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Limits of boom-and-bust development: challenge of the Amazon.

"WE KNOW that as Brazil goes, so will go the rest of that Latin American continent," said Pres. Richard Nixon in 1971 while lavishing praise on Gen. Emilio Garastazu Medici, perhaps the least charming of Brazil's 20-year parade of military presidents--and so, in certain grisly respects, it did. The militarization of Brazil in 1964 was not an aberration, but a harbinger. In Latin America during the years that followed, one constitutional government after another fell victim to military coups.

Brazil also led the trend toward redemocratization, with its abertura, or opening, for free expression and free assembly during the late 1970s. In the early 1980s, its leadership potential became ever more apparent, portending independent foreign policies and competition, rather than complementarity, with the U.S. and the First World in manufacturing and trade.

Today, Brazilian independence has been tempered by mega-debt and hyper-inflation and the consequent denationalization of decision-making on the most essential elements of economic policy. Over the longer term, the country's independence also has been tempered by a persistent inclination to boom-and-bust development, with the booms fleetingly enriching mostly non-nationals, or at least non-locals, while the busts impact enduringly on plundered regions and communities.

This boom fever has zeroed in again in the last decade of the 20th century on the Amazon--the country's mineral-rich heartland and its last frontier. With this threat to the world's largest rain forest, however, also comes opportunity. A new generation of nationalists is joining forces with foreign environmentalists in drawing attention to the fact that this great river basin is worth more to Brazilians, and to the rest of the world, as a rain forest than a source of depletable riches for a few. Brazil now has the prospect of taking the lead in demonstrating that environmental sanity serves national as well as global interests.

Brazilian leaders, military or civilian, always have looked lustfully and anxiously at the Amazon Basin, fearing that if their nation did not explore, develop, and settle that region, it would lose those riches to neighbors. Until the middle of this century, however, such concerns had little material consequence. The beginnings of the contemporary assault on this new frontier might be traced to the building of the new capital, Brasilia, by the government of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61) in the undeveloped interior state of Goias. A road linking Brasilia with Belem bisected the Amazon Basin and opened up the area to settlers and fortune-seekers.

The pace quickened in the 1960s, as the military government established the Superintendency for the Development of the Amazon and began the construction of the Transamazonic Highway. The population of Manaus has doubled to more than 1,000,000 since 1967, when it was declared a free-trade zone. Ranching, logging, and public and private mining ventures also have been undertaken increasingly since the 1960s and at a pace rapidly accelerating since the beginning of the 1980s. Such ventures call, in turn, for more massive infrastructure projects--roads, bridges, and dams. The joint public-private enterprise venture, Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD), the world's largest iron mine, carved out an estate in Goias that continues to grow, voraciously consuming trees and water to maintain its energy needs.

During the mid 1970s, the government began to offer incentives for clearance of the rain forest, a ploy that simultaneously offered tax shelters to major corporations and appeared to constitute an alternative to desperately needed and fiercely resisted land reform. The offers drew large numbers of peasants displaced by drought in the Northeast and mechanization in the Southeast. Most have found, after inordinate investment of time and labor, that the leached soils respond very poorly to farming and not much better to grazing. Worse still, land titles in areas already or about to be cleared have been drawn poorly, with overlapping, underlapping, and outright fraud making it easier for major landholders or speculators to push peasants off the lands they had cleared.

A frontier free-for-all

By the 1980s, this frontier free-for-all had produced hundreds of deaths and a land concentration pattern comparable to parts of the country settled centuries earlier. The ejected peasants, lacking options, have become an itinerant labor force, primarily located in instant slum towns on the margins of the land they had cleared. Reconcentration also has meant food shortages, since 80% of the crops have been produced by holders of small plots. Major landholders were more likely to be engaged in export agribusiness. Even so, since the soil is so infertile, they often have earned more from tax write-offs than from anything cultivated. Forest clearance incentives were revoked in 1987, in response to international pressures, but speculation in land continues to be fueled by hyperinflation.

Adding to the Wild West ambience of the Amazon Basin has been a gold rush that began in 1980 and, before the end of the decade, had made Brazil the world's third largest producer of the precious mineral. Mercury used to process the ores has contaminated the water and lowered the fish catch over a large portion of the basin.

Among the many species of plant and animal life endangered by the latest and most multifaceted boom in the Amazon is its people. It is estimated that only about 200,000 of Brazil's indigenous tribal peoples have survived, with perhaps 50,000 of them still living deep in the rain forest. The largest tribe--the Yanomamo--their numbers reduced to about 9,000, have seen their territory overrun by some 45,000 gold prospectors. Caboclos (mestizos or non-tribal Indians) who live in symbiosis with the rain forest--by hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming--have seen their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives, threatened as well by the activities of prospectors and other fortune-seekers.

A shallow reservoir backed up by a dam erected near Manaus has become yet another breeding ground for mosquitos. The growing numbers of such reservoirs have contributed to a malaria epidemic, soaring since the 1970s, with more than 1,000,000 cases reported in 1990. Another dam, generating power for the CVRD's Carajo mine, displaced 35,000 people. The Kararao project, scheduled for construction, but currently on hold, would flood a portion of the Xingu River Valley, displacing members of 11 indigenous tribes.

One of the tribes threatened by the project--the Kayapo--has resisted. Its chiefs, with some assistance from social and natural scientists, took their case as far as the World Bank, which was persuaded to suspend a $500,000,000 loan for dam construction. The Brazilian government responded by bringing charges of conspiring against the national interest against the chiefs, along with an American anthropologist, under the so-called Law of Foreigners. Summoned to give testimony at the Federal Courthouse in Belem, the Kayapo showed their superior command of public relations techniques. They turned out some 400 warriors and three dozen chiefs in full ceremonial dress (or undress), armed with clubs and spears, to confront riot-control police bearing automatic weapons before a number of the world press. International pressures soon coaxed the government to drop its case.

Though links with scientists and environmentalists are essential, the first line of defense for the rain forest, and its most effective defenders, would be the people who depend on the region for their survival. The fact that the endangered indigenous cultures of the Amazon Basin also are the area's foremost ecologists was recognized by the convening of the First International Congress of Ethnobiology in Belem in 1988 so that some 600 scientists from 35 countries might learn from the Kayapo and other native peoples. The need for international solidarity has been recognized as well; leaders of indigenous groups from all over the Western Hemisphere met in the village of Altmira in the Xingu Valley in 1989.

New alliances, new pressures

There also have been efforts to organize across broader ethnic divides to defend common interests. Accelerated ranching and logging in Acre and Rodonia, on Brazil's borders with Peru and Bolivia, threaten the livelihood of unacculturated tribes as well as that of caboclo rubber-tappers. Efforts to organize against the assault have brought the threatened groups together and have been successful enough to generate an exceedingly violent backlash. Union leader Chico Mendes, murdered in 1988, was the best known of many popular leaders in the Amazon who was targeted for assassination. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations believe that such assaults represent a systematic attempt on the part of property owners to suppress union activities, as well as the inability or unwillingness on the part of civil authorities to prosecute.

The government of Fernando Collor de Mello, elected in 1989--in the first direct presidential election in three decades--exhibited some seriousness about environmental issues in general and the protection of the Amazon in particular. He established a Cabinet-level secretariat for the ecological preservation of the Amazon and appointed a widely recognized environmentalist, Jose Lutzenberger, to head it. Collor did not reject out-of-hand--as his predecessor did--the concept of debt-for-nature swaps. However, he one-upped those calling for international controls on rain forest clearance by proposing an international tax on the emission of carbon. His most dramatic gesture was authorizing the bombing of airstrips used by gold prospectors in Yanomami territory.

On this and other important issues, Collor showed himself to be no mere puppet at the service of private and bureaucratic interests. Nevertheless, his center-to-right constituency essentially was that of the landholding, commercial, and financial elites who have the most to gain and the least to lose from a continuation of boom-and-bust development, including the recent frenzied consumption of the Amazon. Most of the country's environmentally conscious organizations supported his opponent--Labor Party leader Luis Inacio da Silva--who ran him a close race for the presidency in 1989. Under siege over an influence-peddling scandal, Collor was forced to resign and was succeeded by his vice president, Itamar Franco, on Dec. 29, 1992. In an era of creditor hegemony, it is by no means clear whether Franco will continue Collor's reforms and what the future prospects for the Amazon will be.

For the Amazon Basin, as well as for Brazil in general, this is a critical juncture. Democracy, with fluctuating levels of participation and representation, will have its day. However, even though concerted efforts, with a surprising convergence of civilian political leadership, are under way, the apparatus of the national security state has not been dismantled fully. Much of the legacy of the authoritarian period remains in the law books and bureaucracy, and the economic questions that must be raised surely will be threatening to those who have something to lose. It is not entirely clear that the new or newly invigorated civilian institutions can overwhelm and contain an extensive and still ambitious intelligence and security network.

In some measure, the constitution promulgated in 1988 was expected to determine the extent to which the country would loose the bonds of its creditors and chart Brazil's economic course; how much the rigors of its firmly implanted capitalist system would be mitigated by national planning and social safety nets; and how political representation, civil liberties, and human rights--extended again to the middle classes--would be made effective for the lower classes as well. The constitution, unfortunately for the Brazilian people, failed to live up to those expectations. Rather, it is full of contradiction, reflecting social conflict, rather than resolving it.

The model of full-fledged socialism that inspired such hopes and fears among antagonists in the early 1960s appears to have lost its advocates and relevance. The central question now is whether Brazil will follow the Western European model of the social democratic welfare state or that of the less socially responsible late-20th-century U.S. Will the non-affluent have some measure of effective representation and protection from the vagaries of the marketplace, or will money be the only currency that counts in political as well as economic transactions? Finally, will the mobility of money and its managers continue to dictate development in boom-and-bust cycles, leaving ever fewer people--in the Amazon or elsewhere--able to produce what they consume, what they produce, or have any measure of guardianship over the environment they must inhabit?
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Author:Black, Jan Knippers
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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