The Amazon: Its Developers, Destroyers and Defenders

Vera Kinney received a BA in History in December 1998. She is a member of Pi Gamma Mu, the International Honor Society in Social Science, and graduated magna cum laude. Latin American history classes and her short-term mission trips to Central and South America have opened a whole new world of interest to this non-traditional student and great-grandmother. Dr. Lacy was the advisor for this paper, which was written as a senior thesis.

[Editor's note: In translating this article to html format, the 56 endnotes were lost. Time did not permit us to type those back in by hand. To see the notes, see the hard copy of the article in the USCA library.]


At first the people talking about ecology were only defending the forest, and the river. They did not realize that human beings were in the forest and that these human beings were the real ecologists because they could not be saved without the forest and the forest could not be saved without them.

Osmaririus Amancio Rodrigues, Secretary National Council or Rubber Tappers


The Amazon rainforest covers a vast area of more than two and one-half million square kilometers. If the Amazon were a country, it would be the ninth largest in the world. Brazil claims fifty-nine percent of the rainforest, which it shares with Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and the three Guyanas. The Brazilian rainforest covers forty-two percent of Brazil and is home to millions of people. According to Donald J. Bogue, co-author of International Amazonia, the estimated population in Brazilian Amazonia in 1960, before the large influx of people from other regions, numbered 7,536,000. In addition to generations of native Amazonians who had been sustained by the forestís extractive economy for centuries, rubber tappers came to the Amazon during the rubber boom in the early 1900s and settled there. Peasants from the drought-stricken northeast, in search of a place to live, settled unoccupied land in the southern regions of Amazonia in the 1950s. After the completion of the Belén-Brasilia highway in 1960, wealthy Paulistas (residents of São Paulo) began to establish cattle ranches in the states of Pará, Mato Grosso, and Goiás (see map, Appendix 1). Land speculators also bought large parcels of land near the new highway during the same period.

The rainforest is important to its many inhabitants because it provides a home and a sustainable livelihood for them. It is also of vast importance to the rest of our planet. The Amazon rainforest is credited with producing twenty percent of the earthís oxygen. It continuously recycles carbon dioxide into oxygen and has been referred to as the "lungs of the planet." Any significant reduction of the Amazon rainforest would mean less rain, less oxygen to breathe, more pollution in the atmosphere, and an even greater threat because of global warming.

Yet Brazilís Amazon rainforest is being destroyed at an alarming rate. According to Greenpeace, an environmental activist group, about fourteen percent of the forest has been decimated in the last decade. A January 1998 report by a Brazilian Congressional commission investigating foreign logging companies states that the Amazon rainforest is vanishing at a rate of over 22,000 square miles a year. In 1998, just a year after the Brazilian government dismissed studies that the Amazon was in danger of burning uncontrollably, fires in the Amazon reached unprecedented numbers. Data issued by the Brazilian government in the same month revealed that deforestation nearly tripled between the 1990-91 and 1994-95 burning seasons. Many ecologists believe that the entire forest could be destroyed by the year 2020 if the present rate of destruction continues. Much of the destruction comes from the cutting and burning of trees, as ranchers and settlers clear land for expansion, and large portions are destroyed by cutting tropical hardwoods such as teak, mahogany, rosewood, and other woods used for furniture. Many trees are cut to produce charcoal that will be used to power industrial plants. It is important to note that destruction of Brazilís rainforests has occurred to a large extent because of governmental policies over time. The Amazon has in many respects become a "safety valve" for the countryís economic and social tensions.

However, given the history of Brazilís economic problems and its politically powerful, landed elite, the Brazilian government has had few options. In the mid-1960s the new military regime decided that the Amazon region, because of its size and natural wealth, should be opened for development. This policy met with opposition from the forest dwellers, as well as environmentalists around the world. In response to ongoing demands since the 1960s that the Amazon be protected, Brazilís government has made a few concessions, but it is determined to pursue its developmental policy in Amazonia. This paper will examine Brazilís economic development policies in the 20th century, in particular those that affect the Amazon, and the disastrous results for the Amazon rainforest, and its people.

Brazilís economic problems are related to three major factors. One is a historic tendency toward monoculture (over-reliance on one or few exports), which made Brazilís economy vulnerable to market vicissitudes. From time to time in its early history, Brazilís economy depended on two major products, sugar and coffee. In the late 1800s Brazil experienced a rubber boom that lasted until the early 1900s, but it, too, was vulnerable to world market conditions. When rubber plantations in the Far East provided competition, Brazilís economy again faltered. The loss of the rubber market produced serious social and economic problems. Many of the rubber tappers returned to their homes in the northeast, but thousands remained in the Amazon forest, trapped by their debt.

The over-populated, drought-stricken land of the northeast became another factor in Brazilís economic problem. Most of the northeast is desert, and other areas of the country are often subjected to severe droughts. Few people in the northeast own their land, most are employed on large estates. There are not enough industries in Brazilís northeastern, over-crowded cities to provide employment for the masses (one-third of Brazilís population) that live there. Conditions in the northeast have led to the migration of millions of peasants either to the large cities of the south or westward into the rainforest. The large cities of Brasilia, Rio, and São Paulo have not been able to accommodate the forty-two million homeless people who fled the northeast during the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore slums and shantytowns have mushroomed around their perimeters. One of Brazilís major problems is that there is no land available for the poor.

Land tenure in general is the third related factor that contributes to Brazilís economic problems. Rural Brazil is dominated by large landowners. The pattern of land use during the time of the fazendas (landed estates dating to the years of Portuguese colonization) continues today. Large landowners increase their wealth by enlarging their estates, not by using their land more effectively. Owners of large landholdings are some of the most powerful political forces in Brazil. In the 1980s less than one percent of Amazoniaís landowners owned forty percent of the land, while more than half of the landowners owned less than three percent of all land. Over time Brazilís system of land ownership has changed very little. In the 1990s two percent of all Brazilian property owners control one-fifth of the land, more than the combined areas of England, France, Germany, and Spain and sixty-three percent of that area lies idle. Land tenure and its use became one of the major economic problems in the 1960s.

Rudimentary techniques used in agriculture over time have exhausted the land. In addition, in the mid-1950s ninety percent of agricultural land was part of large estates that utilized less than ten percent for crops. Even though high rates of growth had been attained, problems began to appear in the early 1960s as government policy favored industry over agriculture, capital investment over job creation, and import substitution over exports. Inflation rose to above one hundred percent. In addition, Brazilís foreign debt skyrocketed when President Juscelino Kubitschek (1955-1960) pushed through the construction of the ultra-modern capital, Brasilia. The construction of Brasilia, 600 miles inland from the Atlantic coast, and the network of highways connecting it to the rest of Brazil swelled Brazilís foreign debt from $1.6 billion dollars in 1954 to $2.7 billion in 1961.

Brazilís economic problems continued under the leadership of President Jóao Goulart (1961-1964), as the value of cruzeiro plummeted. In 196l, it fell thirty percent, in 1962, fifty percent, and in 1963, eighty percent. Goulart presented a plan that sought economic and political changes that would benefit the lower classes. He favored land reform, suffrage for illiterates, and the right for noncommissioned officers and enlisted men to participate in politics. The elite considered these ideas unacceptable and turned to the military in order to persuade them to take action against Goulart. On March 31, 1964, Goulart denounced the military in a fiery televised speech. Officers in the army that were already incensed by Goulartís proposal regarding the military took immediate action. On March 31, 1964, the armed forces moved to overthrow Goulart in a coup, which was supported by the United States government.

The coup brought to power the regime whose policies would bring an increase of foreign debt for the Brazilian people, the invasion of Amazonian lands inhabited by Indians and other forest dwellers, and destruction to the Amazon rainforest The new military regime decided that the Amazon region, which they regarded as an untapped source of wealth, should be economically incorporated into the rest of Brazil. One of the major reasons for destruction of the Amazon rainforest has been Brazilian government policies aimed at addressing Brazilís economic problems.

According to the military regimeís leaders, developing the Amazon rainforest could solve three problems. The Amazon could provide land for the homeless of the northeast, which would take their minds off rebellion, as well as for the homeless of the over- populated urban areas of the south. Government leaders did not foresee a problem with cutting down trees and clearing land in order to provide a home and livelihood for the masses that would be relocated. The generals believed that settling people on the land of the rainforest should not cause problems, since the government owned or controlled eighty percent of the land in the Amazon and would not be expropriating the lands of the elite. Secondly, large tracts of land in the Amazon could be made available for large landholders of the South to be developed into ranches. The military leaders saw the development of cattle ranches in Amazonia as a way of securing inexpensive beef for the underpaid working class. The government later decided, however, to set aside only some of the land in the Amazon for peasants, but the largest, most desirable areas would go to the wealthy landowners of the South who wanted to expand their holdings. Finally, with sufficient enticement, foreign investors could be lured to invest in Brazilian industry, some of it in the Amazon, which would stimulate the economy.

The Brazilian governmentís encouragement of foreign investment in industry in the Amazon dated to the 1920s. Brazilian officials in the state of Pará, which is located in the Amazon region, ceded U. S. industrialist Henry Ford 1.5 million acres of land on the Tapajós River deep in the Amazon for development. Ford was to receive police protection, duty-free entry of all Ford equipment and supplies into Brazil, and exemption from state and municipal taxes for a period of fifty years. In return, the Ford Motor Company agreed to establish a rubber plantation, supply hygienic sanitary facilities and public schools, and after the first twelve years, to give five percent of its net profits from the sale of rubber to the state of Pará. It was Fordís goal to produce the rubber necessary for his million-car yearly production in the U. S. This pact began the first plantation attempt in Brazil to grow rubber trees under regulated conditions. Ford envisioned an agro-industrial Utopia. Pre-fabricated bungalows lined the street of his town, Fordlándia, which was completed in 1929. Workers employed by Fordís new firm, the Companhia Industrial da Brazil, enjoyed wages of thirty-seven cents per day, twice the local wage, free housing, medical care, and food.

The Fordlándia project was short-lived. Eroding terrain made tractor work slow and costly. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes bred in the stagnant water, which collected in low spots, and workers were debilitated by the disease. The Tapajós Riverís water level fluctuated as much as forty feet in dry seasons, hindering water-travel to Fordlándia. Moths, ants, mites, and leaf disease attacked the 11.4 million rubber trees that resembled soldiers standing at attention as they grew in symmetrical rows. The humid temperatures, which reached into the nineties, were intolerable for Fordís transplanted Michigan managers.

Ford, however, did not give up easily. In 1934 he traded part of Fordlândia to the state of Pará for more than 700,000 acres fifty miles north of Fordlándia. Even though Ford designed Beltarra, his new venture, to correct the errors of his first endeavor, problems still existed. There was never a rubber harvest at Fordlándia, and in 1942, Beltarraís yield of 750 tons of latex from disease-resistant Asian tree grafts fell far short of the needed 38,000 tons for his Detroit plant. A major hindrance was shortage of labor, according to Joseph A. Russell, writer for Environmental Geography. Neither the Amazon basin nor adjacent areas, including northeastern Brazil, could in 1942 supply the abundant, cheap, efficient labor required to ensure the success of a rubber plantation. More than 20,000 workers would have been required to work the proposed 76,000-acre Ford rubber plantation.

In December 1945, realizing his failure, Ford sold the plantation, a thirty million-dollar investment, to the Brazilian government for $ 250,000. The rubber groves at both complexes, no longer tapped, fall under the authority of Brazilís Ministry of Agriculture and today are used for research and training. One of the buildings at Belterra once used to process rubber now houses a surgical glove factory. Beltarra, although now officially closed to the public, is home to squatters in huts of mud. Fordlándia, once home to more than 15,000, is more isolated, and is only accessible via a twelve-hour boat ride from Santarém. Only a few hundred people live there. Beltarra and Fordlándiaís solidly built workshops, roads and electrical lines would be enticing if they were not so remote, which makes them almost impossible to utilize. Experience gained at the two Ford plantations would help future rubber plantation operators avoid some of the mistakes and difficulties in the production of rubber in the tropics. Ford, though unsuccessful in his endeavor, paved the way for future industrialists who would try to conquer the Amazon.

Many of those future industrialists took part in "Operation Amazonia," the military regimeís incentive programs for both domestic and foreign investors in the 1960s and 1970s. President Humberto de Alencar Castello Brancoís (1964-1967) idea for developing the Amazon, "a land without people for a people without land," was not a new concept. President Vetúlio Dornelles Vargasí (1929-1945) 1930ís vision, "The March to the West," had influenced the patterns of development since the early 1960s. Brancoís program included such incentives as a reprieve from corporate income taxes for ten to fifteen years, subsidized loans, and sharp cuts in import duties of pesticides and equipment needed to develop land. In addition to a one hundred percent tax rebate for twelve years for any cattle ranch or industrial projects started before 1972, the federal government offered to supply seventy-five percent of the cost of the projects. Credit with interest values of ten to twelve percent of the costs of any agro-business or industrial projects undertaken was available to investors. No repayment became due before four to eight years from time of loan.

The government made extensive plans for developing the Amazon region. "Operation Amazonia" included plans for a new Amazonian infrastructure, colonization, and mineral extraction. A two billion dollar budget would go for building a network of roads, ports, hydroelectric dams, mineral extraction projects, and colonization. Before turning the colonization operation over to a new government agency, the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), the military leadership made extensive plans for settling the homeless in the Amazon. One hundred thousand families would be given one-hundred-hectare plots of land to farm, located on either side of the proposed 15,000 kilometers of highways transecting Amazonia (land that would be expropriated from public domain). In addition, the government agreed to supply each family with a small allowance, which would sustain it until the first crop was harvested. Larger tracts of land off the main highways would be available for ranchers, large farmers, and industrialists. There were to be three types of settlements. Agrovilas, small villages with schools, medical centers, and family stores would be established every ten kilometers along the main road, and the agropolis, larger towns with small hospitals, stores, and a police station, would be spaced farther apart. Existing towns would be incorporated into a ruropolis, a town with amenities commensurate with the cities of southern Brazil. The plans, which appeared to work on paper, were in reality extremely flawed.

By the mid-1960s new roads and government incentives brought waves of settlers, ranchers, and land speculators to Amazonia. It is estimated that 170,000 people moved into the region during the 1960s. There was no order in settling the land. INCRA recommended that the peasants, squatters, and sharecroppers be given permanent title to land, but the government disagreed. Land settlement was chaotic and unorganized, as thousands settled on land of their choice. No one was quite sure who owned most of the land and land titles were easy to obtain if one knew the right person. A bribe could buy a title, whether it was real or fake. Zeros were added on holding sizes, signatures forged, pages destroyed, and on paper, rivers miraculously changed course overnight. The state of Mato Grosso issued titles to an area twelve million acres greater than the area of the whole state. Problems escalated in the early 1970s as drought hit the northeast.

As an emergency solution for the problematic economic situation in the northeast President Emílio Garastazu Mécidi (1969-1974) executed plans for the 5,000-kilometer, multimillion-dollar TransAmazonian Highway project in 1970. Starving peasants in the northeast were on the verge of rebelling. Médici chose to build the highway and expropriate a band of land along either side for colonization for the peasants, rather than propose land-reform in the northeast, which would have been bitterly opposed by his important supporters, the large landholders. The TransAmazonia highway, which was dubbed by a Brazilian journalist as "the road, which links nothing to nowhere," connected no major cities. Between 1970 and 1979, the World Bank loaned Brazil $629 million for construction of new roads and improvement of existing ones. By connecting the Amazon to the northeast, according to Transport Minister Mário Andreazza, problems of both regions could be solved. The highway was completed in record time, just over a year, and the colonization project was turned over to INCRA. From October 1970 to June 1974, less than 5,000 peasants were settled along the road, instead of the proposed 100,000. By 1975 those who settled complained of little technical assistance, expensive farm inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, and other expenses), and inadequate market facilities. Within a year INCRA gave up plans for settling the northeastern illiterate and impoverished peasants in the Amazon, and instead recruited settlers from other regions who were better off and more experienced in farming. Even with the new settlers, the project floundered. Soil was not rich enough for farming. A further problem was that the TransAmazonia, a thin-coated earth road, could not stand the torrential summer rains. Potholes and wooden bridges were in constant need of repair. Today, some parts of the highway have been abandoned, while others have been overtaken by jungle growth. The new highway and the hoards of peasants settling Amazonia took their toll on the rainforest.

Not only did the rainforest suffer from the clearing of land for the highway and for homesteads for the thousands of peasants, but also many times fires set to burn the trees became uncontrollable as they spread. Besides clearing land for their livelihood, the peasants had two other compelling reasons. . . for according to government policy, only land that was occupied was eligible for government loans, and land was not considered occupied unless it was cleared. In addition, land was more valuable if it was cleared. Many times a peasant would clear land in order to benefit financially. If land was taken from a peasant by the government, he was paid for any improvement of the land, which in many cases meant only that it had been cleared.

Meanwhile, as more ranchers moved into the Amazon region, many land conflicts occurred, especially between the cattle ranchers and the rubber tappers who had worked in the region for decades. Among all the groups that were affected by the development of the Amazon the rubber tappers were the most vocal. Their leader, Chico Mendes, was not afraid to fight for the rainforest.

Chico Mendes devoted his life to the protection of the Amazon rainforest. Mendes was a man with a vision, a man who was concerned for his people, the rubber tappers, and for the Indians who lived in the Amazon region. His goal in life was to keep the Amazonian forest a sustainable source of livelihood for the people who live there. A third-generation rubber tapper, Mendes was president of the Kapurí Rubber Tappers Union and acknowledged leader of 30,000 rubber tappers. In the 1960s, more than five decades after the Brazilís rubber boom, there was still a market for natural rubber from the Amazon. Mendes began as a child of nine to learn to tap rubber trees. He knew all phases of tapping, smoking, and selling the latex and seemed to be destined to the life of a seringeiro (rubber tapper). Mendesí destiny would change because of an encounter with Euclides Tavora, a stranger who wandered into the Mendes compound one day in 1968. Tavora realized that Mendes was a smart child and offered to teach him to read (children of rubber tappers never attended school). Under Tavoraís tutelage, Mendes learned to read and to think for himself. Mendesí education enabled him to communicate with those he met as he traveled to Brasilia, Rio, Miami, and Washington, D. C. in his fight to save the Amazon as president of the rubber tappers, between 1981 and 1988 (the time of his death).

Chico Mendes spent each weekend studying with Tavora in his home from 1961 to 1965. On one of these weekends, Mendes heard news from around the world for the first time. As they listened, studied and talked, Tavora used the time to instill in Mendes his leftist doctrine. After the coup in 1964, Mendes learned through these broadcasts of the political events of his own country and the military regimeís program to open the rainforest to the homeless, unemployed, and oppressed people of the Northeast and the shantytowns that surrounded the Brazilian metropolises. Mendes determined to save the rainforest for the people whose lives depended on it.

As the ranchers moved into the forest, they continually encroached on land worked by the rubber tappers. From 1970 to1976, hired gunmen terrorized the tappers

who lived along the road to Brasiléia until they gave up their land to the ranchers. Their homes were burned and animals killed. Those who resisted were brutally evicted. In clearing more than 15 million acres of land, ranchers destroyed more than 180,000 rubber trees and 80,000 Brazil nut trees in Mendesís state of Acre alone. The loss of these trees represented the livelihood of more than three hundred tapper families. Deforestation would eventually deprive the people who lived in the forest of their sustainable livelihood.

Mendes believed that deforestation of the Amazon rainforest had to stop. He initially tried to stop the violence through legal means. His efforts accomplished nothing. He could not forget Tavoraís words, "You must get involved, you must join the union. . . who knows you might overthrow the system." Therefore, in an effort to stop deforestation, Mendes organized a union of rubber tappers. He believed that all of the people of the forest had to unite in order to protect themselves and the land they lived on. Mendes was not a man of violence, and he believed that his mission to save the rainforest could be accomplished with peaceful protests. To fight, according to Mendes, did not mean to take up arms against the ranchers. Mendes organized his first empate (rubber tapper families, including men, women, and children who would create human chains to shield the trees against the saws of the tree cutters) in Brasiléia in May 1976. The members of an empate met, organized teams, and confronted tree cutters in a non-violent manner. Empates assisted tappers in other areas of the state when their land was threatened with deforestation. If, after talking to the tree cutters, Mendes could not persuade them to leave he would call on the empates. From experience Mendes knew that it was useless to appeal to the ranchers. The tappers had no recourse from law officials, for they worked hand in hand with the ranchers.

Violence between the tappers and ranchers escalated with the murder of the Rubber Tapper Union President Wilson Pinheiro, in July 1980. When law officials did not respond to tappersí request to arrest rancher Nilo Sergio de Oliveria, Pinheiroís accused killer, tappers took matters into their own hands and killed Sergio. Dozens of tappers were jailed and tortured. Mendes, who was in another part of the state trying to organize more workers, was arrested and charged with complicity in the murder. His case was thrown out of court in 1984, for lack of evidence.

In his fight against the encroaching ranchers and loggers, Mendes realized that he would need more help than could be found in his home state, Acre. He believed that he had to convince the federal government to create extractive reserves, large areas of land that would provide sustainable livelihood for the people who lived in the forest. One of Mendesí staunchest supporters in his fight to save the Amazon was José Lutzenberger, a Brazilian environmentalist. Others included Mary Allegretti, a Brazilian anthropologist, Stephen Schwartzman, an American anthropologist, and British filmmaker Adrian Cowell, who were all environmentalists. Through their efforts and influence, Mendes was able to present his views in Brasilia and Rio as well as in Miami and Washington, D. C. With the help of Allegrettii, Schwartzman, and Cowell, Mendes presented his case to representatives of forty-four nations at the annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Miami, Florida in March 1987. Mendes explained that roads being funded by the World Bank were bringing thousands to the rain forest, and millions of acres of the forest were being destroyed. He explained that he was not opposed to the road, but believed that the bank should make some stipulations that would provide environmental safeguards when making such loans. He explained that cattle ranching had ravaged the rainforest and "economically brought nothing to the region." Within the week, Mendes was in Washington, D. C., repeating his story to Senators Robert Kaspen and Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Senate Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

The time was right for Mendes to make his plea for the rainforest. The United States was looking for a reason to pull out of the IDB. They considered the bank a "pork barrel" for Third World countries. Senator Inouye argued that the powerful borrowing members could "give themselves money at will, with few controls." Within a few days Senator Inouye sent a letter to the IDB president, Antonio Ortiz Mena, stating in part, "The Senate Foreign Operations Subcommittee insists that the environmental components of the loan be implemented before further work on road construction is allowed." Both the IDB and World Bank then took steps to examine the environmental impact of the Amazon projects they funded. In just a few days, by convincing Kaspen and Inouye of the problems of the rainforest, Mendes was able to accomplish more than he had done in several years in Acre.

Ecology, however, became secondary to Mendes in 1988 as more tappers were murdered. The harassment by the ranchers and their hired gunmen continued into the late 1980s. In 1988 there were more than 200 murder cases in the judicial district of Brasiléia, Acre that were not investigated by the police. According to the 1988 Amnesty International Report on Human Rights, land disputes had resulted in 1,000 deaths in the Amazon since 1980. The environmentalistsí concern seemed to be focused on the trees and birds, while Mendes and others were more concerned about the human lives lost. Mendes was not pleased that he was being portrayed as an environmentalist. In fact, once when he was depicted on television as the Amazonís own ecologist, "fighting to save the lungs of the world," Mendes became enraged. He yelled that he was not protecting the forest because of its effect on the world, but because of the people who lived there. It is unclear how important the forest would have been to Mendes if the people of the forest were not dependent on it. Environmental issues grabbed world attention, however, and ecologists would give him the support he needed. Mendes in turn supported their cause in order to save the forest. Mendesí quest for its survival brought the rainforest to the attention of the people of Brazil and the rest of the world.

With all that Mendes could do, there was no way that he could stop the destruction. The rubber tappers were not as effective as they hoped to be, but they were able to save some of the forest. Mendes provoked a great many ambitious, influential ranchers in his effort to thwart their expansion and clearing of land. The most notable was the Alves family. The confrontation between Mendes and the tappers with Alves was costly to both. Alves lost his investment and the chance of expanding his ranch when the government expropriated Cachoeira (Mendeís boyhood hometown) for an extractive reserve. Just a few months later, Alvesí son killed Mendes.

Less than two weeks before Mendes was murdered, he said in a speech that if his death would strengthen their struggle, it would be worth it. But he knew that his death would not save the Amazon. Mendes was right in that his death did not save the Amazon, but in death he accomplished more than in his lifetime. At his funeral thousands of rubber tappers took up the torch of Chico Mendes and marched forward to protect their land.

In his fight to save the forest Mendes had gained support of many influential people who were concerned with environmental issues. A British filmmaker completed a documentary, The Decade of Destruction, which featured Chico Mendes. The film brought the forestís destruction before the entire world. Tony Gross, in the epilogue of The Fight for the Forest, states that "Mendesí work had an enormous impact. Within hours, the news of his murder made headlines all over the worldÖthe Brazilian government came in for tremendous criticismÖBrazilian ambassadors around the world reported adverse publicity."

Partly in response to the growing global concern over events in the Amazon, President Ernesto Geisel (1974-1979) in 1974 officially ended "Operation Amazonia": he suspended tax incentives for ranchers and stopped subsidies. Geisel turned his attention to mineral extraction, hydroelectric dams, and agro-businesses in the Amazon, which began a whole new set of problems for the people of the forest. Other forest dwellers would suffer from Brazilís developmental projects such as the building of hydroelectric plants, and would try unsuccessfully to defend their land.

The cool, clear waters of the Tocantins River became deadly after the 1984 construction of the multimillion-dollar Tucuruí Dam in the state of Pará in eastern Amazonia. Tucuruí Dam, the second-largest hydroelectric project in Brazil and one of the largest dams in the world, supplies electricity to aluminum and steel smelters in Pará and neighboring states. Multinational companies such as U. S. Alcoa own these smelters. In 1980, Electronorte, Brazilís state electric company, let out bids to clear 910 square miles of forest, which would be covered by the proposed giant reservoir to be created by the dam. A joint-venture firm put together by a French investment bank, Lazard Fréres, and Brazilian pension investment company called CAPEMI (Caixa de Pecúlio dos Militares) claimed it could clear the land in just three years as opposed to the fifteen-year time period proposed by other bidders. Three years later, with CAPEMI bankrupt and two-thirds of the forest still standing, the dam was completed and the land flooded. Entire villages, even cemeteries, lay under water. There was no time to cut and destroy the trees, which had been sprayed with defoliants such as "Agent Orange." The treated trees became part of a contaminated mixture that would eventually be dispersed downstream.

The estimated 40,000 island and river-bank dwellers who lived downstream from the Tucuruí Dam suffered loss of income and food as the contaminated water destroyed great schools of fish and shrimp as well as wild cacao trees that shriveled and died. The dam also held back crucial nutrients that had been dispersed in the silt as it was deposited along the banks of the free flowing Tocanins River. Augusta Dwyer, Canadian free-lance journalist and writer, quotes one of her guides in Pará as he described the area devastated by the dam: "We used to live in Paradise, now we have nothing." There was no money to buy the basic food for survival. Acaí berries from palm trees, one of the few products not affected by the dam, was their only resource for sale, but with nothing else to eat the natives were forced to cut out the palm hearts for food. With the destruction of the palm hearts there were no acaí berries to sell.

According to Dwyer, the rural Workers Union that defended the river people who live below the dam had more problems than had Chico and the rubber tappers. At least Mendes had someone to fight against. In Carmeta, the fight is against a river of polluted water and the Tacuruí Dam. The Catholic Church is the only source of help for the natives whose lives have been devastated by the governmentís development project in Pará. Since most of the natives make a living fishing and shrimping, missionaries there are petitioning the government to compensate the people who have lost their means of livelihood. Unfortunately, Tucuruí is just one of seven sites under consideration by Electronorte for expanding Brazilís hydroelectric power system.

Among indigenous people affected by Operation Amazonia were the Yanomami Indians of Romaima, the northernmost state in Brazil. In 1975 the Brazilian government, through extensive radar research, discovered deposits of gold, cassiterite, and uranium on Yanomami territory. Further governmental studies indicated that because of location in such a remote area, mining would not be cost efficient. Still, by 1987, gold prospectors flooded the state. Boa Vista, its capital, became a boomtown. There was a problem, however, the Yanomami who did not want the white man digging on their land, did not welcome the prospectors. The Yanomami had an airtight case against the intruders. Under Brazilian law, the Yanomami were protected by the constitution, which specified that all lands used by Indians for hunting, fishing, and agriculture, as well as land important to tribal legends and history, were for Indiansí exclusive use. Without permission from the National Indian Foundation, known as Funai, no one could enter Indian Territory.

The law protecting the Yanomami, which had stood for more than 200 years, would disintegrate in the late 1980s. True to Brazilian government policy, the law was changed to accommodate the governmentís development agenda. Ignoring the fact that the Yanomami moved from area to area, in 1989 the government replaced their original twenty-million-acre territory with designated indigenous villages, which included only the land around the actual village. Seventy-one percent of the original Yanomami territory was designated as forest reserves, national parks, or biological reserves, which belonged to the government and could be used by miners, loggers, or others designated by the government. Again the Catholic Church came to the rescue. Felisberta Damasceno, a young lawyer who works for the Catholic Indigenous Mission (CIMI) waged a war against the government, claiming that the governmentís decree regarding indigenous villages had less power than the article in the constitution which granted the Indian territory. Damasceno is justifiably not optimistic about the results of his legal battle.

Another native group greatly affected by Brazilís Amazon policy is the Kayapó. They have found an unusual way to oppose federal projects in the Amazon. In 1989 Electronorte planned to build a series of dams in Kayapó territory in the state of Pará. Kayapó chiefs wearing full ceremonial costume with brilliantly feathered headdresses and black body-paint, and in some cases, enormous disks in their lower lips, toured the Tucuruí Dam in January 1989. In order to show what damage a dam could do to the forest, the Kayapó videotaped the bare trees left standing in the water. The video was shown to hundreds of Kayapó on a video cassette player hooked up to a gasoline-powered generator. In the following months, the 3,000 Kayapó, who live in villages scattered across hundreds of miles of Brazilian jungle, were united in an effort to stop the Cararao dam (due to begin construction in 1993). Five hundred Kayapó demonstrated at the proposed site of the largest dam. To Electornorte, the loss of land twice the size of the state of Delaware was no big deal. The Kayapó did not agree. In Washington, D. C. in February 1989, Paulo Paikan, a Kayapó chief, and fellow Kayapó Kube I explained to American bankers and congressmen the damage to the Kayapó if plans for the new ten billion-dollar dam at Altamira on the Lower Xingu River were executed. At the same time they tried to dissuade the World Bank from funding the Altamira project. World Bank funds originally considered for loans to Brazilís energy sector were designated for energy conservation, following Paiakanís intensive fight against the dam at Altamira. The dam was never constructed. Journalist Carl Zimmer tells us that the "Indians have decided that the camcorder is mightier than the war club."

Environmentalists worldwide were the Brazilian rainforestís most formidable defenders. By the 1980s the destruction of the rainforest had reached alarming proportions. News of the rainforest destruction gained international attention just as the "greenhouse warming" effect became an issue that alarmed ecologists around the world. Most consider world-wide destruction of rainforests a major contributor to global warming.

The Earth Summit, a United Nations Conference on the environment, met in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. The most controversial issue was global warming. Unlike the first Earth Summit in 1972, the division was not between the East and the West but between the North and the South (countries above and below the equator). Those attending the Earth Summit pressured Brazilís government to stop destroying the Amazon region.

In the last twenty years (1972-1992) the world lost 500 million acres of trees, and the worldís farmers have lost nearly 500 million tons of topsoil. Air pollution has grown significantly worse with atmospheric changes such as ozone depletion and greenhouse gases. Voices from the North blame the decline in rainforest for the greenhouse effect, but those from the South see "big cars, refrigerators, and climate controlled shopping malls" as the problem. Some developing nations, especially Brazil, were irked at the North for pointing to the release of carbon dioxide from the burning rainforest when their northern neighbor, the United States, is the richest and single biggest polluter. A " battle royal" raged between the "rich" and "poor" countries. The poor developing countries could see no reason why their plans for development should suffer for problems they did not create. The rich industrialized countries refused to sign anything that would change their lifestyle or increase the cost of doing business. President George Bush was the only delegate that refused to sign the "biodiversity treaty" that called upon industrial nations to give the developing world financial incentives to protect endangered plants and animals. The crux of the matter was a matter of cash. The North had it. The South needed it. About the only thing that everyone could agree on was that there were problems that needed solving. Still, they could not even agree on the means to solve them. Environmentalists perceived themselves as losers at the Earth Summit because many of the solutions agreed upon were so "watered down" they had no strength. The lesson learned at the 1992 Earth Summit is that there are no easy solutions to the worldís environmental and development problems.

Environmentalists have argued that the rainforest is not suitable for ranches or agriculture. The land is too poor to produce grass for pastures for more than a few years. Amazonian ranching is non-productive because it takes more than an acre to graze just one cow. Scholar Luis C. Barbosa argues that much of the so-called investments of ranchers are "simply to take advantage of the tax incentives." He backs his claim with the example of Volkswagenís 139,382-hectare ranch that is lying idle. Even so, several Brazilian presidents have back away from land reform when pressured by the landowners.

Developmental projects in Brazil depended largely on infrastructure, which in turn depended on finances from the World Bank. Due to pressure from environmentalists, in 1989, after Mendesí international plea to save the rainforest, the World Bank stopped its financial support to Polonoroeste, (Northwest Brazil Integrated Development Programme). This ended the expansion of Highway BR-364 through Acre to the Peruvian border. Brazil, although reluctant to bow to outside interference in her internal problems, was compelled to at least agree to some restrictions in the rainforest given her history of international indebtedness.

The World Bank and the IMF have directly and indirectly been responsible for much of the destruction of the rainforest by financing highways, dams, mining enterprises, and other industrial projects. Under pressure from environmental groups, these banks have from time to time curtailed their loans or attached environmental restrictions to the loans that were approved. According to scholar Rachel McCleary, the World Bank and the IDB, after doing environmental impact studies, stopped loans to Brazil in 1989. She states that the Brazilian government was not complying with, or would not meet conservation and social stipulations.

As early as 1965, Brazilís leaders passed several laws to protect the rainforest. Article 44 of law 4.771 (1965) prohibited the landowner from deforesting more than fifty percent of his land, but ranchers skirted this law by distributing the uncut land to relatives. Later, law 7.000 (July 1986) prohibited the cutting and selling of Brazil nut and rubber trees, and regulation 486 (October 1986) prohibited the deforestation of hillsides. On March 12, 1990, Brazilís environmental chief Fernando César Mesquite convinced outgoing president José Sarney Costa (1985-1990) to declare and sign into order three extractive reserves (government-owned lands that are set aside for the sustainable resources for rubber tappers and nut gatherers) in the Amazon. The largest, which measures 6,553 square miles of forest, is the Reserva Extravista Chico Mendes. .

In 1990, because of the extensive illegal cutting and burning in the Amazon, Brazilís President-elect Fernand Affonso Collor de Mello (1990-1992) sent airforce helicopters to monitor forest burnings in Amazonia. Collor himself flew with Lutzenburger, his newly appointed Secretary of Environment, over the forest to examine the damage. In the first month of patrolling the forest, the Brazilian government levied fines totaling ten million dollars for ranchers who were encroaching on the forest. Collor ordered the demolition of the dozens of airstrips that miners had carved into the forest in Yanomami territory. In 1991 Collor outlined a plan to allow foreign financing of environmental programs and canceling tax breaks that had made destruction of the Amazon forest profitable. He also issued a presidential decree that prohibited the cutting and exploitation of native vegetation in the Atlantic Forest region of the Amazon for an indeterminate period. Collor may have made these commitments because of worldwide criticism or because banks were threatening to cancel Brazilís loans.

In spite of all of environmental commitments, the Brazilian government has adopted the idea that neither a few people who live in the rain forest (whether rubber tappers or Indians), nor the politicians of the northern neighbor, the United States, can stop Brazilís "progress". According to a January 1998 article from Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian environmentalists have long argued that deforestation is more closely linked to Brazilís economy than to any government policy. President Sarney, however, took a much stronger view toward outside interference in Brazilís problems. Sarney refused to participate in the environmental conference held in The Hague in March 1989. He said, "We are master of our destiny and will not permit any interference in our territory."

Between 1993 and 1998, depletion of the forest has increased by more than a third, causing serious concern to environmentalists. On April 29, 1998, the World Bank, the Brazilian government and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) unveiled plans to protect twenty-five million hectares of Amazonia for future generations. Ed Wood Matthews, spokesman for World Wide Fund for Nature, said that previous Brazilian governments had made a string of "broken promises" on combating deforestation, and that he hoped they would honor this one. Not surprisingly, in November 1998 Brazilís government announced plans to cut the internationally funded Amazon protection program from sixty-one million dollars to just over six million. Although the funds would come from the industrialized G-7 nations (Germany, United States, France, Italy, England, Canada, and Japan), Brazil included these funds in spending cuts planned for 1999. Ecologists claim that the proposed cuts will leave very little for protection. The government responded that everyone has priorities, and that most, if given the choice, would prefer health service.

Most of the goals of the proposed "Operation Amazonia" were never reached. The Amazon rainforest, however, continues to be destroyed at an alarming rate despite resistance by its inhabitants and environmentalists. The government, caught between environmental pressures and economic dilemma, has made a few concessions, but it insists that economic realities cannot be ignored when considering environmental concerns. Brazilian Ambassador to the U. S., Marcelio Margues Moreira, defended Brazilís policy related to the destruction of Brazilís rainforest when he described Brazil as a developing country with enormous infrastructure. He acknowledged ecological problems and explained that the national agencies lacked sufficient means and worked under difficult circumstances.

Research for this paper brought to light one problem that the Brazilian government has never been able to overcome, the power of the large landowner. Even though the government is dependent on the large landowners for its export crops, more than sixty percent of their land lies idle. It seems unreasonable that the government is unwilling to expropriate this land in order to secure productive land for the homeless. Yet each time a president has considered land reform, his faithful supporters, the politically powerful elite, have overruled him. Had they chosen to pursue land reform throughout Brazil, their political careers would have come to an abrupt end. It would be political suicide to oppose the landowners.

In themselves, the "little guys", who spoke out against the destruction of the rainforest accomplished nothing. Yet, when Mendes and Chief Paikan caught the attention of the world environmentalists, the Brazilian government was forced to make some concessions. Since 1990 the government has canceled plans for the construction of the Cararao Dam at Altamiro, created extractive reserves, biological reserves, and national parks. However, since Brazil, like most other Latin American countries, currently embraces open-market economic policies, which place no restrictions on foreign direct investment, and as Brazilís leaders seek means to solve its financial crisis, economic interests will override protection of the environment. As Rachel McCleary puts it, "The issue is not whether the natural resources of the Amazon will be exploited but how fast and to what purpose."




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