If 1989 was the year of revolution in Eastern Europe, 1988 was the year of drought and fire in the Americas. It was a year of growing public concern about global warming, with dire projections of melting ice caps and ozone depletion. It was a year of dramatic images of the charred remnants of once majestic forests from the Rockies to the Amazon basin. For the first time the destruction of the tropical rainforest of Brazil became a major issue for North Americans and for people concerned about the danger to the environment throughout the world. But how did this vast ecological disaster occur? What can be done to deal with its effects?

Some answers to these questions are provided by the books under review, each of which deals with some aspect of the tragedy of the Amazon. Another kind of answer is provided by the controversy over the murder in December 1988 of Francisco “Chico” Mendes, the ecologically minded leader of the Brazilian rubber tappers union whose two convicted killers, a father and son, were sentenced in December to nineteen years in prison. This article will examine the crisis in the Amazon and its causes. A second article will be devoted to the extraordinary story of Chico Mendes, and to potential remedies for the Amazon crisis, among them the idea of “extractive forest reserves,” a concept Mendes helped to promote. By doing so, he brought on his assassination.


The Amazon is a vast region; not all of it is rainforest, nor is all of it Brazilian. As it was legally defined in 1953, the Amazon region within Brazil incorporates about 60 percent of Brazil and includes savannah grasslands, wetlands, and shrublands, as well as humid rainforests, all connected with the Amazon river system, which contains one fifth of the earth’s fresh water supply. The river rises 17,000 feet in the Andes and flows some 4,000 miles until it reaches the Atlantic, yet as one follows it 3,000 miles inland from the sea it rises only to 300 feet. The river’s mouth is 200 miles wide, and for 1,000 miles upstream it remains seven miles wide; ocean-going liners can travel 2,000 miles up the river from the sea. The river and the rainforest cover the heart of the subcontinent and encompass nine South American countries. Seventeen of the Amazon’s tributaries are more than 1,000 miles long, each longer than the Rhine.

Brazil’s Amazonian forest is the largest remaining tropical forest on earth, and its natural life is the richest and most diverse in the world, containing 20 percent of all higher plant life, the same proportion of bird species, and 10 percent of the world’s mammals. The tall trees produce a dense overhead canopy, which keeps out all but a fraction of the sunlight. Within the semidarkness thousands of species thrive, only a tiny number of which are known or recorded by scientists. Each tree can support as many as four hundred insect species. The rainy season’s floods deposit alluvium along the river banks to form flood plains (varzeas), rich in palms, fruits, turtles, fish, and aquatic birds. Naturalists have found five hundred different plant species in one forest patch of the flooded plains. To the south and east are forests filled with mahogany, tropical cypress, and cherry wood trees. The westernmost tributary, the Araguaia, flows through swampy grasslands and forests of mahogany, Brazil nut, and rubber forests.

A marvelously comprehensive introduction to the rainforest can be found in the thoughtful and readable The Last Rain Forests: A World Conservation Atlas edited by Mark Collins. It provides maps of the present distribution of forest worldwide and helps to place the Amazon in a global context, while one can study some of the extraordinary fauna of the region in the beautifully produced and illustrated Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide, the first such broad regional guide ever produced.

The paradox of this “rich realm of nature,” as the early Portuguese adventurers called it, is that while the soils of much of the Amazon region are extremely impoverished, they can still sustain more than 250 metric tons of living material per acre. For many years no one could explain how they did so. As Alexander Cockburn and Susanna Hecht point out in The Fate of the Forest, a survey of the region and its crisis, the beginning of an answer came in 1960, thanks to the cold war, when the US Atomic Energy Commission sought to find out what would happen to forests in the event of a nuclear war, stimulating the first interdisciplinary study of the tropical forest.

Students discovered that whereas forests in the temperate zone draw nutrients up from the soil, in tropical forests the nutrients derive from an exchange within the living forest and are held in the tissues of living organisms. The leathery leaves characteristic of the Amazon plant life conserve nutrients as well as high levels of secondary chemicals, which make tropical leaves tough or poisonous to eat, deterring predators and also making them a rich source of drugs. Latex, a substance that acts as a defensive membrane for the Brazilian rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, is just such an adaptation. The wild germ plasm of the forest includes cacao, palm hearts, guarana, Brazil nuts, rubber, chicle, babassu oil, fish, manioc, cashews, and coca. As Hecht and Cockburn observe, the global annual value of the Amazonian natural products may exceed one hundred billion dollars a year.1



The assault on the tropical forests has a long history, and so does the history of human habitation in the forest. The year 2000 will mark the fifth century since the landfall on the Brazilian coast by the India-bound fleet of the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral. It was a land “with great groves of trees,” according to the fleet’s notary, Pero Vaz de Caminha, who described it in a letter to the king of Portugal on May 1, 1500.2 Of the lush Atlantic coastal forest that so impressed the Europeans in 1500—a narrow belt of rainforest some one hundred miles deep, which then ran along virtually the whole coast of Brazil—no more than 4 percent remains today. From among its flora, ironically, Brazil took its name from the pau-brasil tree, which yielded a purple dye much in demand among sixteenth-century European textile manufacturers, and which can scarcely be found in the wild today. The Portuguese had called their new territory in South America the “Land of the True Cross,” but this was soon forgotten and the more prosaic name stuck—resonant as it was of the forest and of business.

Like the coastal forest, the Amazon rainforest before the arrival of the Europeans sustained a large population—it is virtually impossible to estimate how large.3 In two brilliant books, John Hemming, who is director and secretary of the Royal Geographical Society of London, has heroically tried to reconstruct from thousands of pages of travel accounts, official reports, diaries, and archeological and anthropological research the lost history of the annihilated peoples of South America. He calculates that the native population of the Amazon basin alone could have been about 3.5 million in 1500.4 It is at most, 200,000 today. The lost population of Indians did not live in an untroubled paradise but they lived in harmony with the forest, and they did not destroy it.

Hecht and Cockburn tell us that the degree of human intervention in the forest ecosystem is much greater than we have realized. Scholars have learned from demographic reconstructions of the catastrophic and precipiate population decline in the Caribbean and in Mexico after the Spanish conquest that we should be very cautious before we dismiss the early accounts of large indigenous population as hyperbole.5 As with the first reactions in our own century to the Holocaust in Europe, it has been difficult for many people to accept the vast scale of extermination.

Both greed and good intentions caused the destruction of the native population. By the 1570s, the rich forests of the coastal region, especially those of the flood plains around the great natural harbors of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, as well as further north at Recife in Pernambuco, had been cleared and the land converted to sugar cane production. The sugar mills required huge quantities of firewood to heat the cauldrons that processed sugar and the coastal forests were increasingly depleted. Forced into slave labor, and lacking immunity to European and African diseases, the Indian population died by the tens of thousands. Enslaved Africans were imported to replace them, permanently transforming the ethnic composition of the Portuguese coastal enclaves on the edge of the continent.6


As the Indian populations of the coastlands died out, Portuguese missionaries who had arrived to proselytize the native population moved inland to gain new converts. The Franciscans established Belém (Bethlehem) at the mouth of the Amazon river in 1616, and after 1649, Jesuits, Carmelites, and Mercedarians divided up the main tributaries of the river between them. Throughout the colonial period royal governors, merchants, and Portuguese colonists regularly sent up river heavily armed flotillas of canoes in search of slaves.

The religious orders, especially the Jesuits, sought to protect the Indian population from enslavement by organizing new communities of would-be peasant farmers. Although these concentrations initially led to an even more rapid spread of disease, the Jesuits in time were able to establish a network of protected villages throughout the lower Amazon to complement the great missions they organized on the plains along the Uruguay and Paraguay Rivers to the south. The struggle between the Jesuits and others who sought to protect the Indians, and the colonists who argued that they should be integrated with the European communities, albeit as lowly workers, is a long one in Amazonian history, and the arguments on both sides were often well intentioned. The Marquis de Pombal, King Joseph’s chief minister between 1750 and 1777, who expelled the Jesuits from Brazil, justified his actions in the language of the Enlightenment. (He ended African slavery in Portugal itself.) The writings in defense of the Indians by the Jesuit polymath António Vieira are among the most eloquent works in the Portuguese language.7


As Hemming shows, the missions were eventually suppressed by jealous officials of the monarchy abetted by the colonists’ avarice. In the late seventeenth century gold was discovered and prospectors flooded into the interior. The colonial government, suspicious of the loyalty of the Jesuit missions that were strategically placed along the river systems, sent teams of surveyors, soldiers, and administrators to establish Portugal’s authority over the land and establish frontiers. By the mid-eighteenth century they thus had laid claim to tens of thousands of square miles of unexplored territory. When Brazil gained its independence from Portugal in the 1820s, the new nation inherited this “hollow frontier,” containing within it many unknown Indian communities.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these hidden peoples would slowly be “discovered.” Natural scientists arrived to study the teeming life of the forest. European anthropologists were sent to study living societies but, more often than not, and certainly unintentionally, their contacts with unknown groups of Indians helped to bring about their rapid disintegration. The Indians were proselytized by Protestant fundamentalist missionaries who brought with them values regarded as simplistic and ignorant by many in the societies they themselves came from. The Indians were victimized by free-lance miners, adventurers, and trappers, who were seeking gold, booty, or natural forest products, such as Brazil nuts and rubber. These pioneers were both fearful of the native forest dwellers and all too willing to exploit or kill them.

John Hemming has very little use for either the Christian missionaries or the slavers, or for their modern counterparts. Amid the relentless destruction of the indigenous population, his heroes are those Indians who were uncompromising in their opposition to the white man. In fact, he sometimes implies that the only good white man is a dead white man. There is a special poignancy and irony to this view. During an expedition out of Cachimbo near the geographical center of Brazil in 1961, then a crude airstrip in the forest, members of Kreen-Akrore tribe had ambushed and killed Richard Mason, a young Englishman, among whose companions was John Hemming.

But the killing of whites, when it occurred, never did the Indians any good. The whites always had more guns and more resources—an inexhaustible supply. They also brought the invisible influenza and other viruses that could cause mass destruction of the Indians. The fatal power of such infection was something that the closed Indian societies never comprehended when they came into contact with Europeans. Along the river banks throughout Amazonia the Indian population was in large part decimated, and often replaced by what Hemming calls “a growing proletariat of semi-acculturated and discontented free Indians and mixed races (caboclos).”

In 1835, this population exploded in the most violent and revolutionary of all nineteenth-century Brazilian rebellions, the Cabanagem revolt, named after the migrants’ cabana huts on the flood plains near Belém. Led by priests, rubber workers, and mutinous soldiers, the revolt was a mass popular uprising of the caboclos and large numbers of Indians against property owners and government officials. The rebellion was put down with great ferocity. Some thirty thousand lives were lost, a fifth of the population of the region. The rise in world demand for rubber brought new settlers and new international attention at the end of the century. The rubber tappers pushed far up into the tributaries of the Amazon and toward the border territory of Acre, which was also claimed by Bolivia and Peru. In 1903, after a series of revolts and plots, and much international intrigue, Acre became part of Brazil.

But Brazilian rubber could not compete with the new plantations in Asia, and the region once more sank back into relative obscurity, though not before more wild schemes and ambitions had been consumed by the jungle, including the infamous and corruption-ridden construction of the Madeira Mamoré railroad in the early part of the century, the failed attempts at industrialized plantation agriculture by Henry Ford in the 1930s and the billionaire Daniel K. Ludwig in the 1960s, all well-known tales of greed, naiveté, and ecological ignorance, which are described with verve by Hecht and Cockburn and others in what is sure to be a new wave of travelers’ tales of horror and disaster provoked by the growing interest in the Amazon.8 A more realistic perspective was provided in the 1920s by Kenneth Grubb, a missionary who wrote, in a sad reflection of the destruction of Indian communities, that it was possible to travel from Belém to Peru

without seeing a distinctly tribal Indian. These rivers are silent today, except for the lap of the waters along some deserted beach, the hoarse cry of the parrots or the call of the inambu. The past has gone, with its peoples, in central Amazonia, leaving only that bitter sense of impotence, as of being present before a consuming conflagration and at the same time being powerless to assist.9


The decimation of the Amazonian Indians, leaving a population of no more than 200,000 today, is only part of the story of the destruction of the rainforest. Just as destruction of the forest itself brings with it the destruction of millions of unrecorded plants and creatures, so the destruction of the Amazon Indians destroys knowledge of the forest acquired over millennia. What is new since the 1980s is the scale of encroachment in the last redoubt of the Amazon’s native people.

World Resources, 1990–1991: A Guide to the Global Environment, a marvelously comprehensive, well-produced handbook, cautiously estimates the yearly loss of tropical rainforest in Brazil to be somewhere between 1.7 and 8 million hectares. The disparity between the figures demonstrates how tentative most calculations remain and how urgent is the need for more research. The World Resources experts believe that some 7 percent of the forested area has already been lost. Dennis J. Mahar, in his World Bank study, Government Policies and Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon Region, estimates on the basis of Landsat satellite images that the figure is as high as 12 percent. Both would agree, however, that, if the present rate of clearing continues, 15 percent of all plant life in the Latin American rainforest will become extinct by the end of the century. While accurate figures are difficult to come by, Mahar argues that “because pasture has clearly been the predominant form of agricultural land use in the region, cattle ranching would appear to be the leading proximate cause of deforestation.” Small farming activity has also increased, but farm plots are often sold or abandoned after only a few years of use. These areas are then converted to pasture or quickly invaded by secondary growth. Logging has also contributed to deforestation.

Cockburn and Hecht blame the generals who ran Brazil between 1964 and 1985 for the destruction of the rainforest. The generals must be held responsible for what occurred during these two decades, but like virtually all political explanations based on a single cause, this one is too simple and it may seem to imply that the solutions are simple as well, which, unfortunately, is not the case. In fact, the great push to the interior was under way well before the military coup of 1964; and, not surprisingly, it continued unabated after the military retreated to the barracks in 1985. The building of the new capital, Brasília, in 1960, and the coincidental opening of two arterial roads into the forest—the two-thousand-mile dirt highway moving north between the new capital and Belém at the mouth of the Amazon and the beginning of the Brasília–Pôrto Velho road moving west—were the events that in many respects set the contemporary disaster in motion. Both enterprises were part of a government policy of opening up the resources of the backlands to development—a policy broadly supported at the time by most of the different groups that make up Brazilian society. The idea of building a capital in the interior and of developing the Amazon goes back at least as far as the eighteenth century. Cockburn and Hecht don’t make it sufficiently plain that the building of Brasília and the Brasília–Belém highway marked the high point of the boom under President Juscelino Kubitschek, a good democrat in his own fashion, and a politician who epitomized the expansionism, optimism, as well as the pervasive corruption of the Fifties.

The approach of Kubitschek to development during the mid-1950s had very grave consequences that the books under review fail to assess, partly because they are excessively concerned to establish continuity with the exploitative Portuguese past. But Kubitschek and the military geostrategists who took power after 1964, such as the éminence grise of the military regime, General Golbery do Couto e Silva, did something radically new; they pressed for a network of roads linking the northeast to the center and south of the country to the Amazon basin. The credits and the special favors granted to southern businessmen were intended at first to encourage them to invest in a region in which they saw few prospects for profit. But the roads to the south undermined the assumption that had dominated all previous thinking about the Amazon—the central importance of the rivers. Now land routes were to have preference over riverine communication, forest clearance over forest extraction, and water was to be considered a source of energy and not of life.

The dirt road to Belém was soon paved, and between 1960 and 1970 some 300,000 migrants went to seek their fortune along the highway. The Transamazonian highway, intended to link the northeast and Amazonia, followed, as did the Cuiabá–Pôrto Velho highway in the states of Mato Grosso and Rondônia. The most severe deforestation has been concentrated along these roads and the many roads that feed into them, a process which is shown dramatically in the Oxford Conservation Atlas. The population of Rondônia grew by over 21 percent per annum between 1970 and 1978. In Rondônia and Mato Grosso over one fourth of the forest has disappeared during the past decade.

As the huge road-building programs opened up the region, government-sponsored projects to build new settlements attracted migrants from Brazil’s poverty-stricken northeast as well as from its southern states, where extensive mechanization of agriculture and the spread of cash crops such as soya were displacing thousands of smallholders. The military regime encouraged cattle raising by providing special fiscal incentives, as well as easy and subsidized credit to would-be ranchers, and extensive benefits to businesses that invested in the region, exempting them from excise duties and from corporate income taxes for ten to fifteen years. Many of the ranch owners who received some $700 million in tax credits were never seriously interested in producing beef—they acquired property only to take advantage of the economic benefits. Once they received the tax credits they sold or abandoned the projects the credits were supposed to stimulate, but not before these speculative enterprises caused extensive damage to the environment.

Businessmen from the south of Brazil, especially the São Paulo–based association of Amazon businessmen, lobbied the central government in Brasília to subsidize cattle-ranching ventures, and in 1974 the government set up the extensive Polamazonia program to encourage selective investment in production intended for export such as beef, timber, and minerals. Subsidized rural credit was extended on very favorable terms (twenty-year investment credit was made available at a nominal annual rate of 12 percent to ranchers, for example). Because a land title was required to qualify for a subsidy, Amazonia’s sharecroppers, tenants, and squatters were, in effect, denied access to this capital, which served to further concentrate wealth and land ownership throughout the region. A destructive sequence was established in the early 1970s which was to repeat itself throughout the Amazon basin. Forest was cleared and opened up through the sweated labor of poor migrants whose lands were later appropriated by large estates. The forests cut down and burned for conversion to pasture during the dry season were planted with African forage grains, which seldom provided more than two to three years of good fodder. Phosphorous levels in the soil thereafter fell dramatically, and the grasses were soon overtaken by shrubs and weeds.

Overstocked, compacted, leached, and degraded, these lands will require at least one hundred years to recover. Since government credits had been used by the proprietors to offset their expenses elsewhere in Brazil, the absentee landowners were not greatly concerned by the waste of the land. The small farmers in the meanwhile were forced to push on toward new frontiers to the west—first to Rondônia, then in the 1980s to Acre and Roraima. The pattern was one of settlement and then of the settlements’ failure, of land grabbing and violent protest against it, of the concentration of ownership and ecological devastation.

All of this is described in absorbing detail by Anthony Hall in his splendid book, Developing Amazonia. Hall convincingly demonstrates that

the notion of Amazonia as a vast, fertile empty space ready to permanently absorb the landhungry masses from northeastern and southern Brazil is a myth.

In his more journalistic book, Adrian Cowell, who in the early 1980s was filming the onslaught of settlers, jobseekers, entrepreneurs, and speculators in Rondônia for a British TV documentary unit, describes how he became increasingly appalled by the scale and senselessness of this new phase of Amazonian development:

The history of Amazonia may have been littered with visionaries like Ford and Ludwig who fruitlessly tried to impose some dream or vision on the forest. But here was a government and a whole society marching into the forest with the manic zest of a lemming migration, hypnotised by an obsession which was even more difficult than the lemmings’ to understand. We seemed to have arrived at one of the frontier’s dead-ends, where the forest mirrored the absurdity of the society confronting it.


The Amazon frontier soon reproduced the large landowning (latifundia) pattern of the northeast and south of Brazil. In 1985, 30 percent of rural properties in Brazil were less than ten hectares, yet they occupied only 0.1 percent of farmland; 1.9 percent of properties of over a thousand hectares occupied 57 percent of the agricultural land. The largest 152 Amazonian estates occupied 40 million hectares, equal to the total area of cultivated land in Brazil. These estates, moreover, do not create many jobs, since lumbering and cattle ranching require few employees.

At the same time the exploration of the Amazon lands created a vast army of landless, temporary wage laborers who migrate to the urban centers, and take jobs as seasonal workers or try to make a living as independent prospectors for gold (garimpeiros). Small farmers still produce 80 percent of the basic food crops and provide 82 percent of jobs in the eastern Amazon, but the concentration of landownership between 1985 and 1988 has caused the output of such basic staples as beans and cassava to fall by 8 percent and 14 percent respectively.

In the eastern Amazon, and especially in the Araguaia-Tocantins region, the expansion of settlement and ranching followed the highway, and was accompanied by violent struggles over land. Until the 1950s, the economy was based on the harvest of Brazil nuts (castanhas) and other forest products, and controlled by a few powerful families, who shipped the nuts north to Belém. Between 1969 and 1975 the Maoist offshoot of the Brazilian Communist party established a guerrilla campaign in the region which fought sporadically with the Brazilian army. The guerrillas were eventually suppressed by thousands of troops.

Two other major factors came into play here, each no less dangerous to the ecology—one set in motion by mining for iron ore and the other by gold. These processes of mineral extraction and their ecological and social consequences are the subject of Anthony Hall’s Developing Amazonia, which examines the vast complex for mining iron ore and other minerals called the Carajás project, and of David Cleary in his Anatomy of the Amazon Gold Rush. Both books, like Adrian Cowell’s Decade of Destruction, have the great advantage of avoiding the hyperbole that characterizes so much writing about Brazil. Cowell has chosen, as he did in his television documentaries, to follow the lives of ordinary people in the hope that these case histories will help to explain the larger story. The three books taken together recreate the fascinating history of the struggle in the Amazon as it affects people in their everyday lives.

Amazonian iron and gold could hardly have produced two more different kinds of organizations. Carajás is a huge state enterprise, regional in scope, mainly concerned with producing iron for export. To carry on the mining it has been provided with dams, hydroelectric power, railroads, and port facilities, and it has the benefit of large capital infusions from national and international investors. Prospecting for gold, by contrast, is generally an independent and uncontrolled activity, called garimpagem in Brazil, which is carried on by small entrepreneurs and adventurers. The large mining companies are implacable enemies of free-lance prospectors, who are continually penetrating company-held territory to set up their clandestine mining operations.

Only a small portion of the gold is sold to the state, and accurate production figures, as always in the Amazon, are impossible to come by. Cleary estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of garimpeiros. The gold they produce was estimated in the late 1980s to be worth over one billion dollars annually. Gold mining technology is cheap, and it is easy to run, the most complex machinery needed being a small internal combustion engine. According to Cleary, in 1987 mining professionals estimated that the garimpos were producing around 120 metric tons of gold annually—which would place Brazil third among world gold producers, behind only South Africa and the Soviet Union—an amount equal to the great nineteenth-century gold rushes. The most dramatic garimpo was the one found in 1979 at Serra Pelada, about 90 kilometers from the city of Marabá in the south of Pará. At its peak in 1983, Serra Pelada produced one metric ton of gold a year and had some 100,000 garimpeiros and traders who removed entire hills with pickaxes and shovels.

The gold prospectors do not cut down large tracks of forest or take up large stretches of land as the ranchers do, but the ecological impact of their activities can be devastating. The most insidious and lasting damage comes from mercury, which is used to separate the gold from the ore, and poisons both the environment and the garimpeiros. If the garimpeiros were, as Cleary suggests, producing over a hundred metric tons of gold per annum in the Brazilian Amazon during the 1980s, an equivalent amount of mercury escaped into the atmosphere in the form of vapor as it was burned off during the amalgamation process.

In addition, mercury is often spilled into the ground and rivers near the garimpo. Testing in the Madeira River found mercury levels in fish several times higher than World Health Organization safety levels. Cleary takes a relatively benign view of the garimpeiros, rightly saying that they are among the few groups of poor rural Brazilians who have a chance to rise in the world. But the invasion of 45,000 garimpeiros into the lands of the Yanomami in the far north of Brazil is wreaking havoc among the indigenous population.10 Lucio Flavio Pinto, a courageous Amazonian journalist whose paper, Jornal Pessoal (regrettably now defunct), was almost alone in reporting in depth on Amazonian politics and corruption, points out that small-scale mining is sometimes carried on by extremely well-financed operators. Pinto estimates that there were 1,200 clandestine airstrips and at least 800 small airplanes to get the gold out, while the gold business has allowed some local bosses to exercise almost medieval feudal domination over the districts.11

The Carajás iron project started as recently as 1967, when a helicopter with engine trouble landed in a bare patch in the forest southwest of Marabá. It was carrying several geologists who were astonished to find that they were standing on the top of a hill made up of billions of tons of highgrade iron ore, bauxite, manganese, copper, nickel, and cassiterite. The Brazilian government quickly took over the site and assigned the stateowned mining company CVRD (Companhia do Vale do Rio Doce) to develop it. The Greater Carajás Project, as it became known, was granted control of a region of some 900,000 square kilometers—the size of France and Britain combined—and started an enormous concentrated effort to build roads, a railway, dams, and a hydroelectric power plant.

The Carajás program has four major components: the iron ore mine, a highly mechanized open-pit mine that began operation in 1986; two aluminum plants, one in Belém, the other in São Luis, the capital of the state of Maranhão; the Tucuruí hydroelectric complex on the Tocantins River; and a nine hundred kilometer railroad inaugurated in 1985 to link Carajás and São Luis, where a deep water port was opened a year later. Japanese corporations are the single biggest group of investors, through cheap loans of $500 billion to the Brazilian government. The EEC invested $600 million. The World Bank provided $304 million, and $250 million came from US commercial banks. Even the USSR provided $60 million. The CVRD contracts to supply iron to Japanese, and European steel producers were tied to the loans. The CVRD is immensely profitable. Although only 294 in the Fortune Global 500, it is first in the world in profits as a percentage of sales (65 percent) and of assets (45 percent).12

Although within the CVRD enclave itself environmental deterioration has been carefully monitored and controlled, the company’s own territory looks increasingly like a Potemkin village, surrounded everywhere by devastation. The Carajás program acted as a strong population magnet, attracting thousands of construction workers, gold panners, small farmers, and speculators into the region which until very recently had been tropical forest. The insatiable demands for the charcoal used to smelt the iron ore will eventually destroy over 70,000 acres of forest every year, and has already led to destruction of the surrounding forest in a manner recalling the insatiable demands of the sugar mills that consumed the coastal forests four centuries before. The Tucuruí hydropower complex, for which 35,000 people were displaced, has the largest dam in any of the world’s tropical forests and it caused the flooding of 2,500 square kilometers of uncleared forest. The hydropower complex is central to the entire scheme—supplying electricity at subsidized prices to the iron mine, the aluminum plants, and the industries along the Carajás–São Luis Railroad.

The profitability of the Carajás project depends heavily on these huge state investments and on the cheap energy they will produce. Electronorte, the state monopoly electricity company in the Amazon, has grandiose plans for sixty-three new reservoirs in the Amazon basin, twenty-seven for the Tocantins-Araguaia region alone.13 Road and dam building is immensely profitable, and all the major Brazilian public works and construction companies, such as Camargo Correa, Andrade Gutierrez, and Mendes Junior, are involved in the projects, which absorb vast sums of government resources. Lucio Flavio Pinto estimated that those expenditures represent some 15 percent of Brazil’s foreign debt.14

Many of the schemes for dams and reservoirs are particularly ill-considered. The recently completed Balbina reservoir near Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas, covered an area of dense tropical forests and is, like almost all other Amazonian basin reservoirs, extremely shallow; it therefore produces a low level of energy per square kilometer flooded. Since no environmental impact studies or land surveys were made before the flooding, no one really knows what potential mineral resources were submerged in the process. No programs for saving animals have been set up, nor has provision been made for fish ladders at any of the dams. The deterioration of the quality of the impounded water through decomposition and absorption of organic matter can lead to a lack of oxygen in the water, cause corrosion of the hydroelectric turbines, create a buildup of sulfuric acid, and help in the proliferation of mosquitos and the spread of intestinal diseases. Not surprisingly, an epidemic of malaria has broken out in the Amazon region, rising from a reported 51,000 cases in 1970 to more than one million in 1990.

Nowhere, moreover, have small projects been developed to provide electricity to the rural populations. All the electrical power generated has been for urban and industrial use, which only serves to increase migration and to make more acute the crisis in producing food, which is largely grown by the poor and vulnerable Amazon peasants. As the small farmers and land-hungry migrants have faced the rapid concentration of land into large holdings, society and the environment have been subject to damage that Hall claims to be “unprecedented in Brazilian history.”


The ending of military rule in 1985, if anything, speeded the process of ecological depletion in the Amazon and intensified the growing confrontation between large and small landowners. In 1986 it was estimated that 64 percent of all conflicts over land in Brazil occurred in the Amazon. The Amazon frontier also showed the highest incidence of murders involving more than two victims.

After 1985 the conflict in the Amazon changed. Powerful landed interests became politically more aggressive, as the military, which had protected them, retreated and the political system became more liberal. The Cruzado Plan of 1985–1986 which temporarily reduced speculative profits in the money markets shifted investments to land and property. The new civilian government also set up a ministry of agrarian reform and a program of land reform was announced.

The proposed reform threatened to expropriate land that was not in use and immediately caused more evictions and burning of forests as landowners avidly began to open more pastures in order to prove the land was being farmed. Peasants, too, occupied unused land on estates in the hope of acquiring titles to it. Increasingly active workers’ movements emerged during the 1980s, organized by unions from the south and by the Church. They began to articulate peasant demands for land reform, while their members harassed and in some cases killed landowners. At the same time a powerful organization of landowners and ranchers, the Rural Democratic Union (UDR), was formed to oppose even the mild proposals for land reform that were put forward by the administration of President José Sarney. The UDR’s lobbying in Brasília was highly successful, and the constitutional assembly in 1988 voted down a proposal that would have allowed state expropriation of very large land holdings as part of a reform plan.

Many saw the hand of the UDR behind the increasing sophistication and violence of the ranchers’ response to the rural workers’ organizations, as well as the rising number of assassinations of union leaders, church men and women, and labor lawyers. Amnesty International’s Brazil: Authorized Violence in Rural Areas, a report first published in September 1988, tells the story in grisly and horrifying detail. A steady increase in reported killings of peasants in rural areas had occurred throughout Brazil, more than one thousand between 1980 and 1986. Many of these killings were connected with disputes over land, and were carried out by hired gunmen (pistoleiros) employed by landowners; but there was also increasing participation by state policemen.

The failure to pursue serious investigations of these crimes was tantamount to complicity in them, and Amnesty concluded that the pattern of assassinations of workers’ leaders was “so persistent that it facilitates fresh killings and may amount to deliberate permissiveness toward them.” Amnesty could find only two cases in which hired gunmen were convicted and sentenced for politically motivated killings and not a single case in which those accused of commissioning the killings were brought to justice.

The entire Amazon region was, in the words of Anthony Anderson, “increasingly out of the control of the public sector.” Whereas government incentives and investment had once been a sine qua non for private activity, now ranchers, farmers, miners, loggers, and charcoal producers were working on their own. Ranchers were opening their own roads. Private gold mines were polluting the rivers. Settlements of new colonies were spreading along the southern flank of the region and overwhelming the frontier communities already in place.

By 1987, in the Cachimbo region near the center of Brazil where the Kreen-Akrore Indians had killed John Hemming’s fellow explorer in 1961 and where in 1968 Adrian Cowell had filmed his The Tribe that Hides from Man, not a single Kreen-Akrore remained. Nor did most of the forest. During the 1970s two roads had joined up at Cachimbo, and hordes of prospectors had found gold in the Peixoto Azevedo River. The Kreen-Akrore had been forced from their forest redoubt by an epidemic of flu and were starving to death. With the tribe facing extinction, a handful of survivors were flown to the relative protection of the Xingú National park in Mato Grosso. The region where the vast forest had stood was now populated by the cattle of ranchers and land speculators, some living in colonists’ towns close to the river. Cachimbo itself is a huge military base, used to test rocket technology that was later sold to Saddam Hussein, and it was revealed in 1990 of a deep pit for the underground testing of nuclear weapons.

The burning season—whether for clearing farmland, ranch land, or charcoal burning or for mining operations—was now affecting a great arc from Acre and Rondônia along the western, southern, and eastern fringes of the Amazon rain forest. The global impact of this transformation in the Amazon and the effects of burning became dramatically evident in the mid-1980s, when satellite imaging revealed to scientists for the first time the monumental scale of the fires. In 1987 the dry season was unusually long, and as a result the forest fires in Amazonia were exceptionally intense and widespread. On August 24, 1987, Brazil’s Institute for Space Research (INPE) detected 6,800 fires just in the states of Mato Grosso and a small portion of southern Pará and eastern Rondônia. Smoke from the Amazon fires lasted until December and forced the closing of most of the region’s airports.

The fires in the Amazon are entirely manmade; they are not to be compared, for example, with the raging fires that strike in the American West. For trees to burn in the wet tropical forest they need to be felled and left for two or three months to dry. They are then ignited usually by people who want to clear the land, sometimes simply in the hope of selling it. That fire does not spread naturally in this region is central to the surveillance efforts of the Brazilian space institute, which began using meteorological satellites to provide four images each day of the Amazon region. Using high-resolution satellite imagery one can obtain a good map of areas burned, pinpointing particular properties.15

At the peak of the burning season, from the end of August until early September, this space imaging revealed as many as eight thousand separate fires in a single day throughout the region. Since at least half the rainfall in the Amazon basin comes from water that is condensed from within the forest atmosphere itself, the scale of deforestation threatened to heavily reduce the region’s rainfall. But it was the scale of the burning forest revealed by the satellites that brought home to scientists that what was occurring in Brazil was no longer only a Brazilian disaster, it was a real threat to the global climate.

The reason for this threat lay in the vital link in the carbon cycle between climate and forest. Carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight make wood and release oxygen in a process of photosynthesis. In the opposite reaction, wood decomposes or burns, producing energy and carbon dioxide. What is important is the change in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Since carbon dioxide acts as a heat-trapping gas, it keeps the earth warmer than it would normally be. The burning of the Brazilian forest dramatically shifts the balance, changing from a situation where much carbon, perhaps 150 tons, is retained in the total mass of living organisms or “biomass,” to a system where only a small amount of carbon, around fifteen tons, is retained in grassland or pasture. It is because of this process, in which the forest is transformed into grassland or pasture, that Brazil becomes dangerous globally for its release of carbon dioxide.16

How dangerous? José Goldemberg, a renowned Brazilian physicist and former president of the University of São Paulo, estimated that the Amazon fires approximated the level of the carbon dioxide emissions from all of North America and was greater than that contributed by all of Western Europe.17 Moist tropical forests contain approximately 35 percent of the world’s living terrestrial carbon pool, according to Anthony B. Anderson in his introduction to the useful collection of essays by experts, Alternatives to Deforestation. The cautions estimate by World Resources is that deforestation is second only to fossil fuels as a human source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, almost all of which comes from the tropics and overwhelmingly from Brazil.

The report, Environmental Damage and Climatic Change, by the Ditchley Foundation, a body not exactly famous for its extremism, states without hesitation that “global warming is…the ultimate environmental threat.” New global measures of the surface temperature of the oceans, according to the Ditchley report, show a rise of 0.1 degree centigrade per year for the last eight years. This is a rate of 1.0 degrees centigrade per decade. An average global warming of 1.5 degrees centigrade would alter the climate beyond anything experienced by the planet in the past 10,000 years.18

There is a crude irony in this tragedy. The Brazilian politicians and military strategists who planned and promoted the march to the west did so in large part out of the desire to see Brazil make its mark on the world. They succeeded in ways they never could have imagined. Brazil was indeed being taken note of, but for causing a global environmental disaster. Out of the vortex of fire, violence, and social and political conflict in the Amazon a powerful human voice briefly but memorably emerged, that of Chico Mendes. The consequences of his assassination in December 1988, and the possible responses to the ecological crisis in the Amazon basin, will be the subject of a second article.

This is the first of two articles.

This Issue

March 7, 1991