THE UPPER AMAZON OF BRAZIL
THE BURNING SEASON
Years ago I joined Marcos
and Marlui, a Brazilian couple who were documenting the
destruction of the Brazilian jungle near the Bolivian border. We
traveled to the heart of the Amazon, to Rondonia, one of Brazil's 26 states.
The jungle was on fire. Tens of thousands of fires were started during
the dry season of August and September. Colonists who had cut down the
forest on their land had waited until the dry season in order to burn
the fallen trees. The fires cleared the land so the colonists could grow
cacao and coffee, crops that often deplete the delicate jungle soil in
only a few years. Everywhere there was a wonderful recklessness in Rondonia.
I met and interviewed rubber tappers, Indians, cowboys, gold miners, and
colonists. I felt I was living in a time and place that in my own country
had come and gone a hundred years before. In the following four dispatches,
I hope to share a little of what I saw there. I'd like to start with what
the place looked like as a whole, then move on to some stories about gold
miners, rubber tappers, colonists and Indians. Perhaps I'll get to the
story of the Devil's Railway. Finally, I'll suggest a writing activity
that you might enjoy doing on your own.
(to be continued)
For two months, Marcos, a photographer, Marlui, a singer, and I,
the writer, traveled roads
and rivers together. We drove a Jeep through heavy dust and smoke,
but we also took old
diesel-powered river boats up uncharted rivers along the Bolivian-Brazil
border. We ate
piranha and wild pig. We found some jungle untouched where the howler
Always we found human drama. "Darn it, Peter, no one up north really
knows what's going
on down here. Just look at this. The Amazon is on fire!" Ahead,
the rust-red line of the dirt
road moved into smoke. We slowed but didn't stop. Marcos had to
lean out the window to
see the road, because there was so much dust and smoke everywhere.
Our nostrils were
clogged with fine purple-red powder. It did little good to close
the vents and the windows.
This dust entered and spread through the Jeep like a cancer. Our
camera and recording
equipment was layered. Our hair was as stiff as frozen grass. At
six a.m. we were heading
toward the Bolivian border from the Rondonian capital of Porto Velho.
We'd left the Wild
West city of dirt streets and bars and sprawling houses, and now
we followed the highway
(dirt and not paved yet) northwest along the Madeira River, "Wood"
River, so called
because of all the wood that floats down its turbulent current.
For the past few years,
colonists had flooded into the territory, clearing their land with
axes, chain saws, tractors
and chemicals, but mostly by fire they destroyed the forest, which
is called "mata" in
Portuguese. One colonist said to us, "The only good forest is no
forest." I wondered why he
thought this, and then I realized he had come from the poor coast
of northeastern Brazil,
and now he wanted to get rich by growing cacao. But he could grow
nothing on his land
until the dense jungle was gone. This was his big opportunity to
get out of poverty. And only
the forest stood in his way, or so he thought. I had come to Brazil
thinking I'd find jungle
stereotypes: rain, emerald green, hot rich flashes of red or blue
from the macaw, a beautiful
tropical bird. But I found instead a bloated sun rising like a bruised
tomato over cut and
scraggly and singed and smoldering forest. Like a drunken insect
we weaved from one side
of the road to the other, to avoid ruts the size of cars. Brightly
painted trucks hauling
chickens and coffee raced past us, kicking up so much dust, we had
to stop until some of it
settled and we could see again. Marcos kept his head out the window.
His eyes were
running with dusty tears. And I wondered if maybe he was crying
not from the dust in his
eyes but because he hated to see so much destruction to the rain
forest of Brazil. It was
painful for all of us to see so much jungle going up in smoke.
A children's book
about my experience in Rondonia can be found at Amazon.com
"Amazon: A Young Reader's Look at the Last Frontier"
to Peter's Profile Page