A RECENTLY PUBLISHED U.S. GOVERNMENT REPORT ON the future of the Amazon faults the Brazilian government for limiting the region's development to locals and hampering the growth of transportation and trade. "Such is the country whose destiny and the development of whose resources is in the hands of Brazil," the report laments. "It seems a pity that she should undertake the work alone; she is not strong enough; she should do what we are not too proud to do, stretch out her hands to the world at large, and say 'Come and help us to subdue the wilderness'..."
Pretty heady stuff. And old arguments to be sure. Indeed, U.S. Navy Capt. William Lewis Herndon wrote this report a century and a ago when he led the first U.S. government expedition through the Amazon. This year marked the 150th anniversary of that trip and Grove Press Books recently published a copy of the report in book form.
Some of the points--and misconceptions--Herndon made in 1851 are as alive as ever. We can all learn a lesson here and maybe, finally, move on to better things: namely the development of the region into a trade highway.
Brazil has made it almost impossible for large-scale trade to flourish in the Amazon and along the river that bears its name. The country's ancient and obsolete taxation system imposes tariffs whenever goods move between states or modes of transportation. To legally move goods along the Amazon is an expensive undertaking.
That's not only because of the taxes, either. While some large ocean shipping lines venture up and down the Amazon, the lack of a sound system at the ports to connect with trucks and trains makes delivering cargo difficult.
Brazil has also failed to provide incentives for local and foreign companies to make the necessary investments. It's not that those kind of incentives cannot be offered--just look at the sweet deal the state of Bahia gave Ford in exchange for a plant--but it's not as politically sexy to build a nice river transportation network as a new car plant.
Jungle rubble. Brazil has tried to make the Amazon more transportation friendly. The country did, after all, build the Trans-Amazon Highway about four decades ago to connect the Brazilian western frontier to the Atlantic, opening the possibility of an Atlantic-Pacific corridor.
A large stretch of that roadway is now inaccessible during most of the year. Brazilians, like U.S. residents (as Herndon's report shows), misguidedly believe that the Amazon can be subdued, a la the Panama Canal. That simply is not true. The jungle is king. Road transportation will not cut it; even if trees are slashed and burned to open the way for the roads, plant life quickly reclaims the pavement.
That leaves river transportation as the ideal route for most goods. It exists now, but in such haphazard fashion that few benefit.
The more transportation links and services stick to the rivers, the fewer roads will be needed and the fewer trees will be felled. That's not to say that a system of ports and inter-modal relays won't hurt the environment at all, but floating piers and other structures are more environmentally friendly.
Some are seeing the full potential for trade, as Herndon did. The Maggi Group, for example, has developed a complex logistics system that combines trucks, river barges, freighters, strategic warehouses, ports and satellite tracking to move its soybeans from the interior to Europe.
And don't count out air transportation for cargo in the region. Drug dealers have an extensive airport network on the fazendas of outlaws and former Brazilian federal deputies. If the drug lords can do it, so can legal transporters of cargo.
Now, there's an idea. Use the property and planes that the Brazilian government has confiscated from the lawbreakers to push open the trade lanes. That'd be one way to repair what Herndon called the region's "ragged reputation."
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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