and its tributaries—a region known simply as the Amazon. Since the days of the conquistadores, the Amazon has never had a stable economy. Cycles of boom and bust have encouraged a get-rich-quick mentality and lack of allegiance to place.

After five centuries of ignoring the north, powerful interests in the south have recently taken interest in the resources of the Amazon, precipitating a paroxysm of change in the north that will affect the entire world. Politics will guide the course of change but how, and for what reasons, remains uncertain, for internal and external forces are pulling in opposite directions. Internal forces, large corporations among them, overwhelmingly favor rapid development of the Amazon—expansion of the logging, mining, and agricultural frontiers. By contrast, those concerned with the world environment view the “loss” of the Amazon as an impending global tragedy. They want to find ways to sustain the vast forest, and with it, an unrivaled wealth of biological diversity, hundreds of indigenous tribes, and, of increasing importance, the vast store of carbon contained in the Amazon’s trees.

How will these tensions play out? What happens to the Amazon over the next two or three decades may prove decisive in the world’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. If the Brazilian government continues to take a cautious approach to energy policy, as it has for several decades, and makes an effort to plan and control development in the Amazon, the area could serve as a model for the world’s remaining regions of forest wilderness—among them the Congo basin, Siberia, northern Canada, and the outer islands of Indonesia. But if Brazil chooses to follow a business-as-usual policy—a laissez-faire, Wild West scramble for resources—it could push the South American continent, if not the world, over a climatic tipping point from which there would be no return, a prospect that should be of concern to everyone on the planet. Do Mark London and Brian Kelly in The Last Forest get to the heart of the problem? Not in my view. Their account is engaging, sometimes entertaining, but overall superficial, a one-eyed vision of a deep and complex set of issues.

Neither writer can claim to be an expert on the Amazon and it is not clear that either speaks Portuguese—an essential requirement for inquiring into the Brazilian mind. London is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and Kelly is a journalist—the executive editor of US News and World Report. For them, the Amazon is a pastime—approached with passion and seriousness, to be sure—but inescapably they see it as outsiders looking in. Nearly twenty-five years ago, when they were earnest young adventurers, they wrote another book—Amazon. This is the sequel, building on the earlier experience to judge the pace and direction of change.

The text is a collage of anecdotes and interviews conducted over the course of several trips and thousands of miles traveled by air, water, and land. The authors sampled a broad spectrum of opinion from ministers and politicians to lowly slum dwellers, boat drivers, and caboclos (people who live on the riverbanks of the roadless interior of the Amazon). The scores of interviews and opinions may seem to the reader like a pointillist canvas viewed too closely, so that the emergent picture is blurred. London and Kelly succeed in conveying some of the distinct flavor of Brazil, but overall their work is frustrating for its blind spots and its failure to integrate the pieces into a coherent whole.

For the authors, the Amazon is synonymous with the Brazilian Amazon. They chose to ignore the fact that about 40 percent of the Amazon basin, including the headwaters of several of the largest tributaries, lies in neighboring countries. To present the Amazon as a solely Brazilian entity is to put on blinders, for many of the insights the authors draw from their travels and interviews do not apply to neighboring countries. The Amazon is really a much more complex, varied, and interesting place than these two intrepid travelers reveal.

Five Andean countries share the Amazon with Brazil. I have lived more than ten years in two of them: Venezuela and Peru. Both are radically different from Brazil with respect to many of the issues discussed in the book. Venezuela shortsightedly subsists on oil revenues and has become one of the most urbanized countries on earth; all but a small number of its inhabitants have lost all traces of the rural know-how that enables survival on a remote frontier. Government-sponsored efforts to promote settlement of the unpopulated interior have persistently failed to attract volunteers.

In contrast, Peru has an inward-looking indigenous population and a postcolonial history of feudalism that ended only in 1968 with the leftist military government of Juan Velasco Alvarado. Peru’s population centers are along the Pacific coast and in the Andes. Although the Amazon region makes up more than half the national territory, educated Peruvians have persistently shunned it as an insect- and snake-filled inferno. Government investment in the region has correspondingly been minimal. During the post–World War II period the main settlers in the Peruvian Amazon region have been Quechua-speaking people who have been impelled by demographic pressures to move down from the Andean mountains. Land-hungry peasants with no previous knowledge of lowland agriculture, they have made their way into sub-Andean valleys where growing coca leaf for the drug trade has proven to be the most lucrative economic choice. As strikingly different from each other as both are from Brazil, Venezuela and Peru have in common that upward of 90 percent of their shares of the Amazon basin remain in their natural state to the present day. The land fever that grips Brazil has not touched either of the two countries, at least not yet.

Land fever is the dominant theme in the Brazilian Amazon. Here is where London and Kelly are at their best. Through the eyes of their interviewees, they portray the competition between poor farmers and forest dwellers and representatives of powerful business interests in the rush to secure unoccupied land. We are introduced to the plight of the many losers and the braggadocio of a few big winners. A subtheme is the clash between the traditional lifestyles of caboclos and rubber tappers and the frenzied expansionism of cattlemen and soy farmers. The clash plays out in an atmosphere of fear and violence. The assassination by cattlemen of Chico Mendes, a leader of rubber tappers, briefly brought the festering conflict to the world’s attention, but this was only one tragedy among untold hundreds of others.

Violent takeovers of land are a visible manifestation of the failure of the Brazilian government to reform a chaotic and archaic system of land titles dating back to the Portuguese colonial period. Many if not most land titles in the Amazon are bogus, having been obtained through bribery, forgery, or other illegal means. Multiple overlapping titles are the norm, in part because the land is so vast and inaccessible that it has never been surveyed. The result is an anarchic situation in which raw power tends to prevail.

Land fever is driven by multiple forces that so far have been peculiar to the Brazilian Amazon. The consolidation of agricultural land in the rich South dispossessed thousands of less fortunate farmers who sought to establish new lives in the north. These are the people who in recent decades have flooded into the central and western states of Goias, Mato Grosso, Rondônia, and Acre. The lure of quick profits in raising cattle and growing soy has been attracting much larger investors, such as Blario Maggi, governor of Mato Grosso, and the US grain giant Cargill, along with commensurately large investments. One has only to fly over Mato Grosso to see the future of agriculture in Brazil. The farms are enormous, dwarfing those in, say, Illinois or Iowa. The future for small farmers in Brazil, as elsewhere, looks bleak.

It stretches the mind to contemplate the size of the Amazon basin, an area equal to roughly 90 percent of the continental US. Perhaps the most memorable and inspiring flight I have ever taken was from Santa Cruz in Bolivia to Miami on a clear day. We traveled at 30,000 feet for hour after hour without seeing any sign that human beings had ever intervened in the seemingly limitless expanse of green slowly passing beneath us. One has to wonder what sights will meet the eyes of fliers a decade or two hence, for the entire region is in transition. London and Kelly pose the question whether the region is being propelled toward another boom-and-bust cycle or toward a more sustainable future.

Even today, one of the Amazon region’s largest cities, Iquitos in Peru, has no road to anywhere else. Incongruous as this may seem in our interconnected world, even stranger is the sight that greets a traveler landing at Iquitos, Manaus, or many smaller Amazonian cities. As the plane closes in on the runway, the view is one of unbroken forest extending to the distant horizon. A visitor from Europe or North America expects to see the usual signs of the city’s rural support system: fields, roads, pastures, villages. But not in the Amazon. Suddenly there is an opening in the forest and the aircraft settles onto the runway. From the forest to concrete, there isn’t any in-between. I don’t know another place in the world like it, short of perhaps the Arctic.

There is of course a reason for the odd juxtaposition of forest and city. The soils of much of the Amazon are notoriously poor, having been leached of every atom of plant-nourishing minerals by millennia of drenching tropical rains. There are nutrients, yes, or there would be no forest, but up to 90 percent or more of them, such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, are locked up in the living and organic components of the ecosystem, primarily the trees themselves. Cut down the forest, and the nutrients are lost. Decades at a minimum are required for the leisurely processes of nature to restore them. Thus sustainable farming, at least up to now, has not been achieved. (Though it should be noted that native Americans achieved high population densities along the Amazon using now forgotten technologies.) Consequently, the food that sustains large cities like Iquitos and Manaus, apart from river fish, must be largely imported by ship from the outside world.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print