Peter Lourie
INTRODUCTION: THE UPPER AMAZON OF BRAZIL
DURING 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.

 DISPATCH #1
 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 monkeys roared.
 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.

 (to be continued)

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" 

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